Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Moral Minds

New York Times
October 31, 2006
Books on Science
An Evolutionary Theory of Right and Wrong

Who doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong? Yet that essential knowledge, generally assumed to come from parental teaching or religious or legal instruction, could turn out to have a quite different origin.

Primatologists like Frans de Waal have long argued that the roots of human morality are evident in social animals like apes and monkeys. The animals’ feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity are essential behaviors for mammalian group living and can be regarded as a counterpart of human morality.

Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard biologist, has built on this idea to propose that people are born with a moral grammar wired into their neural circuits by evolution. In a new book, “Moral Minds” (HarperCollins 2006), he argues that the grammar generates instant moral judgments which, in part because of the quick decisions that must be made in life-or-death situations, are inaccessible to the conscious mind....

The proposal, if true, would have far-reaching consequences. It implies that parents and teachers are not teaching children the rules of correct behavior from scratch but are, at best, giving shape to an innate behavior. And it suggests that religions are not the source of moral codes but, rather, social enforcers of instinctive moral behavior.

Both atheists and people belonging to a wide range of faiths make the same moral judgments, Dr. Hauser writes, implying “that the system that unconsciously generates moral judgments is immune to religious doctrine.” Dr. Hauser argues that the moral grammar operates in much the same way as the universal grammar proposed by the linguist Noam Chomsky as the innate neural machinery for language. The universal grammar is a system of rules for generating syntax and vocabulary but does not specify any particular language. That is supplied by the culture in which a child grows up.

The moral grammar too, in Dr. Hauser’s view, is a system for generating moral behavior and not a list of specific rules. It constrains human behavior so tightly that many rules are in fact the same or very similar in every society — do as you would be done by; care for children and the weak; don’t kill; avoid adultery and incest; don’t cheat, steal or lie.

But it also allows for variations, since cultures can assign different weights to the elements of the grammar’s calculations. Thus one society may ban abortion, another may see infanticide as a moral duty in certain circumstances. Or as Kipling observed, “The wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Katmandu, and the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.”

Matters of right and wrong have long been the province of moral philosophers and ethicists. Dr. Hauser’s proposal is an attempt to claim the subject for science, in particular for evolutionary biology. The moral grammar evolved, he believes, because restraints on behavior are required for social living and have been favored by natural selection because of their survival value....

The moral grammar now universal among people presumably evolved to its final shape during the hunter-gatherer phase of the human past, before the dispersal from the ancestral homeland in northeast Africa some 50,000 years ago. This may be why events before our eyes carry far greater moral weight than happenings far away, Dr. Hauser believes, since in those days one never had to care about people remote from one’s environment....

Dr. Hauser believes that the moral grammar may have evolved through the evolutionary mechanism known as group selection. A group bound by altruism toward its members and rigorous discouragement of cheaters would be more likely to prevail over a less cohesive society, so genes for moral grammar would become more common.

Many evolutionary biologists frown on the idea of group selection, noting that genes cannot become more frequent unless they benefit the individual who carries them, and a person who contributes altruistically to people not related to him will reduce his own fitness and leave fewer offspring.

But though group selection has not been proved to occur in animals, Dr. Hauser believes that it may have operated in people because of their greater social conformity and willingness to punish or ostracize those who disobey moral codes.

“That permits strong group cohesion you don’t see in other animals, which may make for group selection,” he said....

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


October 24, 2006

Op-Ed Columnist
New York Times

One Nation, Divisible

An American in Iraq has finally gotten it almost right.

J. D. Thurman, the major general who is the senior commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, has figured out the obstacle to America’s dream for Iraq.

“Part of our problem is that we want this more than they do,” General Thurman told The Times’s Michael Gordon, alluding to American efforts to unify Iraqis. “We need to get people to stop worrying about self and start worrying about Iraq.”

That’s a refreshingly candid alternative to the usual lines we hear about the Iraqi people’s patriotism and resolve. General Thurman predicted that Americans will keep struggling unless Iraqis put aside their differences. Quite right — and quite depressing, because they’re not about to do it, no matter what timetable the U.S. tries to impose.

But what’s stopping them is not selfishness. When General Thurman talked about the conflict between serving oneself and serving one’s country, he was applying an American template to a different culture. Rampant individualism is not the problem in Iraq.

The problem is that they have so many social obligations more important to them than national unity. Iraqis bravely went to the polls and waved their purple fingers, but they voted along sectarian lines. Appeals to their religion trumped appeals to the national interest. And as the beleaguered police in Amara saw last week, religion gets trumped by the most important obligation of all: the clan.

The deadly battle in Amara wasn’t between Sunnis and Shiites, but between two Shiite clans that have feuded for generations. After one clan’s militia destroyed police stations and took over half the city, the Iraqi Army did not ride to the rescue. Authorities regained control only after the clan leaders negotiated a truce.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq, American optimists invoked Germany and Japan as models for their democratization project, but Iraq didn’t have the cultural cohesion or national identity of those countries. The shrewdest forecasts I heard came not from foreign policy experts but from anthropologists and sociologists who noted a crucial statistic: nearly half of Iraqis were married to their first or second cousins.

Unlike General Thurman and other Westerners, members of these tightly knit Iraqi clans don’t look on society as a collection of individuals working for the common good of the nation. “In a modern state a citizen’s allegiance is to the state, but theirs is to their clan and their tribe,” Ihsan M. al-Hassan, a sociologist at the University of Baghdad, warned three years ago. “If one person in your clan does something wrong, you favor him anyway, and you expect others to treat their relatives the same way.”

These allegiances explain why Iraqis don’t want to give up their local militias. They know it’s unrealistic to expect protection from a national force of soldiers or police officers from other clans, other regions, other religions. When the Iraqi Army ordered reinforcements to go help Americans keep peace in Baghdad, several Iraqi battalions deserted rather than risk their lives defending strangers.

Instead of trying to transform Iraqis into patriots and build up national security forces, the U.S. should be urging decentralization. The national government should concentrate on defending the borders and equitably distributing oil revenue, ideally by distributing shares of the oil wealth directly to citizens.

Most other duties, including maintaining law and order, should devolve to autonomous local governments: one for the Kurdish north, one for the Sunni Triangle, one for the Shiite south, plus coalition governments in Baghad and the multiethnic region around Kirkuk. The result would hardly be peace. There would still be murderous religious conflicts in Baghdad and fierce interclan battles in towns like Amara.

But the local leaders — elected officials, police officers, sheiks, clerics — would be in a better position to provide security and negotiate truces than would a national government. It’s no accident that the most stable part of Iraq is also the most autonomous: Kurdistan, where two rival clans have negotiated a relatively peaceful coexistence.

It wouldn’t be easy for Iraqis in other regions to work out their differences, but the local leaders would have one crucial advantage over any Iraqis or Americans giving orders from Baghdad. They would realize their neighbors are not going to suddenly embrace national unity. They would know you make peace with the citizenry you have, not the one you want.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Positive feedback relationship

It is admittedly difficult to prove that mankind has changed biologically since, let us say, the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans, if by "proof" you mean demonstration of sizeable gene differences. We cannot test the genes of Pericles or Caesar or their contemporaries. But neither was Darwin able to "prove" organic evolution in this sense. The evidence is indirect, inferential, but nevertheless, I think, conclusive.

Paradoxically, it is precisely because we know that mankind changes so greatly culturally that we can be so confident that it changes to some extent also genetically. When the environment changes, the only other necessary condition for the occurrence of genetic evolutionary change can be defined. This is the presence in human popluations of genetic variants, some of which confer upon their carriers a higher fitness....

Despite all the inadequacies of our present knowledge of human genetics, this can scarcely be doubted. What is more, since the environment in which man lives is in the first place his sociocultural environment, the genetic changes induced by culture must affect man's fitness for culture and hence may affect culture. The process thus becomes self-sustaining.

Biological changes increase the fitness for, and the dependence of their carriers on culture, and therefore stimulate cultural developments; cultural developments in turn instigate further genetic changes. This amounts to a positive feedback relationship between the cultural and the biological evolutions. The positive feedback explains the great evolutionary change, so great that it creates the illusion of an unbridgeable gap between our animal ancestors and ourselves....

Dobzhansky T. 1963. Anthropology and the natural sciences - The problem of human evolution. Curr Anthropol 4:138+146-148

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The likelihood of more recent genetic evolution

... the capacity for innovation in behaviorally modern humans materially speeded up evolution, because it led to frequent innovation, and every significant innovation created a mismatch with the environment and, therefore, new selective pressures. Look at the Bushmen: they're 4' 8" and hunt big game. They couldn't do it without poisoned arrows and, back before missile weapons, no one did: early humans were bigger and built like linebackers. The bow begat the Bushmen.

Take agriculture: the switch to reliance upon cereals cut protein intake almost threefold while reducing protein quality and greatly increasing the percentage of high-glycemic carbohydrates in the diet (along with other changes) That put huge areas of metabolism under selective pressure - towards more robust glucose regulation, towards changes that conserve protein, especially essential/scarce amino acids. Check out the distribution of diabetes - it's not 'thrifty genes', it's pre- and post agricutlural adaptations.

... Female-farming systems would seem likely to select for reduced paternal investment and increased intermale competition and display: the selected myostatin mutations, along with the regional differences in the androgen receptor may fit into this picture.

...A more complex and hierarchical society (with far greater reproductive skew) must have selected for different cognitive and personality profiles - not just among the Ashkenazi or the Chinese, but in all civilized populations. Look, all those personality and cognitive traits have substantial heritability, so selection happened.... For that matter, different kinds of hunter-gatherer ecology selected for different traits; Eskimoes are not Bushmen are not Negritos.

...without modern medical care, Amerindian and other long-isolated peoples are incredibly vulnerable to Old World infectious diseases, enormously more so than Eurasians and Africans. The domestication of cows turned Northern Europeans into mampires that live off the milk of another species.

Sewing, the atlatl, pottery, writing - all changed peoples.

The recent adaptations to agriculture are of course not even found in hunter-gatherers, but agriculturalists in different parts of the world have mostly experienced different genetic changes... For example, the genetic basis of skeletal gracilization in Europe/Middle East appears to be fundamentally different than that in China, lactose tolerance in the Masai is caused by a different allele than in Europe, while the genetic basis of light skin color is entirely different in China and Europe.

Which implies that the causal mechanism, the nuts and bolts of >100 IQ, likely a consequence of post-agricultural adaptation, probably differ significantly between East and West, just as the details of skin color do. The psychometric subtructure sure looks different.

Greg Cochran, commenting on the Gene Expression blog, disagreeing with the prevalent assumption that evolution stopped well over 10,000 years ago http://www.gnxp.com/MT2/ .

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Clothes unmake the woman

"Even after her husband was executed, Marie Antoinette defied her captors by ordering mourning dress, seeking solace in the illusion that had set her on her unlucky course: the notion that by controlling her image, she could master her fate. Bound for the chopping block, deprived of her widow’s weeds, she still contrived to have a clean-lined martyr’s costume smuggled into her cell. She was the first woman of whom it truthfully could be said that she shopped until she dropped"

Liesl Schillinger reviewing

What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.
By Caroline Weber

in The New York Times Book Review

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Bred for Agression

Nicolas Wade once again identifies some meaningful research and makes it available to the general reader. If such work in neuroscience and genetics shows how brains, including human brains, predispose us to certain kinds of productive or counterproductive actions, why don't our modes of intervention (including, of course, punishment) reflect such findings? We are caught in a vicious cycle where adverse environments reinforce genetically influenced behviour. This is cause for much pessimism, particularly since a whole welfare industry with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo tends to frustrate achieving any real modification, if modifications can indeed be made in laissez faire societies....



October 10, 2006 ~ The New York Times

Flyweights, Yes, but Fighters Nonetheless: Fruit Flies Bred for Aggressiveness

By Nicholas Wade

What can stand on its hind legs and duke it out with its front feet, boxing and tussling like a four-armed pugilist?

The answer: a strain of laboratory fruit flies bred for shameless aggressiveness toward their own kind.

These miniature gladiators flail at each other with a zeal and tempo that make professional boxers look like milquetoasts. A video shows a Drosophilan version of Mike Tyson forcing an opponent to fly the ring.

The fighting flies have been bred by Herman A. Dierick and Ralph J. Greenspan, two biologists at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego. Their goal is to discover the neural circuits that are genetically modified when flies develop aggressive behavior.

Fruit flies in the wild are quite hostile toward one another. Males will fight off other males from prize real estate, like a rotten peach, where females like to congregate. But when kept in the laboratory, subsequent generations soon become domesticated.

Dr. Dierick and Dr. Greenspan figured that since this behavior was easily lost, it should be easy enough to regain if the right selective pressure were applied. So they took a laboratory strain of tame fruit flies and set up pots of food that could be protected by single males.

The males that fought the hardest in these encounters were sucked off their little arenas with a pipette and rewarded by becoming the fathers of the next generation.

More aggressive males started to appear after only 5 generations, and by the 21st generation, Dr. Dierick found that the aggressiveness of male fruit flies had increased more than 30-fold, according to a scoring system he developed.

At this point he was able to perform an experiment that would have been quite messy had he been working with larger animals. He chopped off the heads of 100 aggressive individuals, ground them up and ran a test to measure changes in the activity of their brain genes.

About 80 genes — the fruit fly has about 14,000 — were either more or less active in the brains of the aggressive flies, compared with flies of the original population from which they were selected.

Two of the most changed genes were ones involved in the detection of pheromones, the hormonelike scents with which fruit flies signal their activities.

One of these genes seems to make the aggressive flies unusually sensitive to the pheromones emitted by other males. Another, which is repressed in the aggressive flies, mediates sensitivity to the pheromone with which male flies mark their territory. The aggressive flies seem less able to recognize others' boundaries.

Dr. Dierick hopes to identify the neural circuit in the fly's brain that mediates aggressive behavior and that is modulated up or down by inputs from pheromones and other sources. Dr. Greenspan said an understanding of how genes set up circuits to govern behavior would be of broad significance in understanding what makes either flies or people tick.