Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In defense of speciesism

I finally got around to reading The Selfish Gene. One of the themes of that book is a purely gene-centric view of natural selection. Dawkins has even spoken in later writing of the idea of "speciesism", that it is irrational to discriminate purely on the basis of species, since a species often has no sharp boundary, and in the end is nothing but a pool of genes that tends to (but doesn't always) congregate together. The analogy is, of course, to racism, which is irrational for multiple reasons -- both because the whole concept of races has been demonstrated to be on shaky biological footing, and because it would be wrong anyway even if there had turned out to be a clear delineation between races and a significant difference in their talents.

I think this analogy between speciesism and racism is completely inapt, and I respectfully disagree that it is irrational to discriminate on the basis of species alone. It is partially other insights from The Selfish Gene that leads me to this conclusion.

I am not going to make an attempt to justify omnivorousness, though I do eat meat. I try to get it only from smaller farms, better yet if I can get a look at how they keep the animals, since factory farming practices multiply the ethical and environmental issues of meat consumption a hundredfold. I simply intend to make a case that it is quite rational to apply radically different standards to an individual of a different species, extending even to putting a significantly lower value on that individual's life, irrespective of any other concerns.

The boring obvious part
The obvious problem with the idea of "speciesism" being a bad thing is that there are massive differences between species, and these do matter.

One recent debate that has continued to fascinate me is the controversy over whether lobsters feel pain -- and therefore, is it cruel to dip them headfirst into boiling water. I think the whole conversation is absurd, or at least barking up the wrong tree, because we have failed to clearly articulate what we mean by "feel pain." If we define "pain" as "the response of a nervous system to negative stimuli, causing the organism to try and avoid said stimuli", then of course lobsters feel pain. Anything with a nervous system feels pain by that definition.

But any attempt to base ethical decisions around this definition will quickly veer into the ridiculous. I could write a computer program that puts a dot on the screen, and whenever the mouse cursor comes within a certain distance of the dot, the computer says "Ouch!" and tries to move the dot away from the mouse cursor. Is this not a "negative stimulus" of sorts? After all, it provokes a reaction from the computer to try to avoid repetition of that stimulus. Does the computer feel pain?

Ah, you say, but a computer's CPU, memory, etc., are not a "nervous system" per se. Exactly right. So, it is not just that a certain thing tries to avoid a certain class of stimuli. The structure of the mechanism engaging in the avoidance response is critical in whether we would consider it to be pain.

So how close does a nervous system have to be in structure before we call it "pain" and actually give a shit? Clearly a computer loses. It seems to me that a lobster loses as well -- it clearly is experiencing something we might call "pain", but it's specific biological embodiment is not much more similar to the phenomenon we experience as "pain" than my hypothetical mouse-avoiding computer program is.

This does not apply only to pain, but in terms of any evaluation of a different organism. I do not mean to revert to the language of the past where animals were by definition viewed as mere automatons -- but in regards to very simple nervous systems, it is hard to reach any other conclusion. Without ridiculous concepts like a "soul" or "life essence", it becomes very difficult to justify the idea that a lobster's nervous system has any special properties that differentiate it from a robot's control system.

I think so far, Dawkins would agree with me. I think the idea of speciesism is meant primarily in regards to bird and mammals, particularly higher primates, where their nervous systems are so similar to ours that it is indeed meaningful to think of their experiences as being analogous to ours.

The interesting part
While I think that absolutely a more complex nervous system entitles an animal to greater protections, I will now argue that it is both rational and ethically defensible to discriminate against an organism solely because they are a member of a different species. This means that if we encountered another sapient species with nervous systems identical to ours, while we would be obliged to treat that species with the same dignity and respect with which we would expect them to treat us, it would be quite acceptable to value a human life over the lives of the organisms belonging to the other species.

In arguing this, I am going to dig into what we mean when we say that apparent "altruism" is the result of selfish genes. As Dawkins expounds on at length, any evolutionarily successful action taken by a gene must be "selfish" from the gene's point of view. But what about from the point of view of the organism? Is it always selfish from the organism's point of view, or can the action be truly "altruistic" in the sense that the organism itself gains no benefit?

At one point in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins postulates that it may be inappropriate to differentiate between symbiotic relationships among different species vs. cooperative relationships within the same species. I could not disagree more, and the reason is because the answer to the question at the end of the preceding paragraph is markedly different depending on whether the participants in the symbiotic/cooperative relationship are drawn from a compatible gene pool.

When considering interactions between two different species, any behavior that is "selfish" for the gene must also be "selfish" for the organism. (This of course excludes misfiring of "selfish" instincts, where by a parasitic species like a cuckoo capitalizes on the "selfish" impulses of another species) There is simply no way that an interaction between two organisms of different species can be, for one of the parties, good for the gene yet bad for the individual. (And thus the previous parenthetical remark is addressed -- subversion of "selfish" impulses by a parasitic species is both bad for the gene and bad for the individual) The highest form of interspecies altruism that can evolve is delayed reciprocal altruism.

Within the same species, the story is entirely different, as a result of kin selection. This is explained at length in Dawkins' book, but for those who are unfamiliar with the concept, in brief: I know that (statistically speaking) my first cousin shares 1/4 of my DNA. If I can take an action that will harm myself, but will benefit my first cousin more than four times as much as it harms me, then on average that will do more to spread my DNA than if I had failed to take that action. So natural selection will select for genes which inspire me to take such an action, even at a net loss to the individual organism in question. In other words, from the point of view of the individual, apparently "genuine" altruism.

This is fundamentally different from what takes place between species. While two individuals of two different species might share quite a large number of genes, the fact that the two species represent separate gene pools makes the evolution of "genuine" altruism impossible. The key point is that kin selection doesn't actually work because your first cousin shares 1/4 of your DNA -- it works because, if you have the "help your first cousin" mutation, then there is a 25% chance your cousin has the mutation as well. The other shared DNA that is being propagated does not affect the selective pressure on the gene one whit.

It might be conceivable to artifically create a stable situation where several species shared the same gene for inter-species altruism only among the species who have that gene in their gene pool (I'm not even sure that could be made stable) but you could never have that in the first place because there's no way such a gene could evolve. If a mutation for it developed in one species, there would be no way for it to jump to the other species. No, "genuine" altruism -- in the sense that the individual never reaps any benefit for her altruism -- can only exist within a species.

Now, some might argue cases of "genuine" intra-species altruism are no different from the case of a parasitic species (like the cuckoo) using trickery to exploit intra-species altruism for its own benefit -- only in this case, the parasite is the gene, and the rube is the altruistic individual.


Dawkins closes The Selfish Gene with a call to escape the "tyranny of our genes". I have written in the past about how I find this to be a rather paradoxical exhortation. This to me seems no more meaningful than to say that if I were to install an after-market stereo system in the family's minivan, I would be emancipating it from the "tyranny of Toyota".

Certainly humans are in a unique position to rise above the short-sightedness of our genes. Furthermore, we can say that humans are in a position to empower the individual with respect to the gene pool -- but it would be silly to say that we could empower the individual with respect to genes in general, because what is the individual but the manifestation of a specific permutation of genes, combined with environment?

Our far-sightedness in comparison to natural selection allows us to make decisions that go against the "purposes" our genetic program in startling ways, contraception being a convenient example. But even in the case of contraception, we are not overthrowing the "tyranny of our genes" -- quite the opposite, it seems to me that we should be rather glad that our genes are configured in such a way as to afford so much pleasure.

Only if one gets sloppy with the metaphor (as Dawkins repeatedly promises he won't do, but occasionally does anyway) would one argue that we have subverted the "motives" of our genes by doing so -- genes after all do not have any motives to speak of. They just are. That their ultimate cause was different is somewhat irrelevant today.

Thus I assert: If we are to say that apparent altruism which harms the individual but benefits the genes is parasitic rather than "genuinely" altruistic, then it follows also that sex doesn't "genuinely" feel good. And I for one am not willing to say such a thing.

To restate: We must discard this silly idea of escaping the "tyranny of our genes", and realize that what Dawkins is really exhorting us to do in the final chapter of his book is to 1) rise above the short-sightedness of our genes, and 2) to empower specific permutations of genes with respect to the gene pool at large. But in terms of what is "genuinely" good, the genes -- that is, the specific permutations of genes -- are still very much running the show.

At this point I'm sure some people would say I am engaging in the naturalistic fallacy. But I believe this argument is subtly different. I am not saying that "Our genes make us want to do X, therefore doing X must be good." Rather, I am saying that if our genes make us want to do X, and X is not in conflict -- either short-term or long-term, directly or indirectly -- with anything else that our genes make us want to do, then doing X must "genuinely" be a good thing to do.

I say this because I don't see any other objective way to define what is good. As I blogged about in the post I linked to before, even the Golden Rule, the apparent foundation of higher ethical behavior, is rooted in our affinity for reciprocal altruism -- an affinity we only have because of our genes.1 (It occurs to me at this moment that if one were to really truly escape the "tyranny of our genes" then one would also have to reject reciprocal altruism, and therefore the Golden Rule as well!)

So what does all this have to do with "speciesism"? Well, as I said, "genuine" altruism, i.e. non-reciprocal altruism, can only evolve within a species. Therefore, it is not surprising that we have a strong impulse towards speciesism. In the same way that we find sex quite pleasurable, independent of the gene-selfish ultimate cause, we can also say that we find human life to be worth some apparently irrational sacrifice. We also sometimes find non-human life to be worth apparently irrational sacrifices (my rather large outstanding vet bill being a vivid demonstration of this), most likely because of a "misfiring" (from the gene pool's point of view) of our impulse to make irrational sacrifices for other humans. But it seems fairly clear to me that the impulse to sacrifice for other members of the species is far more powerful than the impulse to sacrifice for other species.

The remaining question is, does this natural impulse have any unforeseen conflict with any other imperatives we have inherited from our genes? If not, I cannot see any basis on which to pronounce this impulse "wrong". In the absence of some unforeseen conflict I am missing, it seems to me that the statement "It is fine to discriminate heavily against members of different species" is as true as the statement "It is fine to have sex for pleasure."

It's worth reiterating in closing what I am not saying: I don't mean this as a defense of eating meat. Factory farming causes so much suffering -- and to species some of whose nervous systems are strikingly similar to ours -- that it is quite rightly seen as an affront to both our impulse towards reciprocal altruism, as well as even our limited impulses towards inter-species non-reciprocal altruism. Even if not, the environmental disaster of modern factory farming is clearly in long-term conflict with a number of our other impulses, e.g. the impulse to NOT FREAKING DIE.

More humane forms of animal farming are much murkier. Our sense of reciprocal altruism may rightly see it as a raw deal for the animal -- "we feed you for a couple years, but then it's choppy-choppy time" -- but I believe this is weighted against a lot of other factors that I would prefer not to get into at this time, since this post is already way too long.

1Of course, as I also said in the previous post I linked to, it is my opinion (and I think game theory backs me up on this) that any organism we might refer to as "sapient" in the slightest must have evolved some form of reciprocal altruism. In this sense I postulate that a limited form of reciprocity may represent a gene-transcendent ethic. However, I do not think this impacts my argument here.


  1. OT but no e-mail...here's another interesting clue in the long ugly saga of all things Obama. Seems the Norwegians really do have an agenda in mind for the Peace Prize. I'm just sayin'.



  2. OK, that should be "obama-nobel-medal". There's a word for that, where you accidentally substitute what you were thinking for what you were dipshit.


  3. I'm going to have to read this again when I'm not...well... drunk, but I must say that the part where you start interpreting Dawkins' words to fit what you think he should say smells a bit Biblical to me at first sight (mixing metaphors is fun).

    Of course, since I haven't read The Selfish Gene, I have no idea if your interpretation is correct or not.

    What was my point...oh yeah. To someone who hasn't read the book, this might seem a lot like the Biblical interpretation a lot of jebusites engage in, and might therefore drive them away.

    Ah, I should probably go to sleep anyway. Er...it's Friday over here anyway...time zones, ya know.

  4. I'm not sure I entirely follow you... I thought I was being clear that I was disagreeing with Dawkins in regards to the relevance of species "boundaries".

    The only part where I maybe interpreted Dawkins a little bit was when I said I thought that his critique of "speciesism" didn't apply when considering, say, insects. I could be wrong, though -- maybe Dawkins meant it in regards to all species.

    I didn't mean to overinterpret, though... I just wanted to differentiate the first part, where I don't think my opinion is much different from what Dawkins seems to imply, from the second part, where I am certain my opinion is quite different.

    In particular, I am surprised that Dawkins suggested we erase the distinction between inter-species cooperation and intra-species altruism. Perhaps it is because I am not an evolutionary biologist, but as I explained here, by my understanding of how "selfish" genes can evolve altruism, there is a quantum difference between the two types of cooperation. I believe that is still a gene-centric view, as opposed to a flawed "good of the species" view -- but the fact that a gene has mobility within species but not between species imposes distinct constraints on what strategies a gene can use to propagate itself.

  5. I am saying that if our genes make us want to do X, and X is not in conflict -- either short-term or long-term, directly or indirectly -- with anything else that our genes make us want to do, then doing X must "genuinely" be a good thing to do.

    Why? How does a genetic impulse make anything good or bad? I don't see how anything follows from "our genes make us want to do X" than "we are more likely to do X". Where is the moral implication in this fact?

  6. I struggled with that sentence because I don't think it quite articulates what I am trying to say. Let me try to expound on that a bit:

    I am assuming that right and wrong do not exist in a purely cultural vacuum. If you don't buy that assumption, then the entire argument sort of breaks down... but I am willing to make that assumption, because I simply cannot see how, say, the arbitrary torturing of random infants for example, would be "good" just because a particular culture said it was good. I'm still calling "wrong" on that one.

    So assuming right and wrong has some basis outside of culture, where does this come from? We can apply ideas of fairness, reciprocity, idea of game theory, etc., but why are any of those things good things? For instance, if we justify reciprocity by pointing out that it helps both parties to succeed, there is still an implicit assumption, that succeeding is a good thing. Why don't we just say that "good" is when everyone is prevented from achieving their goals? Why is the Prisoner's Dilemma a dilemma at all? Why don't both prisoner's want to go to prison?

    The proximate answer is obvious: We don't want to go to prison because we don't want to. But why not? Well, because of a combination of our genetic code and our environment. If you keep asking "why? why? why?", any definition we posit for "good" will eventually have to regress back to "because our genetic program makes us feel that way."

    So why is arbitrary torturing of infants a bad thing? Well, two immediate reasons: The first is that we all feel infants are in particular not deserving of harm. I don't even have to back up to tie this back to our genetics, it's just the next step back in line.

    But the second, subtler reason is that it is "unfair" to induce suffering in someone else for no reason. Why is it "unfair"? This is a complicated philosophical question that I am not qualified to answer, but pretty much any answer is going to have to depend on the assumption that the other party presumably does not want to suffer. And why do we not want to suffer? Well... I can't see any reason other than our genetic program.

    The ultimate source for any idea of "goodness" must in the end rest in the needs and desires of organisms. I just don't see any way around that. And where do those needs and desires come from? They are the product of natural selection.

  7. To clarify, though: If we find some of those needs/desires which are the product of natural selection are vastly destructive to other more numerous or pressing need/desires, then I would not dare to label the former as being "good". As I mentioned a couple of times, while I poo-poo the idea of being liberated from the tyranny of our genes, I absolutely think we have a chance to liberate ourselves from the short-sightedness of our genes.

    It is our genes which make us want to overindulge in fatty/high-calorie foods. But overindulgence in fatty/high-calorie foods is not a good thing, because it causes us to die sooner (as well as numerous other forms of suffering). But why is dying sooner not a good thing? Well, our genes makes us want to live longer...

  8. That's how we came to have these desires, but I don't think the process implies anything about morality. Suppose we were carved from elm and ash trees by Odin ( thepaincomics.com/weekly041229a.htm ), but we still experienced the same desires. If torturing babies is wrong regardless of some hypothetical culture's opinion, wouldn't it still be wrong if Odin created us?

    The first thing I learned about morality, as a very small child, was that anything that hurt me was bad and anything that pleased me was good. I've learned other things that slightly adjust the goals of my selfishness, like eating too much candy will rot my teeth, but this just means that anything that will please me in the long run is good, and anything that will hurt me in the long run is bad.

    I experience this as truth. What hurts me is truly, in reality, bad. And what pleases me really is good.

    The only other morally significant thing I've learned, a few years later but still as a fairly young child, is that other people have a very similar experience. And so I think I can say with confidence that what hurts you really is bad, and what pleases you really is good, and these are factual statements about the universe in the sense that your brain is part of the universe.

    I think the moral significance ends there. It's wrong for me to punch you, just because you would not like me to punch you. It doesn't matter whether you evolved to feel that way or whether Odin made you that way.

    It's true that Odin didn't make me, and my genes give me the capacity for empathy which makes me cringe at your pain. But what of a sociopath who is not emotionally impacted by another person's pain? If he can isolate a victim, and be certain that he will not be caught, why should he not murder that person for fun? He won't go to prison, so it's not going to stop him from breeding.

    We can appeal to his intellectual awareness of his own emotions, though. He knows that whatever hurts him is bad. He can know intellectually that other people feel the same. He can't feel remorse about their pain. But he can understand that they feel pain, like he does. It seems that appealing to this intellectual understanding is our only hope of getting him to behave morally when knows he could get away with worse.

    What if I could sample DNA quickly, and determine that a person who I dislike does not share any kin altruism genes with me? Why shouldn't I kill him? I'm not a sociopath, but I'm pretty sure there are a few people I could suspend empathy for. The only reason I'm aware of is that I know the other person would prefer not to be killed. That he would prefer not to be killed is a real fact about the universe. It must really be wrong to kill someone just because that person would prefer not to be killed.

    But in these cases, it's not for the sake of maximizing genes' inclusive fitness that the murders are wrong. It's enough that we have theory of mind, the knowledge that the other person would prefer not to be killed, or otherwise harmed.

    So I suggest that it's theory of mind, not inclusive fitness, and not even reciprocity (because I can be pretty sure that a seriously mentally retarded person is not going to be able to reciprocate to me), that makes our actions right or wrong.

    It's theory of mind that we all learn as young children, even if we would never have known about genetics, and even if Odin had carved us from trees.

  9. He can know intellectually that other people feel the same. He can't feel remorse about their pain. But he can understand that they feel pain, like he does. It seems that appealing to this intellectual understanding is our only hope of getting him to behave morally when knows he could get away with worse.

    How much have you read about sociopathy? I admit I have not read a whole lot, but my impression is that this approach is actually completely and totally ineffective. From what I have read, the only thing that works to get a sociopath to behave apparently morally is extremely harsh and consistent deterrence...?

    What if I could sample DNA quickly, and determine that a person who I dislike does not share any kin altruism genes with me? Why shouldn't I kill him?

    Ah, I'm glad you pointed this out, because I think this example is very good at illuminating what I am and am not saying.

    The motivations that we experience as a result of our genetic program are distinctly different from the ultimate causes which allowed some genes to propagate while others didn't. The genuine altruism we feel towards other humans may have evolved because of kin selection, but our actual experience of this feeling is completely unrelated to the presence or absence of kin altruism genes in other individuals.

    Imagine that you have a gene X that will cause your brain to release endorphins if you help your brother at a cost that is less than half the benefit he will receive. The biological release of endorphins would presumably not be diminished if you saw a DNA test saying your brother turned out not to have possessed that gene, right?

    Your example about Odin carving us out of trees is quite correct, by the way: If that were the case, then I would assert that all morality must eventually come back to characteristics we have as a result of Odin's choices in carving us. Similarly, I would say that the idea that we might "liberate ourselves from the tyranny of Odin's past carvings" would be absurd and nonsensical. We might liberate ourselves from Odin himself, but we could not liberate ourselves from his past carvings, because we are them.

    Ah hah! I think you have just helped me to clarify the argument I am making. When I talk about liberating ourselves from the short-sightedness of our genes, I think that is just a specific example of a more general statement: We can indeed liberate ourselves from the tyranny of natural selection. What I am objecting to is the idea that we can liberate ourselves from the tyranny of a specific past result of natural selection, i.e. the genes we have now.

    So to bring it full circle... when I say that all morality must eventually relate back to impulses which we possess because of our genes, I am really strictly only talking about those impulses, not about the ultimate causes of those impulses.

    Perhaps this partially undermines the broader point I was trying to make in the original post... I think I still make a reasonable case that valuing individuals of one's own species over other species is likely to be as fundamental to being human as is it is to enjoy sex and not want to be punched, and that therefore we'd need some damn good reasons to start suppressing that instinct.

    It's theory of mind that we all learn as young children, even if we would never have known about genetics, and even if Odin had carved us from trees.

    Yes, but I'm pretty sure we only possess an instinctive theory of mind because of our genes... ;)

  10. I doubt I know any more about sociopathy than you do. But there's a selection bias in the people we can identify as sociopaths. Currently the only identification is that they start behaving dangerously, and then a psychiatrist evaluates them. We don't know how many more people might be sociopaths, who have chosen to moderate their own behavior because of the intellectual appeals that come with cultural indoctrination, and who thus do not present recognizably sociopathic behavior. Perhaps zero, but we really do not know. Our only studies of sociopathy are from those who did not choose to be so constrained.

    But if a sociopath cannot be made to feel or agree that it is wrong to kill, does that mean it is not actually wrong if he kills? We'll still imprison him if we can, but are we locking him up only to protect ourselves, or has he really done something wrong?

    If the theory of mind would determine morality even if Odin had given it to us, then I don't see how it makes any difference whether it happens to come from genes or magic, except that studying genetics is intriguing to our curiosity. But there's no more moral implication in its provenance than the answer to where fossils come from.

    Suppose a group of Homo sapiens had been isolated on an island early in our migration out of Africa. And since then, all their kin selection genes had mutated to be different from ours. They have drives for kin selection only among themselves, and we only among ourselves. But they still have the same number of chromosomes, the parts all fit, and we could potentially interbreed with them. You seem to be using the ability of interpreeding as the definition of species, so we are the same species.

    But we haven't yet bred with them. We've only just discovered them. (It's a very remote island.)

    In what morally significant way are these people any different from "another sapient species with nervous systems identical to ours"? Would it be acceptable to value one of our group's lives over one of theirs? If so, it appears that would be justification for racism. And if such valuation would not be acceptable, then it appears shared genes for kin selection are not morally relevant after all.

    In reality, it would appear that racism already is fundamental to being human. People with genes very similar to mine have committed genocide, so I'm sure I'm capable of genocide. And those acts of genocide don't appear to have threatened the survival of humanity. What if rape increases inclusive fitness?

  11. Re: Selection bias in diagnosis of sociopaths... well, I would argue this is sort of the reverse of the No True Scotsman fallacy, but instead of moving the goalposts by narrowing the definition, you have moved the goalposts by broadening the definition. There still exist people who are incapable of developing a theory of mind, either naturally on an intuitive level, or even an abstract intellectual level as a result of it being explained to them. Either way, it is impossible to see the other person's side.

    Re: Racism and rape increasing inclusive fitness -- well that's easy: Those practices clearly have consequences that contradict other goals we possess as a result of our genetic program. As a result of our reasoning ability, we are able to see this and escape the trap of natural selection that might encourage us to engage in those practices. (I emphasize "might" because it is highly controversial whether natural selection has favored an innate tendency towards racism or rape in some individuals.. though I tend to think the former is almost certainly true, and the latter a distinct possibility, but I am no expert, so I must demur)

    Finally, re: your thought experiment about a remote island, where the inhabitants are a different "species" only in the sense of geographical isolation (which can itself be a reason for classifying two populations of animals as belong to different species), and then what happens after the isolation ceases... Well, that's a tough one. I can't really answer that, so maybe you have a point. It could be that indiscriminate speciesism contradicts with other goals in ways I haven't previously thought of.