Sunday, November 13, 2011

Democracy: It Works, Bitches

No one like criticism. Being told exactly when and how and why you screwed up is unpleasant at best. Given that criticism doesn't always come couched in the nicest language (I'm looking at YOU, restaurant critics!), it's a double whammy of bad news in poor taste. Nevertheless, criticism is a necessary medicine. All those red scribblings of "awk" and "runon" and "this sentence no verb" helped improve your formal writing. You might not have thought so at the time, but "Keep your eye on the ball" is actually pretty darn helpful. "I've encountered better food in my vegetable crisper after a month abroad." probably isn't very helpful.

Criticism is a valuable tool. No one is perfect, and we can only correct our mistakes if we know about them. Some mistakes, like a stubbed toe, are obvious even if the solution is not. Others, such as an engrossed photographer about to trip and fall in the wedding cake, are obvious only to outsiders. Finally, there are the large and difficult problems of the real world, where even the existence of the problem is a question to be discussed.

Robert Heinlein, curmudgeonly cynic that he was, had this to say of governments:

Democracy is based on the assumption that a million men are wiser than one man. How's that again? I missed something.
Autocracy is based on the assumption that one man is wiser than a million men. Let's play that over again, too. Who decides?

There's absolutely noting wrong with autocracy, provided the autocrat is good and wise, that he listens to his expert counselors, that he makes his decisions with it in mind that all prosper and not merely himself, and that he never makes mistakes. I've heard rumors that such a person can play the sweetest music on a clarinet when he farts, too. When the king makes a mistake, who will tell him so? When The Man has the authority to silence dissent and criticism, only his conscience will prevent him from doing so. A brief survey of history will show you that few have scrupled not to silence critics in the harshest fashions.

Autocracy does not work of the simple reason that there is no guaranteed method for correcting errors. An autocrat can, and usually will, wrap himself in a comforting cocoon of silence, content in the knowledge that he, at least, is comfortable and prosperous. When things finally get bad enough, the only correction available is bloody rebellion, which does not come with any guarantee of improvement, or even success. There's a reason vast income disparity leads to failed states; those in power insulate themselves first from criticism, then from redress, both with violence.

A million are indeed wiser than one, especially if the one is chosen at random. The voices of millions of people smooth out the bumps and marginalize the crazies. This is the first bit of error correction. If you can convince a majority of the people that you've got a good plan, you have a pretty good plan. It won't be perfect, and a lot of people will agree with you, but it'll still be a decent plan. This if the first error-correcting process of democracy. Politicians and political facts have to be placed before the court of public opinion, thoroughly debated, and then voted upon. Unfortunately, it also silences the upper end of the bell curve, the true visionaries whose radical notions aren't whackadoo, but powerfully transformative, which is why a wise society keeps systems in place to allow for the recognition of brilliance and talent, fostering it and its ideas.

Elections aren't the only time that people speak. Criticism continues from all levels of society throughout the year. Whether it's a janitor snarking at the TV while drinking a pint after work or a CEO snarking at a Senator while sharing a snifter on a private jet, the fact is that everyone speaks, and these voices are usually heard. We have a free press, freedom of association, and the freedom to tell our glorious leaders where to stick it. This means we live in a very noisy, very opinionated world. It's better than the alternative. Unless a leader deliberately cultivates an atmosphere of respectful silence and makes it a point to shut out his detractors (I'm looking at you, 43), he cannot help but hear criticism and, hopefully, find some wisdom there.

Consider North Korea. No elections, no speech, what have you; that's all terrible and painfully obvious. But what happens when Kim Jong-Il dies? His youngest son, Kim Jong-Eun is being groomed as heir apparent, but will he come to power without difficulty? There are older sons and military leaders galore who may wish to contest the succession. Even if Jong-Eun wins, how will North Korea fare during the struggle? One of the great benefits of democracy, often overlooked, is the regular and peaceful transfer of power, even between opponents. This, too, is a process of error correction. If things are good, more of the same isn't necessarily a problem, but when they've gone sour, you can bet fresh blood is going to be wanted. And for hundreds of years, that's what has happened. Isn't that nice? Shit yes.

Democracy isn't perfect. A million jackasses won't spontaneously generate wisdom, and no matter how wise, a million plumbers aren't actually qualified to generate foreign policy. The fact is that a limited democracy, often a republic, is actually better. People can easily be aroused to high dudgeon for just long enough to get someone into power, to their detriment. People can often be persuaded to vote against their own interests if it means hurting someone they hate. There need to be limits on democracy, because specialization is a simple necessity of civilization, and that includes people who have specialized in ruling. We need to have an excess of trained rulers so we can keep swapping them out when they go bad, like spark plugs, but we need a professional ruling class trained in the minutiae of government and policy. That's why I deplore the current vogue of ballot measures whereby demagogues inflame the passions of the mass so as to limit and attack the rights of the minority in direct contravention of the American vision. Tyranny of the majority is just as terrible and fickle thing as any tyranny of the minority. By virtue of sheer numbers, the majority can shout down its critics.

It's possible to make profound arguments for any system of government couched in the language of "The Rights of Man" and "Duty, Authority, Peace" and "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" etc, but I support a democratic republic on pragmatic grounds. It works. When the machine starts to wobble, we all step in and give it a kick. I've heard America described as "a fifty-seven Chevy, veering to the left and lurching to the right". Hey, it keeps running, right? We've flirted with the notion a few times (Alien and Sedition Act, fucking Jackson and his Trail of Tears), but the system hasn't ever actually broken down.

I leave you with a final Heinlein quote, though the sentiment is surely not original to him.

Secrecy is the beginning of tyranny.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Little on Objectivism

I've read Atlas Shrugged more than once. I've also read The Fountainhead and The Virtue of Selfishness. For a few years in high school I was an unabashed Randite (read: obnoxious, loud-mouthed asshole).

The simple fact is that Objectivism, for all of its many flaws, is deeply appealing because it presents a simple, black and white view of the world. Whereas Granny Weatherwax says "Ain't no shades of gray. Just white that's got grubby.", Rand said that white a little tarnished is no different from black. Go 100% or go home.

She peppers her fiction with dramatic archetypes. Just from Atlas Shrugged you have the ideal man (Galt) four flavors of the nearly ideal man (Rearden, Frisco, the pirate, and the philosophy teacher), the ideal woman (Dagny, whose ideal nature is demonstrated by the fact that, intelligent and hard working, she also wants to be dominated by her men) several men who deliberately invert the ideal (Dagny's brother and a few politicians), and several people who believe in the ideal but fail to live up to it (the scientist who taught Galt, the woman who married Dagny's brother).

And the thing is that Objectivism really does believe that people should not merely strive for that ideal, but actively embody it, and that anyone who fails to do so is morally wrong. At the end of the day, Objectivism was a cult ( Atlas was its bible. Rand was its Jesus and Nathaniel Branden its Saint Peter. When Branden was excommunicated, the cult fell apart because, as thorough and author as she was, Rand was neither a reader, nor a leader, nor a thinker. Occasionally, someone will still get sucked into it, but it hasn't been what it was in the 60s.

As for the stated beliefs of Objectivism:

Metaphysics - I agree that existence exists (that is to say, there exists an external and separate reality from each of us) and that each of us is a conscious, moral agent. I disagree that everything has a specific nature or identity. Yes, as Sartre said, "Nothing can exist only partly" (which is what I believe this part of the Objectivist metaphysics is trying to say), but beyond the existence of an object or thing, it is outside actors who imbue objects with use or identity beyond the mere fact of their existence. In other words, A is A, but it's not just A.

Epistemology - Rand was an empiricist (she called it reason but that's a woefully inadequate description, as actual philosophers disagree on the utility of reason and on how it works), arguing that all knowledge is fact-based, built on a study of reality with which we connect through our senses. She argued that we have no in-built knowledge or ideas. I don't fully agree, because we have a number of built-in shortcuts for dealing with the world; we innately seek and assign agency where none need exist. How often have you gotten angry with an inanimate object for not working right? Even as infants, we assign such; show an infant a moving image of two objects, one following the other, and it will register surprise if the one stops following. Children tell that inanimate objects have purpose, assigning agency to the world around us; rocks are for animals to scratch themselves, clouds are for raining. These are just a few demonstrations that the human brain doesn't sift through our perceptions in a logical, step by step basis. We take short cuts and make quick assumptions. For the most part this helps us out (you don't really need to analyze a tiger, buddy, just leave it alone), but for complex issues it can get us in trouble.

Ethics - I agree with Rand that there is no objective or external source of goodness (the platonic ideal) nor is goodness some sort of natural function (the Aristotelian philosophy that influenced Catholic doctrine via Thomas Aquinas), but rather a function of human behavior. Rand argued that moral good is that which sustains life, moral evil is that which hinders it, and above all both are informed by rational choices about objective reality. I disagree, in that moral behavior arises from biology. We have in our brains two separate decision-making processes for moral behavior, an empathic core (don't kick the baby!) and a utilitarian core (kill the one to save the ten, it's just sense) and our moral decisions come after a tug of war between the two. We are certainly not a rational animal, as Rand would have it, but a rationalizing animal, using our logical faculties not to make decisions but to justify them after the fact.

Our moral and ethical nature is not built around the survival of the individual, but around the survival of the individual within the context of the survival of the group, and not just the group as a collection of individuals, but the group as an entity in itself which will continue to exist after all of the current members have died off. This "collectivism", as Rand would have called it, is anathema to Objectivist philosophy, but is paramount to the human condition. Unfortunately for Rand, the Kantian ethic "do only that which you can will as a universal rule" doesn't actually work. Very nearly everything you subject to that slippery slope argument falls into a black pit of reductio ad absurdum and cannot possibly be construed as a moral good. Boundless self-sacrifice by everyone would lead to everything falling apart in a way that boundless selfishness would not, but you wouldn't want to live in a world of sociopaths any more than you would a world of nothing but sacrifice. Moderation in all things (even moderation, bitches!).

Politics - I really disagree with Rand. The individual is not the be all and end all of human existence (which makes the Republican love affair with Rand hilarious) and individual efforts not the only method of achievement. She honestly felt we could get by with private police and fire protection, which is farcical on its face. There was a private fire company in Rome. They showed up, got the owner to sell cheap, then put out the fire. The fact is that cooperation for mutual benefit is, on its face, a perfectly valid method for achieving success. She accepts this in the private sector for corporations, but weirdly denies it in politics. Why is it that a cartel by the name of OPEC is in some way a good and moral agent, but a cartel by the name of government some sort of villain?

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Evolving Beyond Religion

The Bible says, "Thou Shalt Not Kill".

Actually, it's "Thou Shalt Not Murder". And the act of murder can only be committed on human beings. And that really only applies to your fellow X. Heathens are fair game.

That was the interpretation for thousands of years. The law said that if you threw a stone into a crowd of heathens and accidentally killed one of your fellow faithful, then it wasn't murder because your clear intent was to kill a heathen.

In ancient pre-history, we lived in small family groups of a few dozen to a few hundred. As our populations grew, we encountered, who knows how many times, the Stranger Problem; how can you live with the constant fear of the stranger without killing him? In order for civilization to exist, this problem had to be overcome. The earliest forms were probably the discovery of distant kinship, as small groups living near each other probably had tenuous blood connections due to the outbreeding necessary to prevent serious genetic difficulties. Also available, particularly at trading confluences, was honorary kinship, the sacred guest rights. But those are cumbersome and were replaced by religion, by civilization, eventually by nationality, and in due time the rule of law. In some places.

Why is it that in times past, the most horrific acts of cruel barbarity were commonplace wherever two people got together to kill a third? And why is it that in much of the world, these acts are becoming much more rare? Indeed, why is it that a mere five thousand years after the Bible began being written, a modern reader can look at it in astonished horror that these things were considered just and moral?

Because we're still evolving. For a few million years, we evolved to live in small family bands, and it shows. I used to scoff at the notion that small towns were just nicer and safer and all that, thinking it was provincialism at its worst*. It turns out that small towns are safer, nicer, more polite. And that's because everyone knows one another. First, there's social pressure to be nice; when word gets around (and it *will*) your life becomes that much harder if you're a jerk. Of course, the sword swings both ways, the social pressure requires you to conform in all things, not merely in social niceties; Garrison Keillor, of A Prairie Home Companion once said that moving to New York from his small home town was a huge relief because he could finally relax and just be himself away from prying eyes. Another aspect of city vs town life is the presence of strangers; being surrounded by strangers raises your stress levels, making you more unhappy and quicker to anger. Whereas the townsman is open and friendly, the city dweller maintains a personal shield of privacy, ignoring others as much as possible. City dweller, when's the last time you started a conversation with the person sitting next to you on the bus/subway?

Strangers used to represent an entirely potent threat; a stranger was someone who, at the least, might kill you and take all your stuff just because. After a few thousand years, that reflexive fear hasn't gone away.

But I suspect it's starting to, because I don't believe we could have spent 500 generations living with the constant presence of strangers in cities of tens of thousands, and now tens of millions of people without weeding out those people who simply could not abide strangers, without selecting for people who are more tolerant of strangers, more willing to live and let live. Where once it took a great deal of effort to live with strangers, where it was once the case that civilization only managed to independently arise in a very few places, where once we had to invent an omnipresent and angry skybeard to keep us from murdering one another, we can now walk down the street in relative safety.

The world is by no means a perfectly safe place, but it is not what once it was. We have spent thousands of years and hundreds of generations learning, in our bones, how to cope with a civilized world. The changing and advancing of the zeitgeist such that slavery has vanished and racism is waning could be explained by happenstance, by random cultural shift, or it could be that evolution is shifting us away from the paranoid, family-bound apes that we were into an open, embracing humanity ready to live in a global society.

I believe that we developed religion as a desperate necessity to allow us to build our cities, and I look forward to the day when we realize that, like xenophobia, it is a tool that was once useful but which is no longer necessary.

* In the sense that where I live is awesome and everywhere else sucks, not in the sense of a naive misunderstanding of the way the world works.

Sanctity/Purity and Civilization Part 2

So the problem of a growing population is that a reason needs to be found to not kill strangers. We've happened upon a number of these over the course of our development. One example is the sanctity of blood kinship, however tenuous. The highlanders of Papua New Guinea, as described by Jared Diamond, when they encounter one another on the trails, will immediately launch into long and detailed genealogies describing the many forkings of their family trees until a connection is found and a reason not to kill one another is established. In a much more tragic fashion, African slaves did the same thing in the New World, though perhaps more to be able to maintain a sense of community and continuity as their families were repeatedly torn apart.

Another example is that of sacred hospitality. Once someone is under your roof, they are honorary members of your family and cannot be harmed. A violation of this custom and the shock it inspired was rather graphically included in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series in the form of the Red Wedding, when the host slaughtered the visiting wedding party. This custom was upheld in the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah when Lot offered up his daughters to the mob instead of his guests (his guests were part of his family, his daughters were just property. Valuable property, but chattel property nevertheless. Never confuse the Bible for a source of good morals.).

In both of these cases, kinship and guest rights, the third pillar of morality elucidated by Jonathan Haidt of In-Group Loyalty (also known as kin selection in evolutionary biology) is expanded to include those not of the group. These are two potential strategies for overcoming the Stranger Problem, but the first is awkward and time-consuming and the second strictly temporary. In order to overcome the Stranger Problem long term, a method needs to be found whereby the default position is "Do not kill a stranger unless he first gives you cause." rather than "Stranger! Danger! Kill! KILL!".

Once a population expands beyond the four to five hundred person limit*, a long term solution needs to be found. Initially, a monopoly on inter-personal violence can be a successful strategy. After the egalitarian band, what generally evolved was a proto-chiefdom, with a "big man" acting as a de facto authority figure by virtue of being, well, big. This co-opted the fourth pillar, Respect for Authority, and repurposed it to a long-term survival strategy for the population rather than a short term cooperative strategy. Simply put, Jim doesn't kill Dan because Big Dave will get pissed. Jim and Dan don't need to know one another for this to work, they just both have to know Big Dave. And Big Dave doesn't even have to know Jim or Dan, he just has to make sure they know him by being a visible presence.

As the population grows larger, the Big Man's presence becomes more distant; it becomes unfeasible for him to be personally known to several thousand people. The Chief/proto-king has to rely on a presence more visible from a distance. Not coincidentally, this is where conspicuous consumption became an art form; no longer a matter of biological ornamentation like our long hair or a peacock's tail, but a matter of artificial ornamentation. Hawaiian kings wore capes made from thousands of parrot feathers. Greek and Roman nobility wore clothes dyed a brilliant vermilion hue, which necessitated the gathering and careful crushing of thousands of sea snails to achieve (and which was relegated to the nobility by law on pain of death).

But this next phase didn't happen in a vacuum. Along with increased displays of wealth and power was a greater division of social hierarchy. And religion.

There are two reasons the title 'Oedipus Rex' is wrong. First, putting a Latin word in the title of a Greek play is just asinine, like eating shepherd's pie with chop sticks. More importantly, Oedipus wasn't a king (basileus), but a tyrant, one who came to power through "unofficial" channels. In ancient Greece, as in the rest of the world, the king was a sacred person/position, appointed by the gods if not semi-divine himself. Chinese dynasties were founded on the Mandate of Heaven; the Fisher King's impotence strikes the land; Herakles, Jesus, and how many others are divine sun kings, sacrificed at the end of winter to bring forth the new harvest.

In short, Respect for Authority/Elders combined with Sanctity/Purity to create religion so as to reinforce a distant hierarchy of thousands of strangers and maintain a peaceful civilization. But first, how could Sanctity/Purity play a role in this and second, what role did it play?

As I said many posts ago, Respect for Elders first comes into play as a learning tool; children are credulous to a fault and take in all they are told and store it. This expedites the learning process so that the child can learn how to survive in a hostile world in the abbreviated time his elders are available to teach him. However, as Richard Dawkins and others have noted, this comes with a price. Children absorb and take at face value nonsense just as readily as they do genuine knowledge. And then they hold fiercely to it, rejecting attempts by others to dislodge the noise. "Are you calling my father a liar?!" The Sanctity/Purity drive, which I suspect was initially simply a disgust response to keep animals from eating or drinking what was bad for them, in this model becomes a means of buttressing the Respect for Authority drive, insuring that learned information is more readily stored. The unfortunate consequence of passing on pointless superstitions about witches and blood and the full moon are a small price to pay for seeing to it that important information be passed on intact.

Further, if the information is truly valuable it will be repeatedly reinforced by contact with the real world (make a spear this way and it works, make it *this* way and you get killed by an elephant in a painful fashion, which sucks), whereas superstitions and other noise, having no real world reference, are free to mutate and change and act, in all ways, as noise. In short, valuable information stays the same, everything else is more or less harmless (unless it kills you, in which case you don't get the chance to pass it on anyway. Win-win).

I suspect that by this means, visible symbols, as tangible icons of ideas passed on from one generation to the next, became the fortunate heritors of this legacy. Sanctity/Purity attaches not just to food and water and not just to what we're taught by our elders, but also to the symbols that represent those ideas. Thus a nation's flag represents all the ideas and ideals of that nation, burning it is as much an affront as burning the nation itself. Desecrating a holy text or a holy symbol is as horrific as desecrating a loved one's corpse, not least because the ideas it represents was passed on to you by that loved one. Not everyone attaches the same importance to the sanctity of symbols, but it becomes more comprehensible in this hypothesis.

But how does it benefit a burgeoning civilization? By turning a stranger into someone who's not a stranger. It's not merely the king who benefits from the highly visible symbols of his holy office, nor just the priests in their recognizable hats. Everyone in a religion, and indeed a culture (which is often so interwoven with religion as to be inseparable), adopts certain visible signifiers. As Tevye said, "For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I'll tell you. I don't know. But it's a tradition." The Jews have their yarmulkes, Muslims have their taqiyah (mostly central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa), Christians have crucifixes. It goes beyond that, with the hijab, the payot, and everything Amish, all cultural rather than explicitly required by the texts (maybe), but still visible identifiers for who is in and who is out.

Through the complex and involved process of looking at someone, it became possible to identify someone as being a stranger one could not kill**. And other visible identifiers said, "This person is of a higher rank than you. Go out of your way not to piss him off." or "This person is a slave, go ahead and poo on his head if you want. He'll smile and thank you for it, though his owner might not." and because all of this was wrapped up in the repurposed Respect for Elders/Sanctity/Purity drives, it was all passed along and kept intact. Unlike most superstitions, these had real-world ramifications because without them civilization would collapse.

I believe that the development of religion and civilization had to happen simultaneously. Religion can only exist in the large populations of civilization and the large populations of civilization could only exist with the support of the first. Think of religion as an epidemic of the mind; it can only sustain itself in a large population. I deliberately shifted verbs from "can" to "could", though, because I believe that we have spent the 10,000 years since the development of agriculture, civilization, and religion evolving. As with all populations, our evolution is slow and multifarious, but I suspect that one aspect is that we no longer need religion to survive. This I will discuss in Evolving Beyond Religion.

* That being the rough maximum number of people one can know, as in to put a face to a name and a name to a face. Check out a school website and match up the number of vice principals to the number of students.

** The Biblical proscription against killing should more accurately read "Thou shalt not kill thy fellow Jew". Rabbinical and Christian interpretations for thousands of years have been, "Killing a fellow Jew/Christian is murder and punishable as such. Killing a heathen? Meh. Have at it, hoss."

Monday, November 07, 2011

Sanctity/Purity and Civilization

Before I begin, a note: I cannot recommend strongly enough Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel.

The fifth pillar of human morality, as elucidated by Dr Jonathan Haidt is that of Sanctity/Purity. We maintain purity and eschew things that would make us dirty, physically and spiritually. Typically, in the West, this means not having sex. All across humanity, it seems to mean not having much to do with women. Something about human society is deeply misogynistic and anti-sex: Jesus was born of a virgin, the Buddha was born through a slit in his mother's side, pagan/animist tribal beliefs often have an unpleasant fixation with avoiding menstruating women. Misogyny aside, there are more examples: vegetarians and vegans eschew animal products, usually on moral grounds; we have strong disgust aversions to even associating with bodily wastes and often with the fluids of others; corpses and other near-human images evoke strong negative reactions; and there's something deeply disturbing about clowns.

I think the Purity/Sanctity response began (and this entire post is going to be supposition) as primarily a physical disgust reaction to keep our animal ancestors away from certain things; don't eat things that will make you sick. Later it coupled with methods of socialization and shame response to reinforce behaviors to promote cooperation and peace within a group. After that, I think it became very conceptual.

My understanding of the development of humanity, society, and civilization is that we exploded out of Africa and settled everywhere a living, meager or otherwise, could be scratched. Fecund environments were altered, whether consciously or not, to be more productive. Our modern understanding of the hunter-gatherer model as a nomadic lifestyle is based upon the fact that only people in marginal landscapes that cannot support agriculture still pursue the HG lifestyle and the paucity of resources forces a nomadic or semi-nomadic existence on them. But the majority of the Earth is quite happy to let us grow fat in one place even without farms, and populations would have settled in place, burgeoned, reached an equilibrium, altered their environment, reached a new equilibrium, and so on.

Farming wouldn't have been an overnight discovery. Rather, the people of an area would have exhaustively explored every single native plant and animal for edibility and perfected a method for harvesting it wild. This would have meant learning everything about growing/breeding seasons and inventing and perfecting the correct tools for the job. What would have followed would have been altering the environment so as to expand the range for the wild plant to grow and cultivating it in place. The next step, perhaps final, would have been relocation and deliberate cultivation. A modern example of this is the cultivation of various plants in the Australian desert by the aboriginal peoples there, and the aborted development of fish farming begun in, I believe, the islands off that continent's southern coast. Another example in recorded history was that of the deliberate cultivation of the American landscape by the Native Americans, as can be read about in Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus; the first Europeans to reach the east coast of what are now the United States and Canada described a thickly settled landscape that resembled open parkland. The natives cultivated an open forest with limited undergrowth by repeatedly burning the forest, thus maintaining an environment ideally suited for hunting. They also maintained thick groves of nut-bearing trees, like hickory. These are just a few documented examples along the arc of deliberate, pre-agricultural landscape cultivation.

At all points along that scale, the population would have grown to the maximum allowable by the environment and the tools/methods discovered by those living there. From a tribal band of a few dozen members, the family group would eventually have been forced to a higher density. That was when trouble would have started. A modern day example was tellingly documented in Diamond's book, with a tribe from Papua New Guinea. A tribe of permanently settled HGs lived in a particularly fecund marshland, harvesting the calorie-rich pith of a certain palm tree, primarily. The population grew to a few hundred and then the inevitable happened; two men got in a fight. One killed the other and a cycle of revenge killings began that left the tribe with only a few dozen alive, alternately terrified and full of rage.

Essentially, the problem was strangers. In a small group, everyone knows everyone else. They may not all like each other, but everyone likes everyone well enough and rule three, In-Group Loyalty, keeps frictions from boiling over. But when the population gets too large, it becomes impossible for everyone to know everyone; the rough limit is somewhere between four and five hundred people. Once a population has strangers, then the disincentive for fighting goes away. But In-Group Loyalty still exists and they're going to get revenge. How many times do you think we repeated that tribe's tragedy? How many people on the verge of developing civilization instead tore themselves apart with pointless violence?

Civilization apparently began in just a few places and spread from there. By cultural diffusion, by population spread, and through conquest, those civilizations spread their examples across the globe. We modern humans are the heritors of a precious legacy; somewhere in the past, someone figured out the key. The question: how can we get along with strangers without killing them? The answer, and this may strike you as odd: Religion. Well, eventually.

To be continued.

Evolution on Good and Evil Part 3

Now for evil. I think we have to distinguish between banal evil and true villainy.

The Banality of Evil was a phrase coined for a report on how the Nazis could attempt to exterminate any number of groups without being a group composed entirely of monsters. As Terry Pratchett put it, "There are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot easily be duplicated by a normal kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do."

This sort of evil comes from the third pillar of morality. People on the outside don't count. You don't betray family or friends, you don't steal from them, or kill them. People on the outside just. Don't. Count. Granted, you have to go out of your way to dehumanize them and demonize them before you're willing to do really horrible things to them (a dozen or so centuries of hearing "perfidious Jew" as part of the Catholic liturgy every year probably helped the Nazis demonize their victims; perfidious originally meant unbelieving but somehow, impossibly, it came to mean "treacherous").

The other sort of evil is that sensationalized by Jack the Ripper and Hannibal Lecter. In somewhere near 5% of the population at large are people with no empathy and no remorse. The terms are confused between psychopath, sociopath, and antisocial personality disorder. Generally, these people have poor impulse control and no empathy for others. Whereas the moral impulse in the majority of people is governed by two parts of the brain, one utilitarian (sure, kill one guy and distribute his organs to save five) and one empathetic (kill a person to save five? You monster!), the psychopath lacks the empathetic response. They don't always become serial killers and monsters, but the majority of violent offenders in prison show signs of sociopathy.

Whence the sociopath? Whereas morality is a system whereby evolution has gamed for cooperation for mutual benefit, sociopathy is a system that parasitically takes advantage of the first. Too many sociopaths and society couldn't possibly exist. Too many backstabbing bastards and there would be no potential benefit to backstabbing. Only if sociopaths are a minority can they succeed. When 95 times out of 100 you can trust your buddy to do right by you, the backstabbing bastard can really make a killing.

This isn't an unsuccessful strategy, no matter that we like to believe people get their comeuppance. A bastard-coated bastard with a creamy bastard filling can really get ahead, particularly in a more populace society where strangers are common. A questionnaire filled out by CEOs with questions hidden within to indicate sociopathy indicated it's more common (perhaps twice as much as in the general population). It's not hard to imagine that being a ruthless jerk could make you successful on Wall Street, legally or not (see: Enron).

In the end, whether dealing with the banal evil or dispassionate sociopathy, evolution easily explains evil. As the existence of the theodicy problem demonstrates, the god hypothesis really doesn't.

Evolution On Good and Evil Part 2

As I've said before, I'll continue to discuss the biological basis of morality.

To reiterate, these are the five pillars of human morality elucidated by Dr Jonathan Haidt:

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

As I said, the first two form the basis for reciprocal altruism. The third reinforces that by forming an us vs them mentality; those on the inside are fully human (or chimp, for our chimp cousins), those on the outside are not. We can see this among ourselves today and in history. Our close family is incredibly important, our more distant family/friends come next, and so on, until we come to strangers who are also foreigners of a different religion who dress funny who barely qualify as human. Yes, that's an increasingly outdated concept, but it's still out there.

How does identifying someone as not being worthy of altruism reinforce altruism? Because we can't be indiscriminate. Resources are scarce and we can't share all the time with everyone. Identifying some people as more important than others helps decide who we share our limited resources with, who we fight for and who we abandon. From the standpoint of the gene, we need to defend those closely related to us and help them because they share our genes. From the game theory point of view, cooperation, whether among kin or strangers, leads to a greater degree of success.

The fourth I believe started as respect for authority, a way to sort the group into a less egalitarian family band, with certain individuals in charge and others following. Think on this, the origin of the "moot point". "Moot" is an old English word, originally meaning, essentially, "a democratic assembly to discuss important points", hearkening to the democracies that were Germanic English villages. Important things had to be discussed before the moot (you may recall the term showing up in the _Lord of the Rings_ trilogy, as Treebeard [AKA Fangorn] called for the Ent-Moot), thus a 'moot point' was something too important for one person to decide. However, the nature of democratic assemblages is that the larger the population, the more untenable direct democracy becomes, and thus the moot got sidelined in favor of more autocratic processes and a 'moot point' gradually became something so unimportant that it could be put before the moot without any harm. To put it another way, "A committee is the only animal with twenty stomachs and no brain".

When one person is in charge, things get done (not necessarily for the best, see my explanation, forthcoming, for why democratic-republics are the most awesome form of government). Although our ancestors were apparently largely egalitarian while living in small family groups (according to anthropology), they segued into pseudo-chiefdoms, followed by chiefdoms, followed by increasingly stratified, rigidly defined hierarchical religious kingdoms. Respect for authority started as a way to organize small, flexible group relationships and was reinforced as a method for organizing large, inflexible group relationships.

However, I believe that number four became, for humans at least, respect for elders as a method of education. We're not the only animal that teaches their young, but we may be unique in that we educate through language. Our young are credulous to a fault and respect for elders reinforces that. It's not just among children, though; think about the last time you were the new guy in the workplace. How respectfully did you listen to the guy who showed you around? How long did it take for you to stop being the new guy? And when the next new guy came in, how easy was it to assume an air of authority as the guy who knows what's up? It works.

In short, I feel that these first four pillars of human morality shape our interactions among a group, for short- and long-term benefit through mutual cooperation and reciprocal altruism.

What of sanctity/purity? That's the notion that the body can be harmed/made impure through immoral behavior, which notion isn't restricted to religion (vegans, anyone?). I believe it started as a simple biological compulsion to avoid eating things like poop that was repurposed. Our hierarchical/authoritarian bent was repurposed by our need to educate our offspring, and I think our disgust imperative was repurposed for a social function. I'll get into that more later.

For now, I think I've discussed where our moral sense comes from enough to provide a good argument that, although the god hypothesis does not explain either good or evil, evolution certainly explains good as the result of game theory and gene theory.

Health Care as a Public Good

A few days back, the Atheist Ethicist spent some time arguing against public health care. He criticized it from a number of angles, principally that it is a private benefit (with a few exceptions) rather than public and that it's a subsidy for poor lifestyle choices.

The second is simpler to address: take smoking. It's a choice and it's bad for you, full stop. Why should the public at large pay to address the poor health brought on by your poor choice? This is a compelling argument that ignores the fact that the majority of health problems are not brought on by poor choices, but are the result of illness, accidental injury, or poverty. I deliberately avoided his example of obesity because when you're poor, the cheapest food choice is often going to lead to an ironic combination of obesity and malnutrition. Even in the case of self-inflicted illness as with smoking-induced lung disease or a heart condition from years of being overweight, I'm willing to argue that treating the health of the public is a public good and for the exact same reason that education is.

The ethicist is more than happy to grant that items like national defense, police and fire protection, education, etc are all public goods. Why exactly is education a public good, though? After a few centuries of demonstrating, in America and Europe, that free education is for the benefit of all, it should seem obvious, but let's go ahead and explore it.

Imagine a person born into the world circa 15,000 years ago. He lives in a reasonably fecund area of the planet and, although he's five or seven thousand years too early for agriculture, his nutritional needs are well met by a settled, hunter-gatherer lifestyle. He has some free time. Unfortunately, he's some ten thousand years too early for written music as well. He'd have made a great composer. Now imagine a person born in Somalia today. What are the odds he'll become a composer?

Education is a public good because it opens up the possibility for us all to achieve our potential, our dreams (with hard work and luck). Without it, we're lucky to scratch out a living doing whatever scut work is available. By giving everyone a solid grounding in math, science, literature, art, history, writing, music, all of it, we open them up to the possibilities and let them discover natural talents that, were they to languish in ignorance, they could never learn they had except by accident. We all benefit when we can all dive into our passions, master them, and create and discover wonderful new things. Minutiae of law, science, music, and art, even if you never hear about them, enrich your world and make it a better place. And none of that is possible without education.

So why is healthcare a public good? A pianist can't play with broken fingers. A diva can't sing with bronchitis. A janitor can't sweep on broken legs. We all benefit when everyone can explore their passions and their talents. Just as they can only explore them when they have the educational foundation to do so, they can only explore them when they have the health to do so.

Just as we should do what we can to keep our schools and our police well funded, well maintained, and well regulated, so should our public health, and for all the same reasons. When we're all free, healthy, and happy, we can do amazing things.

Knowledge vs Knowledge

A few comments in reply to my thesis on whether or not we can know that god exists were of the form, "You admitted at the start that you can't know god exists, but then you argue that you can. WTF?"

I should have made this distinction more clear then; I was speaking initially of mathematical certainty and arguing at the end for scientific knowledge.

Some things can be absolutely known within a mathematical framework. "If (if A then B) then (if not B then not A)" is a tautological truth within the framework of mathematical logic. On a different note, beginning with the assumption of "B" then it's trivially simple to prove "If A then B". Within mathematics, some things can be proven with absolute certainty. In that sense, we cannot be absolutely certain on the existence of god because it's not a mathematical question.

Scientific knowledge is a different matter. We begin with facts, build from there to laws, and thence to theories. At any time, a contradictory fact could bring the edifice crashing down. Biologist J.B.S. Haldane said, according to popular myth, that rabbits in the Precambrian would explode the theory of evolution. In a sense, scientific knowledge is a mass of supposition resting precariously on the admission that it hasn't been proven false yet. However, the longer a scientific theory lasts without being proven false, the more certain we can be that it is true.

At this point an English major might be tempted to butt in with, "But everything ends up getting proven false! We used to think the Earth was flat! Einstein proved Newton wrong! Neener neener!" At this point I gleefully crib from a delightful essay by Isaac Asimov. Yes, older models have been proven incorrect, but they weren't entirely incorrect and they weren't equally incorrect. The Flat Earth model breaks down after just a few miles when you disappear under a horizon it simply cannot predict. Nevertheless, I've taken advantage of the Flat Earth model on each of my dozen or so cross-country drives by referring to a book of maps, all of them printed on flat paper without losing my way (at least not because of the maps). It's wrong, yes, but it's not entirely wrong. And the spherical model that replaced the flat model is also wrong! The Earth is an oblate spheroid (flattened at the poles) thanks to Newtonian physics, a fact ably demonstrated by the much more oblate Jupiter. And yet the oblate model is incorrect as well because, thanks to odd internal geography, our planet is slightly larger on the southern hemisphere. However, to say that the oblate spheroid model is as incorrect as the spherical model and as incorrect as the flat model is just wrong. One model is more wrong, and none of them are entirely wrong.

Each model accounts for certain observed facts (the earth is apparently flat) and is replaced by a better model that accounts for those and for others (the shadow on the moon is round and we disappear over the horizon), which is replaced in turn by another that takes further facts into account (the laws of motion). In each case, our knowledge is never scrapped or replaced entire, but upgraded and patched. Einstein didn't replace Newton, for Newton's observations and mechanics are nearly perfect for the observations he was capable of making; rather, Einstein expanded upon Newton by developing a mechanic for observations made in the centuries that followed, and Quantum Mechanics did the same a few decades later in the other direction. In other words, scientific knowledge has never truly been one of scrapping a false system for a true system, but of replacing a system with a more accurate one. Lose the burlap sack and put on a prom dress, lose the prom dress and put on a tailored suit.

So why do I believe there is no god on the basis of scientific evidence? Because, after thousands of years of observation, there is no evidence. The old canard "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" can be discarded because absence of evidence, when one would reasonably expect to find evidence is evidence of absence. The longer we go with nothing more than feelings and hopes to confirm the alleged existence of a deity, the more firmly we can say, "Sorry, you've not only failed to convince me you're right, you've convinced me you're wrong." Yes, evolution could be toppled by a Precambrian bunny, but a century and a half of repeated attacks have failed to disprove it; we can say we know evolution is true, in spite of its precarious "not false yet" scientific status. After millenia of abject failure to provide proof or evidence for the existence of a god, or any supernatural phenomenon, why does religion still get a free pass in the opposite direction?

The alleged deity is such a large phenomenon that I feel safe saying I know there is no god because the evidence of such an overwhelming entity should be equally overwhelming. A natural high underwhelms those who don't experience it.