Sunday, July 25, 2004

Rivera on Altruism

When last we saw Breakpoint science commentator Roberto Rivera, he was explaining to the world why Darwinists should be completely indifferent to the looming extinction of the giant panda. The panda is simply the loser in the game of natural selection, you see. His argument there was completely undone by his failure to make the elementary distinction between “is” and “ought”. Science can tell us what actually goes on in nature, but it tells us nothing about morality or proper conduct.

Now Rivera is back with a new column. This time his target is altruism.

Altruism has long been a topic of discussion among evolutionary biologists. The problem is: If natural selection only favors the immediate reproductive success of individuals, then how can altruistic behavior (in which an individual assumes some risk to himself to help some other organism) evolve? In resolving this dilemma, it's important to realize that biologists have a precise, technical definition of altruism in mind. Organism A is behaving altruistically toward organism B if it is increasing B's chances for reproductive success at the cost of its own. There is no implication here about A's motives, and certainly no consideration of the morality of A's actions. We will be returning to this point later.

The solution to this dilemma lies in the idea of kin selection. Very briefly, the thing to tealize is that it is genes that actually get selected by natural selection. Further, there are copies of your genes residing in your close relatives. Consequently, in aiding your close relatives to survive and reproduce, you are also encouraging the spread of many of your own genes. This notion can be mathematized and tested against nature's data. It has proven to be a very fruitful explanation for many instances of altrusitic behavior.

What about instances of altruistic behavior where A and B are not closely related? A second sort of explanation comes into play here: Reciprocal Altruism. The idea is that in animals that live in large, social groups, altruistic behavior can be favored by selection if the altruism is repaid at some later date. “I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine” as the saying goes. Once again, there is no discussion of morality or motives here. We're talking about the spread of genes that lead to certain sorts of behavior.

So what's Rivera's problem with this? Immediately after a lengthy paragraph in which he provides a tolerable explanantion of kin selection (though he does, incorrectly, refer to it as “inclusive theory” when he really meant something like “the theory of inclusive fitness”), he writes:

Still with me? If all of this sounds less than, well, altruistic to you, you’re right. The problem with books like Mock’s and the entire field known variously as evolutionary psychology or sociobiology isn’t that they get God wrong ? He is rarely, if ever, mentioned ? it’s that they get man wrong. The portrait of man that emerges from the pages of Mock’s book and others such as Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is scarcely recognizable to anyone who has encountered man as he actually is. The analogies to honeybee proto-queens and other animals ignore the marked differences between human and animal behavior, differences that aren’t a matter of degree but of kind. The royal misdeeds Mock mentions are remembered today as negative examples, not as something to be emulated. They’re seen as a betrayal of their perpetrators’ humanity, not as a fulfillment of it.

Alatawuané icas imani'u. Barletas e'e barkia'a. Pro'e lai e'le a pantou la'u. Ilei pandera zel e' tomu pere no mo mai. Likewise, terms like “reciprocal altruism” aren’t only oxymoronic, they’re unjust. They shortchange the real sacrifices people make on behalf of their families and loved ones. They cannot begin to account for the tenderness expressed in the words at the beginning of the piece and of this section. It’s a folksong from the Solomon Islands, “Sweet Lullaby,“ in which a sister consoles her younger brother after the death of their father and promises to always take care of him.

The book by Mock being referred to here is More Than Kin and Less Than Kind: The Evolution of Family Conflict, by Douglas Mock of the University of Oklahoma (and not Oklahoma University, as Rivera incorrectly identifies it elsewhere in his essay).

Rivera's error is easy to spot. He is using the term “altruism” in its everyday sense, with all of its usual moral connotations. Scientists like Mock and Pinker are using it in its technical sense. Similarly with reciprocal altruism. It is neither oxymoronic nor unjust. It is a term used to describe certain sorts of behavior found in among social animals.

With that simple realization, Rivera's whole agrument collapses.

Mock and Pinker are not shortchanging anyone's sacrifices for the simple reason that such sacrifices are not under discussion. Human beings are capable of such sacrifices because we have big brains and culture. That makes it possible for us to overcome the cruelty of natural selection. Most animals lack both of those features. There is nothing in the literature of sociobiology or evolutionary psychology to challenge this.

Pinker and Mock are simply arguing that, intelligence and culture notwithstanding, there are certain aspects of human behavior that are best explained by coming to terms with our evolutionary history. That there are other aspects of human behavior not well explained that way is neither here nor there. Read their books for the details.

Rivera is engaging in two standard tricks of creationist argumentation. First, he suggests that facts that are obvious to any lay person are somehow not obvious to scientists. Second, he accuses scientists of cold-heartedly trying to reduce humanity to a few easily grasped principles. Consider Rivera's conclusion:

What is man, that Thou dost take thought of him? And the son of man, that Thou dost care for him? Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than God (Elohim), and dost crown him with glory and majesty! That we see these actions as not only noble but also human ? regardless of our ability to live up to these standards ? belies the reductionism inherent in accounts like Mock’s and others. This matters because if I had to name one enemy we should be wary of, it wouldn’t be militant atheism or moral relativism. It would be reductionism. We’ve just completed a century in which ten of millions died in the name of one reductionist creed or another. B.F. Skinner may have named his magnum opus Beyond Freedom & Dignity, but he was hardly unique in creating a limited view of what it means to be human. In the last century nearly everyone tried to cut humans down to a manageable size — economic man, democratic man, sexual man, racial man — anything but the maddeningly flawed, complicated, god-like creature described by the Psalmist. (Emphasis in Original)

Inherent reductionism? Huh? In a scientific context, the term “reductionism” is not well-defined, but basically refers to the idea that large complicated objects are best understood by breaking them down to their component parts and studying the parts instead. Philosophers have been known to get into heated disputes over the importance of reductionism to science.

But that is not the sense Rivera has in mind (if it is, then I can't imagine what his point is here). Rather, Rivera is accusing Mock and Pinker (and their ilk) of trying to reduce humanity to something overly simple. Since they are doing no such thing, a fact obvious to anyone who has seriously tried to understand their arguments, his accusation is simple nonsense.

Once again Rivera has completely embarrassed himself by failing to make an elementary distinction (is vs. ought in his panda article, and techinical vs. everyday meanings of terms here). Yet he writes with the sort of breezy self-assurance and implied moral superiorirty that only the deeply ignorant ever attain.

Sometimes I envy people like Rivera for their ability to write, with no evident sense of shame, on subjects they know nothing about. Mostly, though, I think he's an asshole.


At 9:58 AM, Blogger Jim said...

If "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution," it's no wonder that arguments like Rivera's have to skitter around, roach-like, in the darkness of willful ignorance.

I have only a minor quibble:

"Human beings are capable of such sacrifices because we have big brains and culture. That makes it possible for us to overcome the cruelty of natural selection."It's not quite so simple. Disease, in particular, keeps us evolutionarily humble. But I'd agree that selection's influence has waned (and can only continue to, as genetic engineering becomes more commonplace).

Also, using a word like "cruelty" to describe the actions of natural selection plays into creationist hands. Darwin's "blind, pitiless indifference" is more accurate. Nature is neither a nanny nor a dominatrix.

At 5:06 PM, Blogger Jason said...

Thanks for the comments. I did not mean to imply that human beings are completely beyond the reach of natural selection. I was merely pointing out that our relatively high intelligence allows us to appreciate the long-term consequences of our actions in ways that animals can not. As a result, we can appreciate the value of sacrifices that would not be favored by natural selection. Furthermore, we live in a culture that, to a point, encourages some amount of sacrifice on behalf of our fellow human beings. Unlike most animals, we are not at the mercy of natural selection.

I'm not sure if 'blind, pitiless indifference' is much of an improvement over 'cruelty' but your point is well-taken.

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