Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Biology and Morality, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Selfish Genes

I was reading Stephen Pinker's excellent book The Blank Slate this morning and I had some thoughts about a topic that's been rattling around in my brain. In the passage I was reading, Pinker was asserting that humans are neither inherently good or evil, but that people most likely have both good and evil tendencies, and whether or not they are acted on is a function of each individual's neurological processes. His reference to "good and evil" without qualification inspired me to think once again about what is meant by this -- but this time, I was doing so in the context of Pinker's ideas about human nature.

In a previous post, I railed against the idea of relativism, both in terms of interpretation of factual data, as well as -- to a more limited extent -- in determining morality. I probably should have been a little more guarded when I maintained that some things were "absolutely" right or wrong. "Absolute" is probably too strong, but what I meant is that much of what constitutes morality is both non-arbitrary and independent of culture. Clearly morality does not exist on its own. There are no absolute moral laws woven into the fabric of reality in the same manner as physical laws.

This of course prompts the question: Whence this morality, if not from culture?

Perhaps the obvious answer is biology. The concepts of "good" and "evil" can be viewed as products of natural selection, a natural extension of various instincts we have evolved over time. In the case of altruism, this is not just speculation; as I'm sure everyone reading this post knows, there is growing evidence that genuine altruism is a side-effect of a sort of selfish altruism evolved by our primate ancestors. The so-called Golden Rule can be seen as the logical conclusion of our altruistic natures, i.e. the product of instinctual altruism multiplied by abstract reasoning ability is the mandate that others ought to be treated in a way we would prefer to be treated.

But there's even more to this. It seems obvious, but it is easy to ignore that the way we prefer to be treated is itself determined by our biology. Consider a harmless but painful electric shock. There is clearly no eternal abstract reason why a harmless jolt of electricity is undesirable, but we find it painful because it stimulates systems within our bodies which have evolved to warn against possible harm. In other words, the reason I don't want to be shocked is itself a byproduct of biology. And therefore, the reason it is not cool to go around shocking people with a hand buzzer is due not just to our altruistic nature, but to other features of biology.

To what extent can we take this without it becoming absurd? What if instead of a hand buzzer, I am talking about lopping off your arm? Is this only "wrong" because of instincts that make me want to keep my arm? Well, no, there are plenty of practical reasons why we might want to keep both arms anyway. But aren't those reasons also the product of our biology? Having one arm may make it harder to do everyday tasks like tying my shoes, but why do I want to tie my shoes in the first place? Isn't it because not wearing shoes damages my feet, and I have a biological imperative not to damage my feet?

Logically extending this idea, I could argue that it's only wrong to kill people because they have evolved the desire not to die. Well, maybe. But I am not entirely sure whether this takes us all the way to explaining all manifest morality.

What I mean by this is best explained by a thought experiment: Consider an alien race -- call them the Eschatolians -- which for whatever reason have not evolved an altruistic instinct. Perhaps their civilization is structured more like an ant colony, where loyalty to some "Queen"-like being is the driving moral code rather than a do-unto-others ethic. This of course might make them seem quite evil by human eyes, but I don't think that is entirely fair. Eschatolian individuals are not treated with respect, but they don't even have the evolved desire to be treated in this way. Who are we to judge that?

Now suppose the Eschatolians invent a technology that can please and protect their Queen -- the highest form of morality in their civilization -- but it will set in motion a process that will significantly hasten the heat death of the universe. The Eschatolians' sun will be long dead by this time, so it's no skin off their (or their Queens') backs, but it will lop untold trillions of years off the meaningful life of the universe.

Now is there some arbitrary standard that makes the Eschatolians "evil" -- beyond even our specifically human concepts of morality? Every fiber of my being wants to say yes: destroying the universe for short-term gain is wrong, independent of biology. But how can I say this without invoking some sort of morality from the clear blue sky?

I think today I have a partial answer, but before that, I want to digress into a different thought experiment, so that when I propose my answer to the Eschatolian problem, it will be clear what I am not saying. I was once challenged with the question, if only one human woman remained on earth, and she refused to have sex, would it be moral to rape her?1 To me, this is a fascinating question, and I still haven't made up my mind entirely. (Update 2010/08/17: FWIW, I am now leaning towards no.) Debating this question is beyond the scope of this post, but I want to address one particular fallacious argument against it.

When I first heard it, some who answered "absolutely not!" asserted that our desire to reproduce and to propagate the human race was nothing more than the parasitic effect of our "selfish genes", and that a rejection of those imperatives was necessary to "liberate" ourselves from the "tyranny" of our genes. (Some of this, I realize, is straight from Dawkins, but I don't know how much. I unfortunately have not read The Selfish Gene yet, so I am not aware if my objections to this line of reasoning would apply to his ideas, or merely to the interpretation of them presented by some folks on PZ's blog. I apologize if some of what follows comes across as strawman-ish.)

While I think it is incredibly valuable to have an awareness of how our behavior is shaped by evolution, and while I think Dawkins is quite right in pointing out that genes act in their own self-interest rather than in the interest of the collective of genes we refer to as an organism, at the same time I think this idea of becoming "liberated" from the "tyranny" of our genes is utter nonsense. Who, exactly, is being liberated? This smells like Cartesian dualism, like we are saying there is some ghost imprisoned in our DNA that is just waiting to be freed.

Hogwash! What are we if not the product of our genes and our environment? To dismiss our innate impulses and desires because they are also a product of our genes is a futile attempt to divorce our selves from our selves. Certainly, our instinctual preferences will conflict with each other, and an awareness of how these preferences have developed from the "selfish" nature of genes can inform the conflict and help us reach a decision. But even if we do decide to suppress an instinctual impulse, it will not be because of some external moral code that hangs in the air sui generis, or because of the willed choice of some mythical "soul" -- it will be because we have decided to favor a different instinctual impulse that is itself a result of selfish genes.

In the case of the Last Woman on Earth thought experiment, if we decide that rape is not acceptable even in a last ditch attempt to save the human species from extinction, it will not be because we have "liberated" ourselves from the parasitic impulse to propagate our selfish genes. It will be because the logical extension of our altruistic instincts -- also a parasitic impulse wrought by our selfish genes -- has convinced us that the rights of the individual are more important.

So if morality cannot exist independent of selfish genes, then what of the Eschatolians? Can we possibly say they are "evil" in some non-arbitrary sense for wanting to destroy the universe, without engaging in human chauvinism? Isn't there some meta-morality we can invoke, that transcends individual gene pools?

I am going to tentatively answer yes, though my reasoning relies quite heavily on speculative assumptions about the extent to which evolution is convergent on different planets (if life even exists elsewhere, that is, which itself is uncertain). This species-independent morality I am positing cannot exist independent of the phenomenon of selfish replicators2, but it is not tied to the specifics of an individual pool of replicators.

I think it is quite reasonable to assert that any successful form of life will have evolved biological imperatives which resist extinction. Individuals may not necessarily have self-preservation or self-reproduction impulses (e.g. ant worker castes), but must have some impulses which would be violated by pretty much any mechanism forcing the species into extinction, or else natural selection is going to get rid of such a species in a big hurry.

If we accept that morality must be a product of instinctual impulses, then I think it logically follows that from the perspective of species X, the extinction of species X is immoral. That doesn't mean the extinction of species Y is immoral from the perspective of species X, of course, but we have established here a species-transcendent moral pattern.

How much more would it take to transform this into a species-transcendent moral code? I suppose I might invoke a sort of vague "galactic utilitarianism" and argue that if a particular act -- e.g. destroying the universe -- violates the morality of enough species, then it is perhaps also immoral in some universal and non-arbitrary sense. Of course, utilitarianism almost certainly has its roots in our altruistic instincts, and it is clearly not the case that all species have a similar instinct. But I think we are almost there.

It is conceivable that altruistic impulses are a likely/necessary feature of sapient life. How realistic is it to envision a civilization with an ant-like social structure that has developed enough self-awareness to start talking about morality? Of course this question is impossible to answer, as it is asking about convergent evolution on an interplanetary basis, and for all we know the question itself is invalid.

But I think it's an interesting question nonetheless. Depending on the answer, this could establish some basic moral codes, not quite as immutable laws, but as an inevitable byproduct of sapience. There are not many things that fall into this category -- basically, just don't destroy stuff for no reason or for reasons which are insignificant compared to the destruction -- but it still seems like an appealing idea, not just because it provides a possible answer to the Eschatolian thought experiment, but because it provides a much firmer underpinning for environmentalism than might otherwise be achieved.

This still does not justify the absurd notion that we can be "liberated" from our selfish genes. If this transcendent morality is justifiable, it will still be because of selfish replicators, not in spite of them. To denigrate our instinctual impulses because they exist solely for the purpose of propagating DNA is to practice self-contradiction in the name of some mythical ghost in the machine. It is both Puritanical and delusional.

1Unfortunately, the rather shrill and unimpressive person asking me this question merely wanted to use it to accuse me of being a "rape apologist," which it seems to me relied on a rather preposterous definition of "apologist": that if you say X is acceptable under any circumstances you are by definition an "X apologist". If I think it is acceptable under some circumstances for police to forcibly detain and imprison an individual, does this make me a kidnapping apologist? If I think chemotherapy is a good thing, does this make me a poison apologist? If I think that yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theatre is not protected speech, does this make a censorship apologist? If I think a hysterectomy is acceptable for medical reasons, does that make me an apologist for forced sterilization?

This kind of context-free morality is not just absurd; it is dangerous. It is a close cousin of the kind of lazy and asinine reasoning that compels idiots to assert that gay marriage will lead inexorably to a legalization of incest and pedophilia.

2I steer away from the word "gene" from this point on, because I am now speculating about how life might evolve on other planets. Presumably, though, some kind of gene-like "replicator" would be necessary for natural selection to evolve life, so I will content myself to refer to it as such.


  1. Awesome post! James, I love how articulate and clear you are, even in a multi-age post that akes 10 minutes to read. As a bonus, you agree with me! (I retroactively assert that it is me that came up with the idea first, so therefore you are just expanding on my world-changing idea ;P ).

    Unfortunately, every time (in the near future, at least) someone talks about how genes and evolution influence our behavior and our morality, some unspecified fatalist will find it incredibly depressing how everything that they do was determined beforehand and therefore they have no free will. I see you touched upon this a bit in your post, but I would like to see that specific question answered.

    And [i]The Selfish gene[/i] does in fact assert that altruism exists because in many cases it is favorable a specific gene's survival to act altrusticly to another person or species. However, your genes doesn't know the specific context of your decisions, so you have both a desire to have babies and a desire to not hurt the woman. Of course, if your genes had the gift of foresight and the ability to understand the context, your genes will manipulate your perception of morality as to make rape a favorable option.

  2. From the other side:
    As a woman who has absolutely no interest in ever having children, I can't help but wonder if I might "change my mind" if I were the only woman left on earth. That is to say, would my now apparantly non-existent biological impulse to multiply suddenly kick in under those circumstances and override my "feelings" about procreation?

    Or would I just kill myself?

  3. some unspecified fatalist will find it incredibly depressing how everything that they do was determined beforehand and therefore they have no free will. I see you touched upon this a bit in your post, but I would like to see that specific question answered.

    When I was in high school, my friends and I were having an argument over whether free will was possible, given that if human behavior was random that does not seem very free, and if it is deterministic that does not seem very free either. We ended up concluding that the definition of free will was something which was neither random nor deterministic.

    I realize now that is not an original thought, but I swear we came up with it on our own. However, I now also think that the fact that a bunch of bored high school students came up with this same idea after a bunch of lunch table discussions is reflective of the quality of that line of philosophy. heh...

    You're giving me an idea for a post here, though... while clearly it is an illusion that our actions are not deterministic, it is a useful illusion and one we would be ill-advised to discard.. somewhat like the illusion of a coherent self I think. Modern neuroscience tells us there is no specific "self", but rather a collection of brain components that creates the illusion of a coherent self. Still, if I stop acting like there is a "me", I think I'm likely to go crazy!

    @Tinna: heh, yeah, hard to know those things. I sometimes wonder how much of my urge to have biological children is intensified by my Mormon upbringing. I'm think of a post about that too...

  4. Interesting idea...

    Here are a few thoughts that I had on it:

    1. "The concepts of "good" and "evil" can be viewed as products of natural selection, a natural extension of various instincts we have evolved over time."

    I can see this as being very plausible; there is a question about this process which I have yet it figure out. The idea of altruism seems to me to have always been bound by certain delimiters which imply very different notions of good and evil depending upon whether one is part of the 'in-group' or not (ie the golden-rule in only applicable when dealing with 'us', but does not apply when dealing with 'them'). If altruism began as a necessary adaptation of gregarious life that extended from the necessary empathy of a nuclear family, why and how does this 'in-group' keep expanding. The rise of nationalism in the 19th century made the nation-state the largest delimiter of 'in-groupness', which by the 21st century has even been extended (somewhat) to humanity has a whole. This distinction between 'us' and 'them' seems to be on the move. Why? What evolutionary process can explain this?

    2. Which brings me to my second point. I disagree that biology dictates a kind of intuited universal 'Golden Rule'. It seems that this is really only applicable to the nuclear family in which one has a vested genetic interest. As this expands outward, I think that our genes dictate a more 'Prisoner's Dilemma' approach to things, meaning that the Golden Rule is only acknowledged as far as it it in our self interest. Genetic variation will always be providing persons with larger or smaller allegiances to the Golden Rule as universal, constantly testing to find an optimum. The optimum may be a mixed strategy in which one breaks the Golden Rule on occasion if the payoff is large enough.

  5. 3. I really don't think that Dawkins ever put the evolution of humanity into the terms of 'liberating' us from the 'tyranny' of our genes. I have read 'The Selfish Gene' many years ago, and from what I remember his argument was more descriptive than prescriptive. He merely stated that as the evolutionary process has progressed up from single cell organisms to sentient beings with introspection, there has been a necessary off-loading of direct genetic control to more indirect processes which govern our day to day actions. These indirect processes can act in a more timely and specific in manor than can genetic dictates, even though these dictates set the overall mission. Genes have outsourced to such an extent that these secondary processes will on occasion choose actions which are even at odds with the genetic imperatives, such as using contraception, or becoming a celibate priest. He is not advocating anything, but merely elucidating an empirical phenomenon.

    4. "There are not many things that fall into this category -- basically, just don't destroy stuff for no reason or for reasons which are insignificant compared to the destruction --"

    First I don't know how you can construct a way to create any objective measure by which to determine 'insignificant' versus 'significant'. If I kill all the ants in the anthill next to my house because they annoy me when I go outside, what objective measure can use use to compare the lives of all those ants with my annoyance?
    Along this line, I wonder what would qualify for having NO reason. When I was a kid I could not resist burning a few ants with my new magnifying glass for the sole purpose that I thought it would be fun. Is this NO reason, or just a bad one? To be able to condemn me you would have to construct a table of desires which fall in a hierarchy of precedent, and them somehow be able to do addition and subtraction with desires, such that the desires of many sum to more than those of one.
    This all sounds like it rests on pretty shaky grounds. I am sure that we intuit something very similar to this naturally, and this is what you meant, but to try to state this as a general 'law', even if not immutable, seems problematic.
    You might be interested in reading the short story "The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas". I don't agree with the book's conclusion, but it poses an interesting question similar to this one.