Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Evolution on Good and Evil

I've stated previously that I'm a moral relativist, a nihilist, et cetera. I believe that human morality stems not from some absolute command nor from god but from our biology.

Recall the Prisoner's Dilemma. At first glance it appears that there's no reason for the prisoner's not to inform on one another until you add the notion of history, memory. Once reputation appears as a reason not to squeal, the dilemma disappears and human behavior goes from inexplicably illogical to mathematically sound. This suggests that natural selection is a mathematician into game theory.

There have been competitions by computer programs playing the Prisoner's Dilemma over and over. Multiple times against each of multiple opponents. The winners have always been nice (don't start with betrayal), retaliatory (willing to pay evil unto evil), forgiving, and not envious (not trying to outscore the opponent). In other words, a moral being.

But then something else happened. People were allowed to enter multiple programs. They did so with multiple programs designed to take a dive and a designated winner; they recognized one another with a complex handshake. The result? The designated winner won. Not only is cooperation favored by game theory for one on one interactions, so are complex cartels. This result shouldn't be surprising, each and every human being is not merely an agent, but a complex cartel. We are each of us the result of billions of living individuals cooperating for mutual benefit. Each of us is, quite literally, a corporation*.

It's not just humans and other animals that cooperate. Even single-celled organisms cooperate. At least one species of unicellular heterotrophs come together in cooperation (using the same gene that allows the cells of multicellular organisms to recognize one another and cooperate) in a fashion that makes eating and locomotion easier.

Morality isn't just cooperation though, is it? It's about not killing people or robbery or rape, et cetera. The work of Dr. Jonathan Haidt has elucidated certain universal moral truths that all humans hold in common.

1. Fairness/Equity
2. Injury/Harm
3. In-Group Loyalty
4. Respect for Authority/Respect for Elders
5. Sanctity/Purity

The first two obviously function as aids to cooperation. Interpersonal interactions mediated by these two moral rules foster cooperation by requiring first that each partner receive, not equal, but commensurate gains from cooperation. Further, a prohibition against injury that prevents simple physical betrayal. Individuals living together will come into conflict and that prohibition means that, even when things go bad, they can continue to function as a group. In fact, the first two, with the addition of the third, comprise the basic set that define success for the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma.

But why is that necessary? Compare us to our closest cousins, our fellow apes. Our distant cousin, the orangutan, is non-tribal. Males live in non-overlapping territories and females live in non-overlapping territories, while the territory of a male overlaps with those of several females. A closer cousin, the gorilla, lives in troops, generally with only one adult male, but occasionally multiple.

Closer still, the chimpanzees, which live in tribes with multiple males and females, often quite cooperative. The common chimp is more aggressive (males from one tribe are hostile to strange males and even band together to hunt them down) whereas bonobos are more peaceful. Both groups are highly sexual, using sex to "make love, not war" even pansexual**. Generally, their behavior shows a cooperative nature similar to our own. They're fair, they avoid injury... and they're loyal to those of their own tribe, sometimes at the expense of those from others.

The upshot of this is first that our closest cousins have a social structure that mirrors our own, thus necessitating the same moral rules that we have; and not just the first three. The common chimp has a strict hierarchy with male A in charge, then male B, then C... Bonobos are less hierarchical, but are matriarchal and 'less' doesn't mean 'not at all'.

Further, the apes aren't the only animals with hierarchies. Horses are likewise hierarchical, following the lead of a head mare and head stallion. Even small birds have hierarchies. Chickadees take the risk of sitting high in a tree and looking for threats. Their name comes from their characteristic cry of "chick - a - dee dee dee" when they see a threat. The more "dee"s, the greater the threat. They vie for this position, with birds of higher social position acquiring, literally, higher positions as look-outs. Other small birds determine and acquire social status through aggressive altruism; giving gifts is a sign of, as it were, virility and a sign that the giver is so awesome he can afford to give away food.

This is another argument in favor of evolution loving altruism; not merely as a means of maintaining genetic code by helping a relative, but also as a means of reinforcing hierarchy.

I will continue my discussion of moral pillars 3, 4, and 5 in my next post.

* From Latin, for "physical make up".
** Get it? The genus Pan? I am so clever.
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