Monday, December 27, 2004


The following paragraphs are, like everything else lately in my weblog, scanned from Wilson's CONSILIENCE, pp. 252-254:

[Open quote.] A way of envisioning the hypothetical earliest stages of moral evolution is provided by game theory, particularly the solutions to the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma. Consider the following typical scenario of the Dilemma. Two gang members have been arrested for murder and are being questioned separately. The evidence against them is strong but not compelling. The first gang member believes that if he turns state’s witness, he will be granted immunity and his partner will be sentenced to life in prison. But he is also aware that his partner has the same option. That is the dilemma. Will the two gang members independently defect so that both take the hard fall? They will not, because they agreed in advance to remain silent if caught. By doing so, both hope to be convicted on a lesser charge or escape punishment altogether. Criminal gangs have turned this principle of calculation into an ethical precept: Never rat on another member; always be a stand-up guy. Honor does exist among thieves. If we view the gang as a society of sorts, the code is the same as that of a captive soldier in wartime obliged to give only name, rank, and serial number.

In one form or another, comparable dilemmas that are solvable by cooperation occur constantly and everywhere in daily life. The payoff is variously money, status, power, sex, access, comfort, and health. Most of these proximate rewards are converted into the universal bottom line of Darwinian genetic fitness: greater longevity and a secure, growing family.

And so it has likely always been. Imagine a Paleolithic hunter band, say composed of five men. One hunter considers breaking away from the others to look for an antelope on his own. If successful he will gain a large quantity of meat and hide, five times greater than if he stays with the band and they are successful. But he knows from experience that his chances of success alone are very low, much less than the chances of a band of five working together. In addition, whether successful alone or not, he will suffer animosity from the others for lessening their own prospects. By custom the band members remain together and share the animals they kill equitably. So the hunter stays. He also observes good manners while doing so, especially if he is the one who makes the kill. Boasiful pride is condemned because it rips the delicate web of reciprocity.

Now suppose that human propensities to cooperate or defect are heritable: Some members are innately more cooperative, others less so. In this respect moral aptitude would simply be like almost all other mental traits studied to date. Among traits with documented heritability, those closest to moral aptitude are empathy to the distress of others and certain processes of attachment between infants and their caregivers. To the heritability of moral aptitnde add the abundant evidence of history that cooperative individuals generally survive longer and leave more offspring. It is to be expected that in the course of evolutionary history, genes predisposing people toward cooperative behavior would have come to predominate in the human population as a whole.

Such a process repeated through thousands of generations inevitably gave birth to the moral sentiments. With the exception of stone psychopaths (if any truly exist), these instincts are vividly experienced by every person variously as conscience, self-respect, remorse, empathy, shame, humility, and moral outrage. They bias cultural evolution toward the conventions that express the universal moral codes of honor, patriotism, altruism, justice, compassion, mercy, and redemption.

The dark side to the inborn propensity to moral behavior is xenophobia. Because personal familiarity and common interest are vital in social transactions, moral sentiments evolved to be selective. And so it has ever been, and so it will ever be. People give trust to strangers with effort, and true compassion is a commodity in chronically short supply. Tribes cooperate only through carefully defined treaties and other conventions. They are quick to imagine themselves victims of conspiracies by competing groups, and they are prone to dehumanize and murder their rivals during periods of severe conflict. They cement their own group loyalties by means of sacred symbols and ceremonies. Their mythologies are filled with epic victories over menacing enemies.

The complementary instincts of morality and tribalism are easily manipulated. Civilization has made them more so. Only ten thousand years ago, a tick in geological time, when the agricultural revolution began in the Middle East, in China, and in Mesoamerica, populations increased in density tenfold over those of hunter-gatherer societies. Families settled on small plots of land, villages proliferated, and labor was finely divided as a growing minority of the populace specialized as craftsmen, traders, and soldiers. The rising agricultnral societies, egalitarian at first, became hierarchical. As chiefdoms and then states thrived on agricultural surpluses, hereditary rulers and priestly castes took power. The old ethical codes were transformed into coercive regulations, always to the advantage of the ruling classes. About this time the idea of law-giving gods originated. Their commands lent the ethical codes overpowering authority, once again—no surprise—to the favor of the rulers. [Close quote.]

"No other factor in history, not even religion, has produced so many wars as has the clash of national egotisms sanctified by the name of patriotism." —Preserved Smith

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