Tuesday, April 05, 2016

8. Morality is an Evolutionary Advantage

Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind continues. I've blogged on:

1. Introduction
2. Intuitive Dogs and Rational Tails
3. Elephants Rule
4. Three Domains of Morality
5. Taste Buds of the Righteous Mind
6. The Moral Foundations of Politics
7. The Conservative Advantage

Today it's chapter 9: "Why Are We So Groupish."

1. This chapter seems to me an intradisciplinary debate over whether group morality provided a real evolutionary human advantage or, what seems to be the current majority position among evolutionary theorists--an evolutionary misfire or really just individuals working toward their own individual advantage in disguise. I like the side Haidt comes down on--that morality has provided homo sapiens with an evolutionary advantage. But in many respects, the whole discussion seems somewhat tangential to me as a Christian.

There are of course significant discussions to be had among Christian thinkers in relation to evolution. The situation has become more complex theologically, I think, in the last twenty years because of the cracking of the human genome. There is a tendency on a popular Christian level to be anti-science, which is bad for Christianity in general. It says, "You have to be stupid to be a Christian," which is neither a good witness nor a testament to the likelihood for Christianity to be true.

But this chapter really seemed tangential to my beliefs as a Christian. Haidt is assuming a complete naturalism, a process that has to be explained entirely by natural selection. Whether you believe in some degree of evolution or not, a Christian will have no problem with God playing a role in why we are the way we are as humans.

2. Haidt is arguing for something that Darwin himself argued for, which was the consensus until the late 1960s. Darwin argued that groups that cohered well together in the face of competing groups had a greater tendency to survive that groups full of purely selfish and contentious people. Darwin also recognized the problem with the "free rider." Within a group, those who give everything away are less likely to thrive than the person who looks after him or herself.

So Haidt sides with those who see a "multilevel selection." When it comes to fighting between groups, those who are most selfless and most "groupish" provide an advantage. When it comes to individual survival, those who look out for themselves over others often win.

Haidt's bottom line is that we as humans are 90% chimp and 10% bee, so to speak. Chimps don't work together. They look out for number 1. Bees think nothing of themselves. They live for the greater good. Humans, Haidt would say, are a combination. Mostly, we look out for ourselves. But we do have this little piece that will die for others or our country.

3. The main opponent was George Williams, who in 1966 said pish posh to Darwin's group advantage. Morality, said Williams, is "an accidental capability produced, in its boundless stupidity, by a biological process that is normally opposed to the expression of such a capability" (229). To him, a fast herd of deer is just a group of individuals running fast together, not a group thinking of the herd. Richard Dawkin's Selfish Gene said more or less the same thing, as did Ayn Rand, who considered selfishness a virtue and altruism a sin.

4. So the rest of the chapter presents an evolutionary argument for multilevel selection. He points first to major transitions in evolution, the last of which he attributes to a shift to humans becoming "ultrasocial." Unlike chimps, who have not taken over the mammalian world in their pure selfishness, humans began to think a little "bee-ish" and have dominated the planet.

His second point points to the ability for human groups to "share intentionality" as the key. His third point tries to identify when this "Rubicon" was crossed. He suggests "homo heidelbergensis" some 600,000 year ago.

His final point is that evolution can move fast and that it has in the last 50,000 years, perhaps even in the last 12,000 years. This last number may be of some significance from a Christian standpoint. Has human morality shifted significantly in what he calls the Holocene era?

[An interesting aside is that Soviet morality did not allow someone to believe in Mendelian genetics in the 40s. It was important for them to believe that how a person lived affected the genetics of their children. There is actually a little truth to this, although mostly our genes aren't affected by how we live.]

5. Well, there you have it. As a Christian, I of course believe that morality does provide important advantages to human thriving. I strongly disagree with the purely "homo economicus" of Ayn Rand. There is more to morality than just my individual advantage. Any form of capitalism based on this philosophy is not Christian.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

From the Wikipedia: "As of yet, there is no clear consensus among biologists regarding the importance of group selection." (Article on Group Selection.)