Monday, December 26, 2011

Morality: Part 2 (definitions)

This is a multiple part blog on morality:  [Previous]      [Next]

Charles Darwin was very brief in defining morality:  “that short but imperious word ought.”  My dictionaries are also pretty straightforward: "knowing right from wrong,” or “virtuous conduct.” 

I'm not a philosopher but I took an excursion and found a number interesting distinctions.  To deontologists, morality means obeying rules -- the absolutists among them claim there are absolute rights and wrongs, regardless of consequences. Moral consequentialists, on the other hand, judge the rightness of an action by its consequences. Among them are utilitarianists, who apply the standard of “greatest overall happiness” as a measure for morality. The conflict between deontologists and consequentialists is evident in Plato’s fifth century B.C. query: Are things right because God commanded them, or does God command them because they are right?

Elizabeth Anderson, in a paper published in C. Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist, answers ...
if the latter is true, then actions are right independent of whether God commands them, and God is not needed to underwrite the authority of morality. But if the former is true, then God could make any action right simply by willing it or by ordering others to do it. This establishes that, if the authority of morality depends on God’s will, then, in principle, anything is permitted. 
she goes on …
We know … that it is wrong to engage in murder, plunder, rape, and torture, to brutally punish people for the wrongs of others or for blameless error, to enslave others to engage in ethnic cleansing and genocide. … If you find a train of reasoning that leads to the conclusion that everything, or even just these things, is permitted, this is a good reason for you to reject it.
But this is the relativist approach, which has the same weakness as "common sense." It depends on the momentary perspective of a single observer, which is notoriously ephemeral. Moral issues come and go.   For example, think about seat belts, product safety, flirtation in the workplace, racism, wearing fur, drilling oil, spanking children, toy guns, homosexuality, smoking, organic food, genetic engineering, and more. "Common sense morality" is easily inflamed into moral indignation and self-righteousness, which can itself justify bad behaviors.

But what's the alternative, an unchanging absolute right and wrong?  Who would judge it, and how?  That would put us back into the same philosophical problems defining morality as before, just this time with an autocrat to enforce it.

Even utilitarianists, who seek to do the least overall harm, are faced with the problem of measuring "harm." And they may advocate pushing one person in front of a bus if it would save two lives -- an abhorrent, but possibly moral, thought. Sam Harris took the utilitarian approach in The Moral Landscape, suggesting that we maximize well being. Well being might be defined as happiness.  Some troubling situations arise.  Steven Pinker wonders “should we indulge a sicko who gets more pleasure from killing than his victims do from living?”  

What's more, would the goal be maximizing total happiness or average happiness?  The former would lead to teeming populations, the latter would recommend identifying anyone who was a little less happy than average.  The world would simply be better off without them.

And it gets worse: whose happiness – one’s self, one's family, tribe, nation, all of mankind or -- as many Buddhists would suggest -- all conscious beings?   Animal rights groups square off against the food industry on this last question.   If sentience is required we certainly need a better understanding of consciousness than we have now.  Is an insect sentient?  But then, why should consciousness even be a factor?  Isn't crushing a beetle, mutilating a tree, or defacing property all matters of moral consequence? 

We can wonder forever whether morality should protect non-human species, lower animals, and other living and even non-living things.  A parallel question is whether these things can themselves be moral in their behavior.  Instinct for example.  Can it be considered moral? In one stroke Darwin was certain that it is not: “We have no reason to believe that animals have this capacity; when a Newfoundland dog drags a child out of the water … we do not call its conduct moral.” But then he writes “in the case of man … actions of a certain class are called moral whether performed deliberately … or impulsively through instinct.”
Morality, in the end, seems to be a mix of poorly defined or contradictory notions, and the rules, formulas, or feelings, that govern it are are subject to whim, cultural bias, and rationalization.  Many of the more appealing definitions (to me) require identifying consciousness, measuring harm, placing subjective values on everything,  and making arbitrary decisions which have huge influence on what is "moral" behavior.  And being moral may or may not require consciousness.

So I am going to explore the biological concept of altruism: "where individuals seemingly pay a cost, at least in the short term, to benefit another individual.” I think it's a reasonable compromise.   It's not perfect, as it denies the value of helping one's self, and it doesn't fall neatly within any of the philosophical perspectives above.  But it captures -- I think -- much of Darwin's "ought."  It doesn't require consciousness -- and why should it?  If an ant dies trying to save the colony, does it matter if the ant was aware of what it was doing?  If I toss a bottle out the car window without giving it a thought, does the not-thinking make it less wrong?  There's something even more fundamental and important about reflexive, instinctive, behavior.   

So I take the position that instinctive altruism should be considered along with true morality.  If not moral itself, instinct may give us insight into the origin and evolution conscious morality.

Next: part 3: Seeds of Morality

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Morality: Part 1

This is the first of several part blog on the evolution of morality.  [Next]

A Gallop Poll in 2009, on Darwin’s 200, birthday showed 39% of Americans believe in  evolution.  A BBC poll had just determined that 8 of 10 Americans believed in God.  I suspect these values have a high negative correlation, and if you look at data across countries it does seem to be true.  This is because, while it is possible to believe in both, since they explain the same things, it’s really best if you choose one. 

I doubt that Americans have discovered a major flaw in the theory of evolution, and I bet most know the basic idea.  So it can’t be a logical reasoning about evolution itself, or lack of exposure to the theory, which makes them doubt Darwin.  There must be another explanation, and I think I’ve found it.

I wonder if Americans do see the  fundamental contradiction between religion and evolution, and know that a serious consideration of the latter may take one down a path from which from which religion will soon part ways.  If religion is the source of our moral order, without it people will be bad.  Social ruin will follow.  We need only look within, to see temptations to profit from another person's loss, to find evidence of natural badness.  Catholics call it original sin.  Without God to police our thoughts, and to mete out rewards and punishments, what would stop everyone from misbehaving, all the time?  

It doesn't matter much that you believe (as private doubts are tolerated), but it does matter that there is generally professed belief in a higher power.  The specific denomination is not so important as this.  But if we were not under constant surveilance (by god or by the state) much of our life would be unchecked and anarchy would follow.  Atheists, by this view, are dangerous in voicing their disbelief.  Traitors to goodness.  And the stronger the evidence for evolution, the more sharp its break from religion, so the more it must be resisted.

Maybe Americans don't deny evolution because of mental sloth or ignorance, but rather a love of goodness, a fear of anarchy, and a clear understanding that real science and real religion are fundamentally incompatible.  I respect all of that.   But they also seem to assume that people are inherently bad.  That is the presumption which I would like to explore.  Are we really that bad, to need religion?

First, a quick comment about religion itself.  It is interesting that many people generally consider scripture to be the source of morality.  But the Bible prescribes murder, slavery, rape, theft, looting, genocide, plunder, human sacrifice, animal cruelty, and other things we can safely say are wrong.  It is also capricious.  The second commandment not only prohibited graven images (!?) but promised to punish not just the artist but also his offspring “unto the third and fourth generation.”  Steven Pinker, in his new book The Better Angels of our Nature, gives a chilling synopsis of the Bible story, remarking that it is "one long celebration of violence."

The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys. And Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all. p10

I've mentioned that for comparison  -- the alternative to secular morality is not all that rosey.  But what then of nature?  The law of the jungle is kill or be killed.  Evolution means survival of the fittest (and death to the weak).  This dilemma -- between Christian and natural morality -- was the point of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, published around the time Darwin was preparing his thesis.

        Who trusted God was love indeed
        And love Creation's final law
        Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
        With ravine, shriek'd against his creed

This may be true of crows and squirrels, but is just too dim a view of the human condition, I think.   

After all, many European countries have parted from the religious paradigm.  Eurostat Eurobarometer poll in 2005 found 80% of Czech and Estonians, 76% of Swedes, 68% of Danish, 64% of Dutch, and 60% of French and British don’t believe in a god. Their belief in evolution is 62% and 61%, 80%, 81%, and 79% and 77% respectively.  Without a moral collapse, I think.

In the next few blogs -- perhaps with some hops, skips, or jumps --  I intend to deal with the question of secular morality.  I will argue that people are naturally good, and that we should thank evolution,  not fear it.

Next: part 2: definitions

*Source of graphic

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Maybe a Good Idea (and maybe not)

I read a book a while ago called the Five Dysfunctions of a Team. My sister-in-law gave it to me because she found it useful as president of her synagogue; she’s faced with the standard problems of leadership and is, like me, a herder of cats. A cat is the correct analogy for a person. Cats are different from one another, they know exactly who they are, and they are very quick to disagree. What’s more they have a hard time seeing things your way. They’re much more healthy people than dogs.

The book, by Patrick Lencioni, lays out a convincing model for teamwork -- first in an intriguing fictional narrative and then in a summary final chapter. The logic is fairly simple: team members must trust one another enough to admit weaknesses and expose vulnerabilities. Only then can they engage in the sort of meaningful conflict which is necessary if even the minority opinion is to buy in to the final decision. If one has been heard, respected, and considered, he/she is more able to go along with the final result; consensus is not always possible, and is not necessary. Once a unified team goal is set, team members can hold one another accountable for progress toward that goal. If the goal is kept in clear focus, it becomes a valuable and objective measure of success.

Me saying that will not convince you of the brilliance of these steps and stages; read the book yourself -- it'll be an afternoon well spent. It might even become a game plan for those in a multi-level leadership position. The scenarios which unfold in the novel narrative are realistic, and the responses of the effective, fictitious, CEO, are difficult to predict. In retrospect you must admire her decisiveness, simplicity, and effectiveness.

I’ve been thinking about conflict and adversary more broadly, and the value of it. Strife, as terrible as it actually is, is also an extraordinary thing. It has overthrown scientific paradigms, it has uprooted many entrenched Bad Ideas. The Earth is flat. We’re at the center of the universe. The continents are fixed. Species are immutable. God is real. It’s really very wonderful (though sometimes painful) to doubt what you believe to be true. Someone’s disputing opinion can often help you do that.

A lot of people don’t like this sort of conflict and do their best to avoid it. But to do that you have to also avoid a lot of other things – like whole realms of experience (e.g., “we don’t talk about politics”) or people who we think are not very much like us. That’s a loss, a pity and a shame. According to the book, the problem in communication is often that there is no underlying layer of trust. The trust is built when people admit their own weaknesses and fallibilitys, both to themselves and to others. The idea is that once universal imperfection of humans has been established, it becomes safe for an imperfect person to float an imperfect idea which some other imperfect person might disagree with. Let them disagree; let the ideas themselves play out. This is positive conflict. It’s truely marvelous to witness a civil clash of ideas when one's own ego is not muddying things up.

But the book doesn’t say much about the type of conflict that does not have the underlying civility. An insult, say – or a perceived injustice, a sudden sideswipe, a put-down or when one player is simply, objectively, wrong. What happens when there is no soft bedding of trust, nurtured from shared vulnerability. What if someone is simply bullheaded about their position, has a hidden agenda, is mean, or paranoid, or hateful, or plainly and objectively a stupid moron idiot.  And they think everything you have to offer is either obvious, worthless, or wrong.

I suspect that some of the more civil lessons still exist in that hostile environment, even if they are more difficult to access.  The impulse --I understand! -- is to flee (withdrawal, collapse, capitulate, ignore them, or give in) or fight (counterattack, dig in, become indignant, angry, derisive or abusive).

But, as my grandmother used to say, there’s no profit in that. If one can avoid those reflexes and actually listen to the challenge -- just give it a moment of thought – I suspect it may make a big difference. The gap one opens in his defenses is not a weak spot. It does not mean defeat or agreement, it's not an admission of wrongdoing or bad thinking. It is not even a show of respect or deference. It simply admits fallibility, the possibility of error. That was the first step in the Lencioni book -- accepting of your own imperfection. 

But maybe, I'm suggesting, it can be applied when things aren't predictable or civil --  in the heat of it.  Maybe with effort, maybe with practice.

This is the key to growth, maybe. In challenging situations, just a tempering moment of real reflection, that is all. Nothing may come of it, and perhaps usually nothing should.    But there may be a situation where I'll see something, in that gracious moment.  Something that I really should see.

And-- big picture --  the Good Ideas, playing against the Bad ones will – I expect, I hope -- persevere.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Why Are There Species?

When Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species in 1859 he kick started modern understanding of how things work but, oddly, he didn’t explain how species originate. He didn't even really distinguish between species and varieties -- he thought all variation was on a continuium and the lines drawn were arbitrary.  This is not a popular position today, but I'm not convinced he was wrong.   Today, species are typically defined as having the ability to produce fertile offspring, in nature.  But what is "nature"?  And how fertile is "fertile"?  The complete gradations in each of these does pose an awkward problem. 

But let's accept that there are species, as there clearly are organisms in nature that can't have offspring with one another.  Others do mate, produce strong offspring, but the offspring are infertile. 

It's easy to understand the incompatibility of a starfish and a crow. Probably it physically can’t reach. If so, it wouldn't fertilize, and if it did the fetus would not develop and if was born it would not be viable but imagine a starfish-crow cross anyway. Where would it live? What would it eat? There is no half-way between the sea and the land.   Clearly, utterly, and permenantly separate species.

But sheep and goats can’t breed, either, and they run in similar circles.  Neither can robins and sparrows, rats and opossums, orb spider and garden spider. When wolves and coyotes mate, their offspring is fertile, but strange.  Neither parent species want to breed with them, and they don't much care for their own kind, either.  For some good reason there are lots and lots of different species. Two million species have been named, there are probably 10 million more. Why so many species?

One situation is understandable -- genetic isolation.  Allopatric speciation is when a new boundary separates populations -- say a new river, contintental drift, a desert or glacier.  Paripatric speciation is very similar.  Say, a crew of critters floats to another island and morphs over time into something altogether different.  In either case it could be natural selection or genetic drift that does it -- drift will actually occur quickly when the founding population is small.   And if a population doesn't travel much groups on the periphery (expecially) can also develop local variation that eventually crosses the threshold of speciesdom.  This is a perapatric process.  All of these are fundamentally geographic.

But geographic isolation is not necessary for species to develop.  Someone fogged 19 trees of one type in Panama 1,000 species of beetle fell out. No, something is definitely going on besides geographic isolation.  When speciation occurs in the same area, with no geographic or temperal separation, it's called sympatric.  This is much much harder to understand.

First there are the infertile hybrids, like mules, which sometimes have excellent characteristics of both parents; Mules have "hybrid vigor" like the strength of a horse but the steadfast temperment of a donkey.    Ligers, the cross between lion and tiger, are huge.  In a sense hybrid vigor is the genetic opposite of inbreeding – the vigorous hybrid offspring are fast growing, large, and healthy -- better, you might say, than the originals. They are not uncommon.  Modern corn crops are hybrid vigorous. Black Angus crossed with Hereford, and Hampshire swine crossed with Yorkshire make vigorous hybrid livestock. The big eggs we eat come from hens with parents of different stock.  Mules come from high-strung horses and little donkeys.  Not all hybrids are robust of course, in fact most are inviable or sickly but there does seem to be a sweet spot between species.

Now think of what this means. If there was no hybrid infertility near species which drift apart but then chance to mate would fill the gap between them with a possibly vigorous intermediate. The result would be no distinct species at all, just a grand smear of life forms from bacteria to fruit fly to crow to giraffe to human. Imagine putting all dog breeds in a gymnasium for 5 years, but at a global scale, with everything.

But this does not happen. We have unique species because those healthy hybrids have a fatal flaw: they are incapable of having offspring. That big mule, in essence, is the thick end of a wedge that is being driven between species; it’s the end we can see. The sharp end is its sterility.  The males are sterile (technically it's the XY which is infertile, so it birds it's the females). 

There may be advantages to there being different species.  Take wolves and deer. Each fits into a niche environment, allowing the other to survive, keeping each other in check.   Wolves are programmed to kill deer, and deer are programmed to avoid wolves.  Imagine how much difficult it would be to program these creatures if there were all manner of deer-wolves in between.
But it's not species that are  driving evolution. I am with Hamilton and Dawkins on this point;  not only species or groups, even organisms don’t generally drive evolutoionary change; it happens at the level of the gene.  Genes, in effect, succeed or fail by the number of times they can duplicate themselves. Most mutations are bad -- a monkey wrench thrown in the works -- but a good genetic mutation can succeed self-replicating but work against a higher level of organization (organism, group, a species, etc.).   Genes will naturally "cheat" the higher orders if it helps them.

So is there a genetic advantage of hybrid infertility?  No.  There can't be.  Genes specifically making a hybrid infertile wouldn't duplicate and would be removed from the gene pool. 

So maybe the infertile hybrid offspring – mules – are servants for their parents?  Maybe the mother benefits from the protection a mule may provide so she can have more regular babies?  This can't be either.  The amount of investment a mare would have to put into making a sterile mule would have to be less than the protection she receives from it.  Very doubtful.

What’s more, mule infertility is gender-specific.  In mammals, males are infertile (in birds, females).   What would a male horse gain by making his son infertile -- just so it can protect a mare donkey whom the stud is unlikely to impregnate again? There is just nothing in it for the stud – for his genes, that is.  And therefore, they just won't last.

I've read that maybe speciation is a byproduct of aggressive genetic variation designed to foil bacteria and viruses that go for the dominant form.  The rarer variants simply slip away from the attack.  But it doesn't seem to address the issue of vigorous but infertile hybrids. 

And there is another possibility I found intreuging.  If infertility comes from a combination of obstacles: 1) temperal incompatibility, 2) geographic separation, 3) sexual preference, 4) gamete inviability, 5) hybrid mortality, or 6) hybrid infertility, any one of these would make a variant less attractive, because the effort spent on procreation would be less often productive.  Therefore, once one of these is in place some others will follow.  For example, once red-winged flies become even slightly less fertile with yellow-winged flies, individuals of either color will tend to avoid the other type so to waste less of their precious efforts.  One group may then morph to mating in the morning, the other in the evening to increase the chance of a successful match, and so on until they become so different that they can't or won't mate at all.  As I understand it, this effect is called Reinforcement.

But the way through to hybrid infertility is still not clear to me; even this explanation is riddled with big questions, the biggest among them is why the vigorous but infertile hybrids?  I’m at a loss.  Darwin didn't know, but by now I believe someone does.  But not me.

Can someone please enlighten me.  Why oh why are the vigorous hybrids sterile?  In other words, and this is the point: Why are there species.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Nick Lane books

Evolution is such fun.   Just read about Darwin's voyage, the campaign he mounted against the fundamentalist paradigm of the time, the weird and fantastic solutions natural selection creates with simple trial and error, using a code with just four characters.  And it reaches so far that there is, in Dan Dennett's words, no need for a skyhook.  Nothing supernatural, nothing at all. 
But if you follow W.D. Hamliton and R. Dawkins' line of thinking, as I do, you see about all of the biological selection happening not to species, populations or even organisms, but to genes -- then you really need to go down into the cell to look around. And when you do, I'd recommend following an excellent biochemist named Nick Lane; he's one of my top shelf popular science writers. He made something that was perfectly baffling to me just ... incredibly confusing.

I pace myself with Dr. Lane, his books are not easy reading and I've only done two: Power Sex and Suicide (2005) and Life Ascending (2010). He won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books for the latter, putting him in the company of Diamond, Hawking, and Bryson. And Gould.

Power, Sex, and Suicide is about mitochondria, those little captive creatures which live in our cells with their own DNA, all clones from one's mother alone. They make heat and they make little energy pellets called ATP which they ship around the body. They really are essential. So much for being a single living creature, each of our cells has one -- some have thousands of these girls.

It’s believed that bacteria once invaded a cell, or were consumed by one, and they got along so well they're still camping out. Sperm cells use these things for swimming but jettison their tails before penetrating the egg. Why? Because, Lane explains, when different mitochondria meet they fight, and injure each other in the germ cell, so they have "agreed" that the male bits should just stay out and avoid quarrels. Female go, male stay. If there were three genders the solution would be way too weird -- every gender would have to go in some situations yet be prepared to stay in another, like rock, paper, scissors. So most of the animal kingdom and most plants too have just two genders. I just think that's a cool thing to (sort of) know.

Life Ascending takes the same micro approach, and I enjoyed it as much. He takes ten evolutionary inventions in ten chapters, starting with the origin of life. His position on first life is, I think, the dominant one: chemical processes at the pH/heat gradient vents on the ocean floor. Don't worry; he takes you step by step through the process: geochemical mixing in the tiny porous rock, which made a cell-like enclosure, then a reversing Krebs cycle, and finally a proton gradient which allowed accumulation of excess energy. Something like that. At the time I remember feeling like I followed the progression, and I'm still a little proud of myself for it.

Other chapters are on DNA, photosynthesis, the eukaryotic cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness, and death. Each one made clear and relatively simple without (I felt) cutting a lot of corners.

Lane supports the free radical theory of ageing, one of three ageing theories, I'm told, in which all degeneration of body systems result from a single process which can be slowed by (basically) giving the cells a break from processing calories. "I would be amazed," he writes "if we didn't have an answer within the next two decades ... that cures all the diseases of old age at once." Holy cow. He made this same claim in Power, Sex, and Suicide, convincingly enough (to me) that because of Nick Lane I purposefully lost 20 pounds of my body weight -- that's 12%. Hunger, he convinced me, is my friend.

The chapter on movement may have been the least controversial of the batch but the most difficult to follow. Apparently muscle tissue and the parts of plants which track the sun are similar to, and derive from, systems of mitochondrial transport operating within the cytoskeleton -- the inner cell wall. Who knew!!?

You'll work for it -- at least I did. But I found every chapter do-able, and exhilirating to finish. I'm looking forward to the prequel: Oxygen (2002).

Another page-turner, I'm sure.