The psychology of the moral instinct
January 13, 2008 9:31 AM   Subscribe

The Moral Instinct. "Evolution has endowed us with ethical impulses. Do we know what to do with them?" [Via The Mahablog.]
posted by homunculus (68 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Supposing people see a child fall into a well - they all have a heart-mind that is shocked and sympathetic. It is not for the sake of being on good terms with the child's parents, and it is not for the sake of winning praise for neighbors and friends, nor is it because they dislike the child's noisy cry." (2A6)
posted by Abiezer at 9:47 AM on January 13, 2008


Pinker is always a good read but I found the time spent toward the end of his piece a bit off-key since he seems toneed to defend the use of evolutionary thought against more traditional beliefs, in short: he is nearly apologetic for getting at this important issue using the insights we now have via cognitive science.
posted by Postroad at 9:56 AM on January 13, 2008


See also Pinker's Harvard colleague Marc Hauser, whose book Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong explores these topics in more depth.
posted by inoculatedcities at 10:23 AM on January 13, 2008


See also: Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic
posted by parhamr at 10:24 AM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


But with the discovery of the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, smoking is now treated as immoral. ...and entities touched by smoke are felt to be contaminated (so hotels have not only nonsmoking rooms but nonsmoking floors)

Well, to be fair it also stinks.
posted by delmoi at 10:43 AM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]




Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago.

My fuzzy friend has formulated a concise rebuttal for Professor Pinker.
posted by Laugh_track at 11:09 AM on January 13, 2008


Joshua Greene, a philosopher and cognitive neuroscientist, suggests that evolution equipped people with a revulsion to manhandling an innocent person. This instinct, he suggests, tends to overwhelm any utilitarian calculus that would tot up the lives saved and lost. The impulse against roughing up a fellow human would explain other examples in which people abjure killing one to save many, like euthanizing a hospital patient to harvest his organs and save five dying patients in need of transplants, or throwing someone out of a crowded lifeboat to keep it afloat.

Yes, definitely evolution. Only a simpleton would think that God or some other sort of universal morality would have anything to do with this, right? It's got to be an "instinct."
posted by Slap Factory at 11:19 AM on January 13, 2008


Delmoi - your quip banks on a common wisdom, but the 'stinkiness' of cigarettes is hardly universal. People who smoke smell the same smell as you, yet find it attractive, not repellent, and people who don't smoke might easily love the odors of a crackling campfire, even its residual ones left on clothing.

It's not Pinker's main point, but one of the article's implications - the brain might have an innate 'stinkiness' tag, but it requires cultural and emotional associations to assign which specific sensations to which to apply it. Knowing that might help us to gain control over our own taboos (if this is something we would desire, I'm not sure it is) but these are complicated and unintuitive processes. As an ex-smoker, even after watching both my parents die from lung cancer, I still lean in and steal a whiff whenever I'm around friends puffing away.
posted by broodle at 11:22 AM on January 13, 2008


Only a simpleton would think that God or some other sort of universal morality would have anything to do with this, right? It's got to be an "instinct."

Yeah, generally only simpletons believe in magic.
posted by "Tex" Connor and the Wily Roundup Boys at 11:27 AM on January 13, 2008 [5 favorites]


Good article... amazing how the brain is being mapped out by scientists.
When people pondered the dilemmas that required killing someone with their bare hands, several networks in their brains lighted up. One, which included the medial (inward-facing) parts of the frontal lobes, has been implicated in emotions about other people. A second, the dorsolateral (upper and outer-facing) surface of the frontal lobes, has been implicated in ongoing mental computation (including nonmoral reasoning, like deciding whether to get somewhere by plane or train). And a third region, the anterior cingulate cortex (an evolutionarily ancient strip lying at the base of the inner surface of each cerebral hemisphere), registers a conflict between an urge coming from one part of the brain and an advisory coming from another.
posted by uni verse at 11:33 AM on January 13, 2008


Supposing people see a child fall into a well - they all have a heart-mind that is shocked and sympathetic.

What does it mean that I laughed as soon as I read "see a child fall into a well"? My evolution must be broke.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 11:41 AM on January 13, 2008 [4 favorites]


Decline of the Dao, synaesthetichaze. It's a fuckin' tragedy, so it is.
posted by Abiezer at 12:10 PM on January 13, 2008


or some other sort of universal morality

...some other form would be instinctual. But I suppose invisible elves, angels, or ghosts guiding your every move works for some people. Like in The Family Circus cartoons.
posted by tkchrist at 12:45 PM on January 13, 2008


Oh christ, the "if-it's-present-then-it-was-specifically-selected-for" bullshit is so strong with that one it's difficult to even begin to take it seriously. Society can choose to amoralize things but any evidence that comes from an MRI indicates a reason to reduce to biology? (I love how conservative the guy is, too. He's never found a moment of tolerance he hasn't sought to deride, or a conservative impulse he hasn't sought to reify.)
posted by OmieWise at 12:45 PM on January 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Society can choose to amoralize things but any evidence that comes from an MRI indicates a reason to reduce to biology?

What else would it be? "Society" is just a convenient way to refer to a bunch of people who are stuck with each other, and people do what they do because of biology.
posted by "Tex" Connor and the Wily Roundup Boys at 12:50 PM on January 13, 2008


What else would it be? "Society" is just a convenient way to refer to a bunch of people who are stuck with each other, and people do what they do because of biology.

Really? There's a huge difference between saying that every human thought, emotion and action is only expressed because of biological actions, which every materialist is bound to admit, and saying that we only do things as prompted by our biology. The former is obvious, the latter reduces all psychology to biology, all human interaction to the exchange of electrons and atoms in chemical reactions, and radically denies any free will. Is it truly your contention that all human thought, feeling and action is only the expression of genetic programming?

In any case, neither you nor Pinker has accounted for how everything we do is "because of biology" (in this case, specifically evolutionarily psychology), morality included, but our ideas of what constitutes "moral" change over time. If the change is also a result of radically fast biological evolution, it makes the concept Pinker is trying to argue for (the immutability of certain traits of human nature because they were specifically selected-for long ago) moot.
posted by OmieWise at 1:04 PM on January 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


What I've been hinting at a bit gnomically here (as I hardly understand it myself), is you can find some fantastic debate on this very subject in the Chinese ancients. Here's Mencius and Gaozi at it again.
posted by Abiezer at 1:18 PM on January 13, 2008


Broodle: it may be a new concept, but people who smoke don't actually do it for the wonderful smell it produces (something about nicotine and addiction I believe).
posted by strawberryviagra at 1:39 PM on January 13, 2008


I've always been suspicious of biological "inherent" conceptions of morality; they stink of reification. What appears to us, and we feel to be, 'morality' or moral impulses, seem much more likely to be a social response to certain environmental factors. One might even say that what we perceive as 'morality' is a rationalization of the most well-adapted behavioral responses to external factors. It's our brain's way of encouraging us to adopt the "best practice" in a particular situation, based on what has proved successful in the past for our particular culture.

This social evolution seems more likely to me than a purely biological explanation because it explains why moralities can be so divergent between cultures (where there are few, if any, substantial biological differences).

E.g., while most cultures regard violence against children as somewhat morally objectionable, for obvious reasons -- if you fail to protect your children, you probably won't have much of a future versus a competing group who does -- groups have greater or lesser taboos about child-killing and infanticide depending on environmental pressures. The canonical example in every social anthropology class that I ever took were the Inuit attitudes to infanticide during times of hardship and famine. The behavior demanded of parents according to a more "conventional" morality -- sacrifice yourself, if necessary, for your children -- might bring disaster on the community; therefore an exception is created and what might in another culture be considered heinous is, if not applauded, at least understood to be necessary.

If high-level moral principles (like 'protect your children,' nonviolence, etc.) were encoded biologically instead of socially, I don't think we'd see the level of moral flexibility and variation that human cultures demonstrate.

As Western culture and values have spread to virtually all corners of the globe, it's easy to imagine that our moralities are biologically-based and an inherent part of being human, but I don't see much evidence for this. For virtually every core Western moral principle, you can find a culture somewhere (either currently or historically) that flouts it.

It smacks of an almost Victorian level of arrogance to assume that our system is the One True Morality, handed down from some higher power (whether it be God or 'nature' or genetics).
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:47 PM on January 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Kadin, it seems to me that a basic 'encoded' morality (containing stuff like 'don't kill your children') could be present in that situation, but outweighed by other factors (like, say the knowledge that they would all die if they didn't kill them. After all, they don't ALWAYS kill their children; they only do it when they absolutely have to.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:59 PM on January 13, 2008


I guess what I mean is, humans have a strong tendency to behave in certain ways, but that doesn't mean that environmental factors can't alter those tendencies. If you look at several extremely different human cultures, and then compare both of those cultures to the way non-human social animals live, you're going to find a lot of things that exist in all of the human cultures, and only in them.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:04 PM on January 13, 2008


The former is obvious, the latter reduces all psychology to biology, all human interaction to the exchange of electrons and atoms in chemical reactions, and radically denies any free will. Is it truly your contention that all human thought, feeling and action is only the expression of genetic programming?

I'm perfectly comfortable reducing all psychology to biology, all human interaction to the exchange of electrons and atoms in chemical reactions, and denying any free will (although I don't know how radical it is), yes.

Any other view strikes me as messy and weird.
posted by "Tex" Connor and the Wily Roundup Boys at 2:20 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


Carl Sagan wrote an interesting essay on ethics and morality, proposing the "brass rule" as opposite to the golden rule or the silver rule: treat everybody fairly until they treat you badly, then pay them back as a lesson not to do it again.
Basically I like the idea of "punishing" the offenders, but how, and when, and how far should one go in paying somebody back is nightmarish.

Good find, homunculus.
posted by francesca too at 2:56 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


Strawberryviagra: "Broodle: it may be a new concept, but people who smoke don't actually do it for the wonderful smell it produces (something about nicotine and addiction I believe)."

True, and equally true that people who smoke don't only do it for the addiction (something about joy, taste and pleasure I believe), but I'm not sure what that has to do with my rather minor comment. I was only concerned with our brains tagging the odor good or bad. Confining ourselves to Pinker's primary moral sphere of 'purity,' it's not difficult to think of many odors that might flip the switch either way. Perhaps my grabbing onto an example briar-patched by 'addiction' wasn't helpful.
posted by broodle at 3:12 PM on January 13, 2008


Any other view strikes me as messy and weird.

Well, in my experience the world is a messy place.

I'm glad you didn't try to convince me, though, that your view is the right one, since my opinion on this (in your view) is entirely beyond my conscious control. Although were you to try and convince me, I understand that it wouldn't be "you" in the sense that we traditionally think of the self, but simply the assemblage of your neurotransmitters that made you type.
posted by OmieWise at 3:47 PM on January 13, 2008


Anyone who has more answers than questions about this kind of thing usually makes me feel slightly embarrased for them. It's on par with chronic flatulence in my book.
posted by hermitosis at 4:23 PM on January 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


(I love how conservative the guy is, too. He's never found a moment of tolerance he hasn't sought to deride, or a conservative impulse he hasn't sought to reify.)

Damn, you're full of shit. Pinker is a vegan. I take it you'd prefer not to understand why some people are conservative? "Join me, because if you don't already agree with me about everything then you're a bad person." Yeah, that'll work out great.
posted by Tlogmer at 4:45 PM on January 13, 2008


hermitosis: I'm not sure if you're referring to the article, or to some of the commenters, but do you feel embarrassed for cardiologists who have more answers than questions about how our hearts work? Or are you grateful? Why are our brains any different?
posted by broodle at 5:16 PM on January 13, 2008


What the fuck do I care how he eats?

He consistently suggests that the worst impulses of human nature are biological and cannot be changed. I don't care if he agrees with me, or if you do, but EP is VERY politically charged, and its conclusions are almost always reactionary (The Natural History of Rape!?!). Now, I understand that as with challenges to the exclusionary nature of the Western Cannon, the charge is actually reversed by EP proponents to suggest that the people crying foul are the only ones politically motivated (although how George Will could claim to not be taking a political position in his columns on that, I have no idea), but certainly only the disingenuous or the stupid have such a limited understanding of the world that they consider that arguing for the status quo (whether rooted in the history of inequality or the biology of evolution) is NOT a fundamentally political argument. I don't agree with him, and I think he's wrong, but I'm not the one suggesting that how we think and feel is immutably set by the assumed and untestable evolutionary conditions of the distant past.

And I honestly have no idea what you mean by this: "I take it you'd prefer not to understand why some people are conservative?"
posted by OmieWise at 5:18 PM on January 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Oh, and just to explain my first comment, and really, not to illustrate Godwin's Law, but Hitler was a vegetarian. Although vegetarianism is often associated with the political left in the US, at least, it is not alone a compelling statement of any kind on a person's politics.
posted by OmieWise at 5:21 PM on January 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm glad you didn't try to convince me, though, that your view is the right one, since my opinion on this (in your view) is entirely beyond my conscious control. Although were you to try and convince me, I understand that it wouldn't be "you" in the sense that we traditionally think of the self, but simply the assemblage of your neurotransmitters that made you type.

Are you really trotting out the "traditional view of the self," whatever that is, right as you're blasting someone for being too conservative? That's pretty funny.
posted by "Tex" Connor and the Wily Roundup Boys at 5:31 PM on January 13, 2008


I'm not sure you understand what I'm talking about Tex, since I didn't say anything about the "traditional view of the self" in any sense in which "traditional" refers to reified or conservative, but the view of way that we traditionally think of the self as having at least some agency, something which you dispute.

But I actually came back to the thread to make another comment, which is that my position is not anti-science. In fact it's pro-science. I'm not convinced by the science of evolutionary psychology, and from what I've read, most neuroscientists aren't either. My contention is that EP begs the question (in the originally sense of that phrase) with most of the problems it sets itself.
posted by OmieWise at 5:40 PM on January 13, 2008


I'm not sure if you're referring to the article, or to some of the commenters, but do you feel embarrassed for cardiologists who have more answers than questions about how our hearts work? Or are you grateful? Why are our brains any different?

Well if you don't know why our brains are any different, then you're clearly not a cardiologist.

Comparing cardiologists to psychologists (or even neurologists, for that matter) is silly. You might as well add your veterinarian and your Clinique makeup girl to the lineup since they all wear white coats.
posted by hermitosis at 5:53 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


Veganism was just an example -- Pinker is liberal on pretty much every concrete political issue. If his scientific ideas lead inexorably to reactionary conservatism, it's clear nobody's broken the news to him yet.

He consistently suggests that the worst impulses of human nature are biological and cannot be changed.

No! He consistently suggests that the worst impulses of human nature have biological roots. That's nothing whatsoever like saying that they can't be changed -- on the contrary, in order to effectively change something you have to understand it properly first.
posted by Tlogmer at 6:05 PM on January 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


From a mile up, morality is no different than the rules which keep your own immune system from attacking you.
posted by mullingitover at 6:16 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, I agree with you about needing to understand the problem. I tend to think Pinker et al obfuscate it, but we clearly disagree, which is ok. I probably should have said that he's deeply pessimistic about changing the things that he decides are biologically based.

With that, I'm off to bed. Have a nice night!
posted by OmieWise at 6:18 PM on January 13, 2008


francesca too writes "Carl Sagan wrote an interesting essay on ethics and morality, proposing the 'brass rule' as opposite to the golden rule or the silver rule: treat everybody fairly until they treat you badly, then pay them back as a lesson not to do it again. "

In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins mentions that 'tit for tat' is the winningest strategy in Prisoner's Dilemna, and this has implications all over the place in nature.
posted by mullingitover at 6:23 PM on January 13, 2008


He consistently suggests that the worst impulses of human nature are biological and cannot be changed.

Well, no, he suggests that they arise because, in certain contexts, similar impulses were often adaptive, and have been selected for. In other words: the worst impulses of human nature exist for reasons -- understanding these reasons and contexts can only help us if we want to effectively deal with their results.

So, "biological," sure; but "cannot be changed" does not follow:

From what I understand, allergies arise from our immune systems responding to harmless foreign material as if it were dangerous. Allergies are biological, but thankfully, they can be changed -- because some wonderfully clever people figured out why they occur and how to interrupt the process. I'm not saying Pinker has found, say, a Drixoral for racism, but attacking him for "justifying" it is as misguided as attacking biologists who say "allergies are caused by our immune systems."
posted by nicepersonality at 6:39 PM on January 13, 2008



Pinker is a political liberal. As are many evolutionary psychologists. He has one of the most feminist girlfriends you can imagine-- Rebecca Goldstein, author of The Mind/Body Problem, which is, amongst other things, about the difficulty smart women have in dating life.

What people miss about evolutionary psychologists is the naturalistic fallacy-- in other words, they aren't saying that what is is what ought to be. In fact, they are saying that only by understanding what is can we get to what ought to be.

Most neuroscientists *are* convinced by evolutionary psychology, at least in my experience interviewing one or two a week. Some don't buy some of the current claims made by some evolutionary psychologists-- but they know that the only sensible basis for psychology is evolutionary thought.

Evolution didn't stop at the neck.
posted by Maias at 7:03 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


I read this in the NYT magazine on Saturday. My first thought when I finished: "And now I get to read a fight about Pinker and EP on Metafilter tomorrow!"
posted by painquale at 7:10 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


What people miss about evolutionary psychologists is the naturalistic fallacy-- in other words, they aren't saying that what is is what ought to be.

And what many evolutionary psychologists miss is the adaptionist fallacy—in other words even if you can verify that something is biological in nature, it's not necessarily a product of natural selection, and it doesn't necessarily have a fitness advantage over alternative traits. Of course, frequently the evolutionary psychologists don't bother to find the evidence that some psychological trait has a biological (rather than cultural) nature.
posted by grouse at 7:23 PM on January 13, 2008


hermitosis: Well if you don't know why our brains are any different, then you're clearly not a cardiologist.

The heart is a machine that does one thing, the brain is a machine that does another. Or rather, many things. In both cases, it is an engineering problem, the latter perhaps displaying orders of magnitude more complexity. The brain will eventually be mapped liked the genome, however. Later still, we will be able to rewire it, reproduce any of its functions on command, replace parts or all of it with artificial mechanisms. Even if that doesn't happen during the lifetime of our species, there is nothing special about the machine itself which would make any of that impossible. Just hard.

Should we give up the endeavor, just to preserve the 'questions'?
posted by broodle at 8:42 PM on January 13, 2008


grouse And what many evolutionary psychologists miss is the adaptionist fallacy—in other words even if you can verify that something is biological in nature, it's not necessarily a product of natural selection, and it doesn't necessarily have a fitness advantage over alternative traits. Of course, frequently the evolutionary psychologists don't bother to find the evidence that some psychological trait has a biological (rather than cultural) nature.

Everything biological is a product of natural selection. It can't not be. If there's no fitness advantage or disadvantage, it's because the environment isn't "testing" the trait. If the environment ever did test the trait in some way, it might by then have become so much a part of the species that the animals would evolve compensating traits instead. Which is why anatomy is such a hodge-podge of makeshift parts.

As for the distinction between biology and culture, in most animals that isn't much of a distinction. Only in our own case is it particularly important. Even then, behaviors are subject to selection for and against in cultures, just as traits are selected for and against in ecosystems. Social sanction rather than death, usually; and the same caveats about compensating behaviors apply, which leads to human cultures becoming a similar hodge-podge of seemingly senseless traditions and measures of gain and loss. Further, traits to preserve tradition and traits to seek novelty may well be biological, even if they behaviors they prompt differ between cultures.

People who deride evolutionary psychology tend to make some fundamental errors about what it is and what it says, and about evolution generally. They confuse explaining with excusing, in the same way people--not necessarily the same people--do when same question comes up in criminal psychology. The idea of formulating natural histories of rape as genetic territory-claiming, or child-murder as a survival strategy, or racism as nepotism writ large, offends their moral sense. They fear that to explain might excuse, therefore they resist explanations. These fears are of course not wholly unfounded. It's possible that people with the opposite moral view as themselves might make the same error: that a wrong might be excused from being a wrong, because it is explained. (Racist views of various kinds being the clearest example.)

But there are three clear rebuttals to this that I can think of right now: firstly, there exist wrongs that we've always had a clear explanation for, such as stealing--obviously, the thief desires the thing stolen, for reasons that are usually also obvious--and that we excuse theft more under some circumstances and less under others, and this doesn't much change the general idea that stealing is wrong. Secondly, if the explanation logically leads to a compelling excuse, then it is a good thing that we change our attitude to the behavior. If the excuse is compelling, that implies we're punishing someone for something that isn't their fault, or expecting them to do something they can't, and so on. If this weren't the case, the excuse wouldn't be compelling. Thirdly, if we desire a certain behavior to stop, then explanations as to why it occurs can only aid us (or perhaps are absolutely required) to devise effective ways to stop it. Pinker makes that exact point about hospital IVs - knowing why it occurs, it can be made impossible to do, and thus the question of whether a tired and distracted nurse "ought" to take more care, and how they can be made to do so, is avoided.

Another misunderstanding the deriders of EP have is the idea that history implies immutability; as then, so now. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our ancestors evolved behavior X to evade danger Y, or alternatively, those that did X less were killed more by Y. Now danger Y is no longer present, but behaviour X still exists. Does that mean we're doomed to repeat X forever? Definitely not. Our present environment, as far as X-doers and non-X-doers are concerned, presents danger Z. If doing X gets you killed by Z, or even gets you outcompeted by non-X-doers, then doing X will be selected out. (Same reasoning works for opportunities as for dangers.) Until then, X will be done as much as the individual's "do X" genes prompt. This is also affected as much as they have "do A, B, and C" genes, all of which interfere with doing X, maybe even render doing X impossible, while not necessarily reducing the desire to do X.

Any given animal has a vast mishmashed stock of these evolved behaviors. Consider a tiny mammal living ten million years ago: tinius fuzzius pitius. (Imagine the cutest animal ever. It looks like that, but so much cuter. No fossils have survived. Awww, so sad!) If they live in a flood plain, they might evolve the behavior of abandoning nests (and nest-building has its own evolutionary history) to head for high ground as soon as rain starts. Those who weren't extremely afraid of rain, died out multiple times, in floods. Many generations later, bird predator circlus shriekus divus numbers might have increased and the general amount of rain might have reduced; thus the descendants of tinius fuzzius pitius who don't head for high ground straight away don't die as much in floods, because their environment has changed, and aren't picked off as much by the descendants of circlus shriekus divus (who are of course evolving too). The logical conclusion is that over time animals become capable of all kinds of complex behaviors requiring balancing of competing impulses. The animal itself, if interviewed on the subject, might say that as the rain pounds down it feels some fear, and a desire to run, but it's not so fearful yet that it will leave the field of yummius delicius crunchii in which it grazes. Its ancestors survived then, because "OMG RAINDROPS GUYS RUN FOR IT GUYS GO NOW!" was appropriate then. It survives now, because "meh, it can get a lot wetter before I start to care" is appropriate now. Come future changes in weather patterns, its descendants might once again need to lift tails and flee before raging storms wipe the field out. Or galumphus stompus growlus (whose eponymous behavior was evolved to compete with tiny, fast-breeding competitors) might move in to the field and now our timid little friends have a new environmental factor to evolve with. Those who shriek as they are stomped do not personally survive, but the shrieking behavior warns their relatives, who carry those genes away. And so on.

There is no circle of life. It's the trillions of interlocking spirals of life.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:09 PM on January 13, 2008 [6 favorites]


Everything biological is a product of natural selection.

Everything biological is the result of quantum fluctuations. A quantum psychology would be a silly thing to study. I bring this up to point out that at different levels of complexity, different methods of study are needed to understand a phenomena. It is far from clear that biological and especially evolutionary methods are useful in studying cultural phenomena.
posted by afu at 1:46 AM on January 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


In any case, neither you nor Pinker has accounted for how everything we do is "because of biology" (in this case, specifically evolutionarily psychology), morality included, but our ideas of what constitutes "moral" change over time.

If you insist any answer to a difficult question must provide a complete accounting for everything, you know where to get it. It won't come from science, because science is about discovering things we don't know. And that necessarily means first admitting we don't know everything.

Understanding human behavior is a huge undertaking. Comparatively speaking, Pinker has taken some baby steps in that direction. If you don't like it, you should either a) explain why what he's said so far is wrong, or b) offer better answers. The argument of "you don't know everything, so why should I listen to you" will lead you to listen to people who do claim to know everything. That leads to trouble.
posted by yath at 2:02 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


Everything biological is a product of natural selection. It can't not be... People who deride evolutionary psychology tend to make some fundamental errors about what it is and what it says, and about evolution generally.

Respectfully, you are the one making a fundamental error about evolution if you think that everything biological is a product of natural selection. There are several mechanisms of evolution, of which natural selection is but one. There was a MeFi post about this in May, which includes another mechanism, recombination.
posted by grouse at 2:31 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


I may have my terminology wrong, but as I understand it mutation and recombination (including sexual reproduction) are the processes that determine changes in the genetic makeup of the individual animals, and natural selection is the process by which those animals "test" their genetic traits in the environment, leading to some prospering and some failing. That is, mutation and recombination affect genotype, and natural selection and genetic drift act on phenotype.

As to whether there is a meaningful distinction between genetic drift and natural selection, I (with respect) am not completely convinced. As I understand these concepts they equate to "evolution with zero environmental pressure" (ie, proceeding at random) and "evolution with environmental pressure" and both apply on a trait-by-trait basis; fur color may matter to survival and tail length not.

In the Berkeley example we are simply told that the squashed beetles were randomly stepped on, but if we enquired into it further, we could ask whether the beetles had traits leading them to alight on the path, to not avoid large animals, and to cluster together; all of which traits were slightly selected against when the beetles who had them died.

Separate two populations for long enough and genetic drift will speciate them, even if their environments remain "identical". Which can't actually happen, because even if there were nothing to distinguish the environments but that that one is over there and this one is right here, that's a distinction from identical; more importantly, at all times during the process they contain distinct individual animals, and for each animal, the others are part of its environment. Now put them back together, and we have a situation in which natural selection will occur. So was it the genetic drift or the natural selection that was more important to the outcome of the natural selection? Is natural selection applicable to each individual animal, given that the others of its species form part of its environment? If descendants of the red-furred monkey breed more than the descendants of the brown-furred monkey, so much so that eventually all monkeys on the island have red fur, isn't that another way of saying that the brown-furred monkey phenotype was naturally selected out?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:57 AM on January 14, 2008


afu It is far from clear that biological and especially evolutionary methods are useful in studying cultural phenomena.

But examples abound. The evolution of corporate law. The evolution of literature. These are not just metaphorical. Demonstrations, even: Schelling's segregation model.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:17 AM on January 14, 2008


But examples abound. The evolution of corporate law. The evolution of literature. These are not just metaphorical.

Unless you simply define evolution as change over time, none of those examples would fit under a system of Darwinian evolution. There are two problems with studying culture through an evolutionary standpoint. First, there are no identifiable cultural "genes." It is impossible to break down aspects of culture into discreet replica table parts. Are the individual words of a sentence the genes or is it the whole sentence together? What if the sentence gets translated to a different language? Compare this situation to biology, where the discovery of DNA, discrete, easily passed on carries of genetic information, is probably the number one confirmation of evolution. (and don't say memes, even Dawkins has disowned that idea). The second problem is that any theory of cultural evolution would have to be Lamarckian, because humans can and do consciously choose what aspects of culture they want to promote. Any theory of culture that discounts the study of human wants and desires, good old fashioned psychology, is going to fail.

Studying how law or literature change over time is interesting, it just doesn't fit into any robust theory of Darwinian evolution.
posted by afu at 5:47 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


I may have my terminology wrong, but as I understand it mutation and recombination (including sexual reproduction) are the processes that determine changes in the genetic makeup of the individual animals, and natural selection is the process by which those animals "test" their genetic traits in the environment, leading to some prospering and some failing. That is, mutation and recombination affect genotype, and natural selection and genetic drift act on phenotype.

You are creating a false dichotomy. All of these processes affect both genotype and phenotype. Natural selection is affected by phenotype, but genetic drift is not. It will continue to act even in the presence of selective pressures. It can cause not only neutral, but even maladaptive alleles to be fixed in a population.

If descendants of the red-furred monkey breed more than the descendants of the brown-furred monkey, so much so that eventually all monkeys on the island have red fur, isn't that another way of saying that the brown-furred monkey phenotype was naturally selected out?

Sure, if the red-furred monkeys are really breeding more. You only commit a fallacy when you see that there are only red-furred monkeys today and thereby assume that the red-furred monkeys had more mean offspring per organism than the brown-furred monkeys. This is exactly the fallacy that many evolutionary psychologists commit.
posted by grouse at 6:47 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


don't say memes, even Dawkins has disowned that idea

Really? Where, out of curiosity?
posted by grouse at 7:05 AM on January 14, 2008


Most neuroscientists *are* convinced by evolutionary psychology, at least in my experience interviewing one or two a week. Some don't buy some of the current claims made by some evolutionary psychologists-- but they know that the only sensible basis for psychology is evolutionary thought.

I wonder if there isn't a confusion of terms here. That human capacities are the result of evolution is accepted, of course. Those that don't accept it don't accept evolution, and they can be safely dismissed. So, when we talk about Evolutionary Psychology we have to be careful not to talk about it as if Evolutionary Psychologists are the only psychologists who take evolution to be the basis for the development of human cognition. EP proponents often suggest that this may be true, but it isn't, and it's a canard. So, of course most neuroscientists agree that evolution formed the human brain, but is that really the same thing as being convinced by Evolutionary Psychology?

EP basically focuses its special attention on the idea that human beings have minds developed during ancient human history, stone age minds, and that those minds were formed by evolution to solve problems that humans encountered during that history. Those are fundamental insights of all cognitive psychology, but EP highlights them and makes of them THE most important aspects of human psychology. The argument is essentially that through massive modularity, the brain is hardwired, and was hardwired during the stone age, for not only basic biological functions, but higher order functions as well. So, on the one hand, all the EPs are doing is suggesting a difference in emphasis, and on the other, their claiming that their emphasis explains human psychology better than any other paradigm. Again, this isn't an argument about basic brain function or low-level cognitive traits, but about higher order functions. I don't think that most neuroscientists accept massive modularity for higher order functions, and if they don't, they don't accept EP.

Now, in order for the emphasis of the EPs to be useful they have to hypothesize an evolutionarily expected environment, which isn't simply a list of, say, climate traits, but also a set of decisions about what society must have been like in the stone age. This isn't something that can be known, it isn't falsifiable, it isn't science. We can make some suppositions about the EEE from observing higher order primates, but even within this general group there is variation between species and situations, so we still have to make some decisions about what we pay attention to, what we discount, what we highlight. The problem with the EEE hypothesis is that it always already contains the answer to the question that the EPs are asking. We can't both try to discover the origins of human behaviors and start that discovery process using an EEE that is itself a description of the origins of human behaviors.

That's the main reason why this
Secondly, if the explanation logically leads to a compelling excuse, then it is a good thing that we change our attitude to the behavior. If the excuse is compelling, that implies we're punishing someone for something that isn't their fault, or expecting them to do something they can't, and so on. If this weren't the case, the excuse wouldn't be compelling.
just makes no sense as a suggestion. Even once we put aside the crucial questions of who gets to decide what constitutes a compelling argument (I feel confident that a panel of convened convicted rapists would have a different idea about how responsible their biology is for their behavior than would a convened panel of rape survivors), we still have to account for the problem of which EEE is selected as providing the compelling explanation that changes our view of human nature. This is why I say that EP is inherently political. When you make a choice about the EEE, and you draw conclusions about human interaction based on that choice, you've imported your assumptions into your conclusions. The descriptive/prescriptive caveat isn't persuasive precisely because the explanations offered are so relentlessly reactionary. It's fine in theory, but it isn't how things are playing out in practice, in part because (intelligent design (sic) whackjobs aside) we live in an era when folks are enamored with biological explanations, and they seem to find them compelling precisely because immutable.
posted by OmieWise at 7:21 AM on January 14, 2008


Radio Lab did a great show on Morality. They cover the "Push the large man on the tracks to save five" question there too.

Sorry this was already mentioned, this is a dense thread.

Also, if you like the illustrations that accompany the article in the Times Magazine by cartoonist Adrian Tomine, you should check out his new book. Though, you are certainly not morally obligated to do so.
posted by JBennett at 7:57 AM on January 14, 2008


Oh, and I should note, that is Marc Hauser who discusses the train quandary in the Radio Lab episode.
posted by JBennett at 8:04 AM on January 14, 2008


People who smoke smell the same smell as you, yet find it attractive, not repellent

This is a bad example, because people who smoke more than a trivial amount commonly have a damaged sense of smell and so actually smell a different smell than a nonsmoker from a nonsmoking environment.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:52 AM on January 14, 2008


This is a bad example, because people who smoke more than a trivial amount commonly have a damaged sense of smell and so actually smell a different smell than a nonsmoker from a nonsmoking environment.

That complicates but doesn't condemn the example. A damaged sense of smell means you're smelling less, but a little bit of something is still good enough to identify it as good or bad. And any time you burn something leafy you produce a similar odor (do smells have genres?) so we can leave the smokers behind altogether if you want.

More on topic, though:

If I'm not mistaken, much of the evidence for EP is from twins studies, which show that about half our personality traits are purely genetic. (eg. identical siblings raised in separate environments have much more in common than even fraternal siblings raised under the same roof.) Unless Lamarck was right all along, those traits HAVE to be the result of natural selection. It makes sense to study them exactly the same way evolutionary biologists study physical traits, and start out by asking, "what is this for?" Any argument that says that it's not science because we can only speculate about the original environment in which these traits developed would apply equally to evolutionary biology as well, which seems to be getting along okay. Granted, biology leaves behind more fossils than culture, but the details of 'just so' stories don't need to be exactly true to be predictive and testable.

But that also means that theoretical 50% is the ceiling on any claims made by EP, which I don't think any of its proponents would argue with. Saying that EP is flawed because it can't account for everything we are doesn't really hold, because no one is actually making that assertion.
posted by broodle at 10:47 AM on January 14, 2008


broodle, you're mistaken, on at least two counts.

Firstly, twin studies provide no evidence for EP, although they may provide some reason to suspect that evidence might be found. It isn't the EP contention that personality is genetically determined, the contention is that most (all?) specific higher level cognitive functions in humans are the specific result of evolutionary pressure, and are therefore fixed in the human brain. Twin studies say nothing about that at all. Evidence in science comes from making a hypothesis and then testing that hypothesis through either experiment or collating collected data. Twin studies provide no such means of proving EP claims. Indeed, a significant problem for EP so far has been a lack of any such experiments or studies. There have been some, but not nearly enough to support the wide claims of the discipline. Remember, it isn't enough for EP proponents to show that a higher level function is coded for, they also have to show that it is a product of natural selection pressures present in their version of the EEE. (That's their criteria, not mine.) Here is a page arguing that even the most celebrated of the EP experiments, the Tooby and Cosmides experiment on social exchange theory and recognizing cheaters, is not only wrong, but is actually worse experiment for being conceived from an EP position.

Secondly, twin studies carry their own controversies, many of which are substantial. There is a mini-industry debunking twin studies, exposing the methodological shortcomings in the studies, and critiquing the conclusions reached. You can read a small gloss on the most common categories of criticism on the Wikipedia page about such studies. This does not mean that a strong genetic component to personality doesn't exist, it just means that twin studies may not describe that component all that well. Of course, what such studies cannot control for is fetal environment, which is a major problem.
posted by OmieWise at 11:30 AM on January 14, 2008


A twin study does not automatically control for cultural factors. If you did a twin study on language, you might find that twins are very likely to speak the same languages with native fluency. That doesn't mean that there are English-speaking and German-speaking alleles that have been brought about by natural selection, but that the twins are most likely to be raised in similar cultures. The same applies to other traits likely to have a large degree of cultural influence, such as concepts of morality.

those traits HAVE to be the result of natural selection

No. Even if you establish the biological nature of a trait (which twin studies), that does not mean that they are the result of natural selection. See my previous comments in this thread.

It makes sense to study them exactly the same way evolutionary biologists study physical traits, and start out by asking, "what is this for?"

Good evolutionary biologists do not assume there is a selective explanation for a trait found in only one species. They would also insist on better verification of the biological nature of this trait than much of what I have seen in evolutionary psychology.
posted by grouse at 12:26 PM on January 14, 2008


(which twin studies do not necessarily do)
posted by grouse at 12:27 PM on January 14, 2008


Omniwise: Now, in order for the emphasis of the EPs to be useful they have to hypothesize an evolutionarily expected environment, which isn't simply a list of, say, climate traits, but also a set of decisions about what society must have been like in the stone age. [...] The problem with the EEE hypothesis is that it always already contains the answer to the question that the EPs are asking. We can't both try to discover the origins of human behaviors and start that discovery process using an EEE that is itself a description of the origins of human behaviors.

I find this paragraph pretty interesting because it doesn't just look like an indictment of EP, but an indictment of selectionism altogether. Jerry Fodor has been one of the more vocal critics of evolutionary psychology, but to the chagrin of pretty much everyone, he's noticed that his qualms extend into all evolutionary explanations and has come out against "Darwinism" entirely. The argument you just presented is very similar to his argument. There are good reasons to be suspicious of EP, but if you're going to employ the argument that we don't get niches without knowing selected traits and we don't get selected traits without knowing niches, then it'll be an uphill battle to explain why you haven't just attacked selectionism per se.

I feel confident that a panel of convened convicted rapists would have a different idea about how responsible their biology is for their behavior than would a convened panel of rape survivors

Some friends of mine have been exploring whether people are more or less likely to say that someone is responsible for an immoral action or deserving of punishment if that person's behavior is explained in biological/neurological terms, or if it's explained in psychological terms. They expected that people would be more lenient if the biological description were given. This is a natural prediction -- after all, why would you blame someone if some tendency were hardwired and they couldn't have done otherwise? Now, results are preliminary and sketchy, but they're finding a pretty robust tendency for people to give the complete opposite response. There turns out to be good evidence that we are more likely to dole out blame if offenders are innately/biologically messed up; explanations that are psychological or environmental in origin "humanize" the person, causing empathy and forgiveness. Weird result.
posted by painquale at 12:40 PM on January 14, 2008


There are good reasons to be suspicious of EP, but if you're going to employ the argument that we don't get niches without knowing selected traits and we don't get selected traits without knowing niches, then it'll be an uphill battle to explain why you haven't just attacked selectionism per se.

If by "selectionism," you mean the same thing as adaptationism, then it's a safe bet that OmieWise is attacking it in general, just as I and many other evolutionary biologists would. I think it is difficult to hold an adaptationist view when you work in molecular evolution.

It is still possible to explain characteristics through the action of natural selection. But it is much better to start with evidence that natural selection acted in the first place. This can be done with genetic data, which will reveal tell-tale signs of selection such as selective sweeps in DNA. I've never seen the evolutionary psychologists do that.
posted by grouse at 1:07 PM on January 14, 2008


painquale-I haven't read that Fodor piece, but I will. It's a disturbing development, but not, I think, germane to my argument. I'm not suggesting that selection doesn't take place, including (obviously) selection on the brain. I'm saying that social traits, those modules of cognition that the EPs are arguing for, make sense in their stories because the stories are told in such a way that the trait must have been selected for. This isn't an argument from module to evolutionary story, it's an argument from story to module; in other words, it's the existence of the module that is being argued over. Were we talking about an already agreed upon trait or function, the situation would be much different. We could say, for instance, "some humans have more melanin in their skin, and the hypothesis for why this is the case includes the fact that the environment that those humans have lived in had high levels of intense sunlight," and we would be making a hypothesis about an accepted fact.

In this case the EPs are saying, "we hypothesize humans have a specific cognitive module dedicated to detecting cheaters and we hypothesize this was selected for because of the shape [we hypothesize for] of early human society." The third hypothesis is elided as a hypotheses, but it is no less contingent for that, and its only by pretending that they aren't making assumptions about human society (which they are calling the EEE!) that EPs can get to the first two hypotheses in order to propose them. Then, they test for the first hypothesis (badly, as it turns out), and argue that this proves the second and third (elided) hypotheses. Rejecting that logical string is in no way analogous to rejecting selection. (Note, too, that I'm being kind by taking the most scientific of the EP hypotheses. Were we to substitute sexual attraction and big breasted young women as the things which evolution has selected for in us, we could easily see that the EEE that we posited would start to look strangely like a copy of Hustler magazine. But that stuff is rampant in, at least, the popular selling of EP.)

My username is OmieWise, not OmniWise. I don't claim to be any Omni-anything, and I worry how people must be reading my writing if they think that's my moniker.
posted by OmieWise at 1:17 PM on January 14, 2008


Oh, shoot, I spent a while writing that last comment and forgot to ask about more info on the study you were talking about. It does sound counter-intuitive and interesting, and doesn't exactly match my experience working in mental health.
posted by OmieWise at 1:19 PM on January 14, 2008


Yeesh, I've always known your name is OmieWise -- not OmniWise -- and I don't know why I wrote that. (I get 'palinquale' a lot.)

I don't have any more info on that study. It's unpublished right now and just based on some preliminary data. More will be coming down the pipeline.

This isn't an argument from module to evolutionary story, it's an argument from story to module; in other words, it's the existence of the module that is being argued over.

OK, that's a good point. So, I guess the argument is this: evidence for the existence of cheater-detection module comes from a specific EEE. Evidence for the existence of a specific EEE comes from the existence of a cheater-detection module. So it's all circular.

I think that's right, but I don't think it's problematic. If it's possible that A causes B, then A provides evidence for B and B provides evidence for A -- that's just standard Bayesian reasoning. There would be a problem if the only place we could get evidence for B was from A, and the only place we could get evidence for A was from B. But that's not the case: we can get evidence for the existence of A and B from other places, too. Putting Chris-from-Mixing-Memory's complaints aside for the moment, there's at least some evidence for a cheater detection module from the Wason selection task: it looks like our ability to perform well on that task is very domain-specific, and positing modules is a good way to account for domain specificity. And it's not totally beyond the ability of anthropology to make at least some tentative claims about the structure of our ancestral societies.

I get your frustration with all these ultracrepidarians who say that EP is the only game in town, of course. It's a hypothesis, and one that's hardly vindicated. But I don't think that most EP claims are in much worse standing than other claims about the origins of higher-level cognition (even if there isn't much evidence for it, there isn't much evidence for the other side either). We frankly have no idea what's going on. The problem is that everyone likes having strong opinions and standing on some side of the debate, so it becomes politicized. People end up taking a position on natural history according to how they think people ought to be treated. That shouldn't be, of course. I really do think that the question of whether EP is right or not should be morally neutral.

grouse:
If by "selectionism," you mean the same thing as adaptationism, then it's a safe bet that OmieWise is attacking it in general, just as I and many other evolutionary biologists would. I think it is difficult to hold an adaptationist view when you work in molecular evolution.

I originally wrote 'adaptationism', but changed it to 'selectionism' because Fodor's not attacking what Gould and Lewontin and all those guys attack when they rage against adaptationism. Those guys deny that the 'adaptationist' thesis that all or most traits have been selected for. But they do think that some traits have been selected for. It's a question of quantity. Fodor denies that any trait is selected for.
posted by painquale at 2:04 PM on January 14, 2008


painquale, that isn't how I read that article, although some brief Googling reveals that there are many evolution bloggers who read it your way. His thesis seems to be that "the classical Darwinist account of evolution as primarily driven by natural selection is in trouble on both conceptual and empirical grounds." That's different from rejecting natural selection altogether. Although I wouldn't blame someone for doing so if the only evidence they were exposed to consisted entirely of just-so stories.

Jason Rosenhouse points out some flaws in his article, and I could add some others. The biggest is his conflation of the terms "Darwinism," "adaptationism," "evolution," and the "theory of natural selection," freely shifting the words of other authors from one of these terms to another1 without regard to the meaning they originally intended. I guess this makes it hard for people to nail down what he really means, and he could be trying to imply a far stronger statement than I imagine, but stating it in weak terms so that it is harder to refute.

The worst problem with this article, however, is that it leads intelligent design creationists to write headlines like "Jerry Fodor: Natural Selection Has Gone Bust" regardless of whether that is a fair summary of the article.

1 The worst example is when he paraphrases Dobzhansky's famous article as "nothing in biology makes sense without Darwinism."
posted by grouse at 2:52 PM on January 14, 2008


don't say memes, even Dawkins has disowned that idea

Really? Where, out of curiosity?


Maybe disowned, is too strong of a word, he said,

""My enthusiasm for it was never, ever as a contribution to the study of human culture," he said. "It was always intended to be a way of dramatizing the idea that a Darwinian replicator doesn't have to be a gene. It can be a computer virus. Or a meme. The point is that a good replicator is just a replicator that spreads, regardless of its material form."

Which seems to say that he would not support a program of "memetics".
posted by afu at 7:42 PM on January 14, 2008


grouse, I agree that it's hard to tell exactly what Fodor is attacking because he uses terms like 'Darwinism', 'adaptationism', and 'natural selection' so interchangeably. But it's clearer in the paper that the article is based on ("Against Darwinism" [pdf]) that Fodor is definitely rejecting almost any articulation of natural selection. That is, he rejects any notion of evolution that says that certain traits are "selected for" doing something or other. Any theory of evolution that says that the heart evolved to pump blood (and not to, say, pump red stuff, or occupy a certain place in the rib cage) is right out. Most of the commenters on the LRB piece focus on what Fodor calls "the empirical problem", and so they miss this.

Here's a quote from the Rosenberg post you link to: "But the really egregious part of these paragraphs is the conflation of natural selection as the explanation for adaptations on the one hand, with the idea of adaptionism on the other. The former is, as far as I know, entirely unquestioned among biologists, while the latter is a derogatory term used by some critics (Stephen Jay Gould most famously) to describe an approach to certain biological problems thought by the critics to rest on faulty assumptions." He takes Fodor to be arguing against the latter, but Fodor really is arguing against the former. It's especially apparent that Rosenberg misrepresents Fodor when he writes, "Presumably Fodor's point is that adaptationists accept a low standard of evidence in describing various traits as adaptions, thereby ignoring other possible mechanisms." That's not Fodor's point at all: he doesn't think there are any adaptations, no matter how complicated.

If you want to read an extremely vituperative response, check out Dennett's take: "Fun and Games in Fantasyland" [pdf]. Money quote: "Now this really is absurd. Silly absurd. Preposterous. It is conclusions like this, built upon such comically slender stilts, that give philosophy a bad name among many scientists."

Disclaimer: I've taken seminars on evolution from Fodor and from Dennett. I feel like I come from a broken home.
posted by painquale at 8:33 PM on January 14, 2008


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