Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 5b

Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby begins with the observation, "‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.‘ Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’" But most rich and successful people don’t heed that advice. As E. B. White said, 'Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self- made men.' I saw a book titled ‘If you are so smart, why aren’t you rich?’ The immediate response that occurred to me was, ‘If you are so rich, why aren’t you smart?’

The thought patterns of humans living their day-to-day existence are continually affected by what goes on around them, and the consequent actions they take are continually affecting whatever is around them. A common rhetoric these days among the privileged is the myth of meritocracy. It is the idea that those who work hard and play by the rules deserve to rise as far as their talents and dreams will take them. Successful people don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. The economist Paul Samuelson once said, “Never underestimate the willingness of a man to believe flattering things about himself.”

How important is luck? People who amass great fortunes are almost always extremely talented and hardworking. But, countless others have those same qualities yet never earn much. In recent years, social scientists have discovered that chance events play a much larger role in important life outcomes than most people once imagined. When successful people are oblivious to their own advantages they are often similarly oblivious to other people’s disadvantages. The result is a lack of empathy toward those who are struggling making them reluctant to support the kinds of public investments without which everyone becomes less likely to succeed.

For Darwin it was impossible to reconcile the cruelty of nature with a loving God. Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene doesn’t present a cheery view of nature either with its focus on the instrumental role genes play in the evolution of life. Are you counting on nature to make the world a better place? It is impossible, they thought. The problem here is with pushing the analogy between nature, genes and cultural elements too far. Folk ideas of Darwinian evolution and The Selfish Gene have given the idea of meritocracy the status of a natural law. So much so that Margaret Thatcher once said that poverty is a ‘personality defect’. 

The term meritocracy was coined in 1958 by the British sociologist Michael Young in The Rise of the Meritocracy.  He argued that encouraging successful people to self-aggrandizingly attribute their success solely to their own efforts and abilities would actually make things worse, on balance. In a 2001 article, he noted that although it makes good sense to appoint people to jobs on their merit, “It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”

Some think success is all about “choices” and “personal responsibility.” Yes, those are real, but it’s so much more complicated than that. Luck acts in subtle ways, causing many of those same people to resist explanations that invoke luck. Your genes and your environment largely determine how smart you are.  How does it make sense for you to claim moral credit for them? You didn’t choose your parents, nor did you have much control over the environment in which you were raised. 

The birth order among siblings, which is as close to a pure chance result as any we can imagine, often plays a decisive role. There is also the scientific finding that your development depends on your grandmother's nutrition. And, of course, plenty of accidents determine where you have reached in life. People with a lot of talent and an inclination to work hard are extremely fortunate. As George Elliot writes in Middlemarch, ‘. . .  chance has an empire which reduces choice to a fool's illusion’.

Those who insist that luck played no role in their own success are almost surely claiming more than their due. Meritocracy would require equality in conditions to access work or career which simply does not exist. Measures of merit are hard to disentangle from economic advantage. In 'What About Me?',  Paul Verhaeghe writes, 'The principle of a capitalist meritocracy founders on the inheritance of wealth: those who inherit capital stay at the top of the ladder; those who inherit debt remain at the bottom.' 

There are traces of meritocratic principles in most philosophical systems. What all these traditional systems have in common, though, is the notion that the merit relevant to governing include moral and civic virtue. For the past few decades, new technologies and market institutions have been providing growing leverage for the talents of the ablest individuals. This has resulted in the spread and intensification of what the economists Philip Cook and Robert Frank have called winner-take-all markets. This means that we are looking at a future in which chance events will become still more important. 

The meritocratic ideal is emphasised becase we tend to overestimate the effect of a brilliant individual on a team's success, and to underestimate the importance of the collective effort. The more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility, sentiments that enable us to care for the common good. Among the winners, it generates hubris; among the losers, humiliation and resentment. The meritocratic ideal is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality. 

Emphasing the importance of luck isn’t the same as saying that most winners win only because they’re lucky. In highly competitive arenas, most would not have even been realistic contenders had they not been both extremely able and hardworking. Society as a whole can mould those environments in significant ways. We are thus the lucky beneficiaries of decades of investment by those who came before us. In a speech to Princeton graduates in 2012, Michael Lewis says:

In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.

In a social context, the consequences are worrying. The middle class is disappearing, making way for a small group at the top and a large underclass at the bottom. The top group looks down on the underclass, believing that the latter only has itself to blame if it ends up in the gutter. Its ‘fault’ lies in a lack of effort and talent. But the underclass feel powerless to remedy their situation. It doesn’t take much for feelings of humiliation and despair to be transformed into violence.

Just as in the 19th century, people conveniently tend to forget the important role that pure chance plays, as well as the social effects of ethnicity, caste, class, age, ill-health, adversity, and gender. A paper reality is being created that has less and less to do with actual reality. The reward structure common in entertainment and sports - where thousands compete for a handful of big prizes at the top - has now become common in other sectors of the economy. 


Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 5a

"In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And, if they don't have the first, the other two will kill you." – Warren Buffett

Brainy people can sustain an astonishing degree of emotional and cognitive detachment from reality as shown in, for example,  Empire of Pain. The political and business elite, whether capitalist or communist, has a fierce vested interest in all of us swallowing their stories, even better if it’s supposedly confirmed by ‘science’ and ‘data’. This makes it important to be suspicious of statistics. The same data can be used to support very different views. The main illusion produced by all these figures is that they represent ‘reality’. In the majority of cases, however, they are creating a certain image of reality. 

Darwin and Dawkins seem to have little connection with us as individuals. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous illusion. Take the shocking example of the Enron approach to personnel policy. By all accounts (including his own) Jeff Skilling, its CEO, was a very clever guy, even brilliant. “I am fucking smart,” he told an admissions officer at Harvard Business School. When somebody talks like that, you can be quite sure he will do some dumb things. It was Skilling’s vision and management philosophy that turned what could have been a simple bankruptcy into an epic of corporate greed, fraud, and corruption. 

According to a Businessweek interview, “there was never any question who was in charge. It was Jeff.” His favorite book? The Selfish Gene. (Apparently, Dawkins was horrified to learn that this book inspired Skilling.) Officially, the system that Skilling imposed on Enron was known as the PRC, or Performance Review Committee. But the employees called it “Rank and Yank.” Every year Skilling recruited hundreds of new MBAs from the best business schools, and then fired those whose performance ranked in the lowest 10 percent. Top performers, on the other hand, were lavishly rewarded. 

Skilling thought that the system was great. He told one reporter, “The performance evaluation was the most important thing for forging a new strategy and culture at Enron — it is the glue that holds the company together.” Skilling couldn’t have been more wrong. Enron “was as competitive internally as it was externally.” Traders who needed to go to the bathroom shut down and locked their computers because they were afraid that a colleague (in other words, a competitor) sitting at the next desk, would steal their ideas. 

For all his smartness, Skilling did not realize that humans actually have a natural inclination to work for the mutual benefit of an organization. People like to cooperate and collaborate, and they often work more productively when they have shared goals. Take all of that away and you create a company that will destroy itself. Employees began to focus solely on their own performance at the expense of the firm's overall performance and Enron became a miserable place to work. 

The individual performances of its staff members were continually monitored and contrasted. On the basis of the results, one-fifth of its employees were sacked each year, but not before they had first been publicly humiliated by having their name, photo, and failure posted on the company website. It wasn’t long before total paranoia reigned and almost everyone was falsifying their figures. Skilling completely destroyed any willingness among his employees to cooperate — not with each other, not with their bosses, not with the company itself. And after that, collapse was inevitable.

But that failure is not the end of the story. Although the system that Skilling set up at Enron was an extreme example, the Enron model is still in wide use. This Rank-and-Yank scheme has become general practice at American companies, including such behemoths as Microsoft and General Electric (where it was pioneered by Jack Welch). Rank and yank can go by a few different names - Set distribution, forced ranking, vitality curve, and rank and yank are all alternative ways of saying the same thing - ranking employees by performance and getting rid of the ones at the bottom.

The belief in the brilliant individual, and the corresponding disparagement of team effort underpins the Rank-and-Yank system. According to a 2012 estimate, 60 percent of Fortune 500 firms use what is essentially the Rank-and- Yank system (although giving it more politically correct names). The fall of Enron was just a warning signal. One wonders, in how many other companies has internal cooperation been undermined to the point where they are about to become new Enron's?

HR managers at multinationals are expected to apply the 20/70/10 rule. Twenty out of every hundred employees are the high flyers, seventy provide the critical mass, and ten should be given the boot, even if sufficient profit and growth has been achieved. Googling the search terms ‘Rank and Yank’ and ‘20/70/10 rule’ throws up hundreds of hits of company documents praising this approach, invariably referring to Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’ and Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’. 

The Selfish Gene is, in many ways, a brilliant book. Yet it fails utterly to explain one thing: the evolution of cooperation in human beings. The main idea of The Selfish Gene readily lends itself to abuse by the 'best and brightest' of the world. Selfish people are naturally attracted to theories that say that the human is a selfish beast, that’s the way things are. And I, being the smartest guy around, always knows the best. They find such theories liberating, giving them carte blanche to be selfish and greedy and feel good about it. Peter Turchin says in Ultrasociety:

I am reasonably certain that Richard Dawkins is, and George Williams and Herbert Spencer were, decent human beings, at least to a fair approximation. It is, at any rate, hard to imagine them perpetrating corporate fraud on the massive scale of Jeff Skilling. Nevertheless, their flawed understanding of human nature not only gave them pessimistic views of our capacity for morality, altruism, and cooperation. Worse still, policy prescriptions on how to increase cooperation, trust, and social justice will not achieve the desired results so long as they rest on these views.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 4d

“Why not go back to God’s drawing board and design better Sapiens? The abilities, needs and desires of Homo sapiens have a genetic basis. And the sapiens genome is no more complex than that of voles and mice.“ says Yuval Noah Harari. Many people are mesmerized by technology and think that there is a technological solution to everything. 'Designing better sapiens' is not just a matter of tinkering with the genes. The environment in which our genes are acting makes all the difference to how we turn out. 

Many people’s understanding of the relation between genes and characters is based on the tiny minority of monogenic diseases. The popular view is that the person you see is largely the sum of the effects of his or her genes plus a little social-educational gloss. For the foreseeable future, predicting what a collection of interacting genes will produce in a certain set of circumstances is not going to be possible. Very often a change in a single gene does not have a consistent effect on the trait that it influences. 

For example, low activity of the monoamine oxidase-A (MAO-A) gene is linked to aggressive behavior and violent offenses. But not everyone with low MAO-A activity is violent, nor is everyone with high MAO-A activity nonviolent. People who grow up in extremely abusive environments often become aggressive or violent, no matter what their genes. Having high MAO-A activity can protect you from this fate, but it is not a given. On the contrary, when children are raised in loving and supportive environments, even those with low MAO-A activity very often thrive.

Constand and Abraham Viljoen were two identical twin brothers who ended up on opposing sides of the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. Born on 28 October 1933, they were inseparable as boys.  The brothers attended the same schools and were in the same classes. They listened to the same teachers and the same propaganda about the superiority of the white race. In 1951, when Abraham decided to study theology, Constand opted for a career in the army. 

Army life suited Constand, and it became like a second family. While Abraham pored over his books and befriended students from all over the world,  Constand jumped out of helicopters and fought in wars. Year by year, the brothers drifted further apart. Abraham began to realize that the apartheid he’d grown up with was a criminal system and contradicted everything the Bible taught. When he returned after years of studying abroad, many South Africans considered Abraham a deserter. Constand, meanwhile, grew to be one of South Africa’s most beloved soldiers. At the pinnacle of his career, he became chief of the South African Defense Force. In time, the Viljoen brothers stopped speaking altogether. 

On 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years, became a free man. Finally, there was hope for peace and reconciliation between black and white South Africans. Four years later, on 26 April 1994, the first elections were held for all South Africans. Two weeks later, on 10 May, Mandela was sworn in as the country’s first black president. What is less well known is that the inauguration almost did not happen. In the four years between Mandela’s release and his election as president, the country came to the brink of civil war. 

Constand became the leader of a new coalition calling itself the Afrikaner Volksfront. This group consisted of armed Africaners who were fearful of losing their privileges if Mandela won and was mobilising for war. Constand’s brother Abraham felt a deep sense of foreboding and realized that he needed to act. He knew that he was the only person in the whole of SA who could change his brother’s mind even though they had not talked for 40 years. 

He persuaded Constand to meet Mandela and the meeting took place in Johannesburg on 12 August 1993. Each time Constand shook Mandela’s hand, his admiration grew for the man he once considered a terrorist. That first meeting opened four months of secret talks between Constand and Mandela which few history books mention today. Yet this was a pivotal moment in the history of South Africa. In the end, the former general was convinced to lay down his weapons and join the elections with his party.  

The story of the Viljoen brothers is a textbook case of two people with same genes but exposed to different environments resulting in totally different characters. Virtually every behavioral effect of genes concerns the average of what’s being measured. It is possible to make statistical predictions at the level of groups but not about particular individuals within that group. The action of genes is completely intertwined with the environment in which they function; in a sense, it is pointless to even discuss what gene X does, and we should consider instead only what gene X does in environment Y.

It is fallacious to think of ourselves as merely the product of genes we inherited from our parents and see the future as nothing more than carrying those genes forward. It leads us to overvalue our ambiguous knowledge of how genes work and disregard other factors that shape our lives, factors that could be reshaped to improve the world around. Robert M. Sapolsky says in Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst:

 If you had to boil this book down to a single phrase, it would be “It’s complicated.” Nothing seems to cause anything; instead everything just modulates something else. Scientists keep saying, “We used to think X, but now we realize that . . .” Fixing one thing often messes up ten more, as the law of unintended consequences reigns. On any big, important issue it seems like 51 percent of the scientific studies conclude one thing, and 49 percent conclude the opposite. . . 

 

Monday, December 19, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 4c

 The scientific picture of how genes work is much more complex than people tend to think, though you’d never guess this from the newspapers. Frequently there will be an announcement suggesting a direct connection between genes and traits or conditions (‘Gene for autism finally discovered!’). One gene is said to give you brown eyes; another, blonde hair; and yet another, schizophrenia.  The notion of the “selfish gene” conveys the idea that one gene works in isolation, going about its own selfish business. 

It does not make sense to consider a gene in isolation as being responsible for a complex function. Genes are not so powerful. For each biological function, there is always a series of genes working together. Cooperation of genes with each other is the main operational basis of genetics, and therefore of evolution. Dawkins acknowledges a role for gene-gene interactions in The Selfish Gene, noting that ‘the effect of any one gene depends on interaction with many others.’ 

When saying that a gene causes X to happen, what is meant is that on the average X happens, and at a statistically reliable rate. There is always lots of variability, including individuals in whom nothing happens or even the opposite of X occurs. When thinking about genes, it is important to remember words like on “average,” “typically,” “usually,” “often,” “tend to,” and “generally”. Genes are very far from being fixed in their actions. And a large part of evolution occurs by altering regulation of genes, rather than genes themselves.

The vast majority of genes extract certain kinds of information from the upbringing and environment of the person. Genes are very good at simple if-then logic: if in a certain environment, then develop in a certain way. Complex behaviors like nurturing, especially when tied to even more complex emotions like "love," are never either genetically predetermined or environmentally  produced. Gene/environment interactions are everywhere. 

Right from birth, it’s very hard to distinguish the contribution made by nature from that of nurture. A "bad" genotype does not condemn a person to a particular behavior; for ill effects to occur, a bad environment is also required. Likewise, a "bad" environment is not a sentence; it also requires a "bad" genotype if it is to produce ill effects .  The environment, as well as the genome, has an enormous influence on the personality of a child, mainly through the child's peer group. A hormone can make you nicer or nastier depending on your values. A criminal personality, even if partly genetic, is much more likely to be expressed in a criminal environment. 

Even brain structures can be modified by external factors. Childhood adversity can scar everything from our DNA to our cultures, and effects can be lifelong. We haven’t evolved to be “selfish” or “altruistic” or anything else. The way a person develops can be steered and adjusted by changes in that environment along the way. It all depends on the context. Adolescence shows us that the most interesting part of the brain evolved to be shaped minimally by genes and maximally by experience. 

Even something as seemingly hardwired as our physiology — cells dividing, moving, deciding their fates, and organizing into tissues and organs — is not engineered by genes alone. Biophysical events (like chemical reactions in the cells, mechanical pressures inside and on the cells, and gravity) can switch genes on and off, determining cell fate. Take taste. When mothers breastfeed their babies, tastes of the foods they have eaten are reflected in their breast milk, and their babies develop a preference for these foods. Babies “inherit” food preferences from the behavior of their mothers. 

Changes wrought by one's diet, behavior, or surroundings can work their way into the germ line and persist far into the future. Thus, what you eat or smoke today could affect the health and behavior of your great-grandchildren. Increasingly, researchers are finding that an extra bit of a vitamin, a brief exposure to a toxin, even an added dose of mothering can alter the software of our genes in ways that affect an individual's body and brain for life. DNA Is Not destiny.

Nature versus nurture is a false dichotomy. It is rather nature via nurture. Genes are not puppet masters that determine one’s behavior exactly - environmental influences are sometimes less reversible than genetic ones.  Any geneticist who says that he has found an influence for genes and therefore there is no role for the environment is talking bunk. And any nurtures who says that he has found an environmental factor and therefore there is no role for genes is equally talking bunk.

A more nuanced argument about human evolution is given in  The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich. The central argument in this book is that cultural evolution became the primary driver of our species’ genetic evolution. What has enabled us to dominate the globe, more than any other species, while remaining virtually helpless as lone individuals? The secret of our success lies not in our innate intelligence, but in our collective brains ― on the ability of human groups to socially interconnect and learn from one another over generations.

Once cultural information began to accumulate and produce cultural adaptations, the main selection pressure on genes revolved around improving our abilities to learn various skills and practices that became increasingly available in the minds of the others in one’s group. This culture-gene coevolutionary interaction creates an autocatalytic process such that no matter how big our brains get, there will always be much more cultural information in the world than any one of us can learn in a lifetime.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 4b

Embedded in the definitions of many scientific and economic theories are value judgements about what is desirable and what is undesirable. In academic circles, 'selfish gene' maybe seen as a metaphor, but when it escapes academe (the book was written for a popular audience), it is no surprise that it has metamorphosed into the idea of the 'selfish individual'. People are influenced by scientific reporting on human nature and their behavior is accordingly changed. Robert Merton labeled this quality of believing that establishes itself as true by the very act of believing it to be true as a “self-fulfilling prophesy.” 

It has resulted in people searching for hidden motives, something beneath the surface of human behavior. If people only act to maximize their gains in some way or another, then how do you explain people who give things away for nothing? You will be told that they are trying to maximize their social standing, or honor, or prestige that accrues to them by doing so. Then what about people who give anonymous gifts?: Well, they’re trying to maximize the sense of self-worth, or the good feeling they get from doing it. 

Such writing provide the fuel for economists, who assume humans are rational actors seeking only material rewards. It is a commonly accepted idea that we are individuals always and only looking out for number one. The Nobel-winning economist Gary Becker argued that marriage contracts arise out of individual calculations of value made with an eye toward utility and fitness maximization. But we know from our intimate relationships that they are not the simple outcomes of market exchange.

The foundations of the new zeitgeist of unbridled self-interest was laid by Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. We are told that capitalism succeeded because it’s based on harnessing the selfish nature of each individual for the ultimate good of society. The battle to be the best apparently isn’t confined to individuals; even genes are out to get each other. So the prevailing attitude is that one doesn't need to be ashamed of elbowing others out of the way - after all, it’s in my genes. The science of human nature has warped our understanding to the point of naturalizing harsh social policies and economic systems. This has gradually lead to the acute social problem that Harsh Mander is talking about.

Some who hold the cynical view think that they’re being hard-boiled and scientific. They think that this sort of attitude comes when you give up romantic or religious conceptions of human nature and take evolution seriously. Since the amoral force of natural selection has shaped our minds, they argue, genuinely altruistic motivations are a myth. All we really want is to survive and reproduce. This type of thinking is wrong about natural selection and wrong about psychology. Natural selection might be selfish (in a metaphorical sense), but it’s selfish about genes, not individuals. 

Genes that caused an individual to be cooperative in a group would have an advantage over genes that caused an individual to be selfish. So, strange as it might seem, selfish genes create altruistic individuals, motivating kindness toward others. We are naturally kind because our ancestors who were kind to others outlived and outreproduced those who didn’t. If you choose to be selfish, then, you can’t justify yourself by saying you’re following the lead of your genes — caring just about yourself is profoundly unbiological.

Another negative effect of the notion of the 'selfish gene' is to strengthen the idea of humans as machines. Since the invention of the clock, a vision of nature as an intricate clockwork designed by God has been popular. With the advent of computers, the machine metaphor of nature has become even more entrenched in the way people think. Dawkins's statement that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information” underlies much of how people understand our world. The metaphor of NATURE AS MACHINE has been so powerful in the modern world that it misleads many people into mistaking humans for machines. 

During the last few decades, a kind of genetic determinism has been rampant generating a host of powerful metaphors – DNA being referred to as the genetic “program” or “blueprint of life,” the genetic code as the “language of life,” and the human genome as “the book of life.” The notion that the gene is the central aspect of life seems to be well embedded in the culture. One reads in the popular literature  about the gene for obesity, the gene for aggressiveness, and the gene for longevity. 

The computer has become a source of powerful and often used metaphors. People often say that men and computers are  merely  two different species of a more abstract genus called 'information processing systems.' The public embrace of the computer  metaphor  rests on  only the vaguest understanding of a difficult and complex scientific concept. When a complex idea enters the public consciousness in a simplified form, it becomes little more than a caricature of the original.

In biology, genes are commonly described like computer programmers that “code” for certain traits. In discussions of psychology, countless writers describe the mind as “software” and the body as “hardware” with a brain that is “wired” in a certain way. Larry Page, cofounder and CEO of Google's parent company, Alphabet has referred to human DNA as “600 megabytes compressed” of programming, arguing that “it's smaller than any modern operating system” and therefore our “program algorithms probably aren't that complicated.” 

This is a misguided view. The  trouble with metaphoric usages is that the metaphors are overextended.  The public's vague understanding of computers and computer circuitry with its emphasis on codes and coding makes them see the discovery of the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule as similar to explaining a computer's basic wiring diagram. This makes them see humans as physical objects that can be designed and engineered to specification. The metaphor suggests the belief that everything that needs to be known is known.

Brain and computers are very different things. The brain is fundamentally embodied and cannot be separated from our physical existence in the way software can be separated from hardware. Morality, aesthetics, ideology, religion etc. are not reducible to the neurons in our head and the genes in our cells. They are emergent properties - an elegant, scientific way of saying that nobody is sure where they come from. Regarding living beings, including humans, as machines, makes it easy to see each individual as selfish and competitive, seeking only personal advantage. 

Such an exaggerated, gene-centered view of life leads many to believe that if our behaviors are determined by our genes, and if our genes can't change, then it must be that our behaviors can't change, no matter how much we would like them to. They think that social injustices must be ineradicable because they are rooted in our genes. To many, The idea of a selfish gene makes reality into a nihilistic dystopia where we can be reduced to have about as much freedom as a teaspoon has in deciding whether to stir a cup of tea. This is a gross misunderstanding of how genes function. 


Thursday, November 17, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 4a

 . . .  we need a better story to tell – a less selfish, more inclusive metaphor to offer the wider world. - Laura Hercher, genetic counsellor 

The concept of the “selfish gene” has been around for more than three decades. First coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, the term describes sequences of DNA that spread by forming additional copies of itself within the genome and make no specific contribution to the reproductive success of the organism in which it is found. Dawkins flips our everyday experience and intuition on its head: “We are survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” 

The idea was this: genes strive for immortality, and individuals, families, and species are merely vehicles in that quest. The behavior of all living things is in service of their genes hence, metaphorically, they are selfish. Before this, it had been proposed that natural selection was honing the behavior of living things to promote the continuance through time of the individual creature, or family, or group or species. But in fact, Dawkins said, it was the gene itself that was trying to survive, and it just so happened that the best way for it to survive was in concert with other genes in the perishable body of an individual.

But the gene-centric view of evolution has been deeply misunderstood over the years. His use of the word ‘selfish’ is metaphorical and the book aims to show how selfish genes act to produce altruistic individuals.  One of the chapters in the book is titled ‘Nice guys finish first’. Dawkins has said that he could have called the book ’The Cooperative Gene’ and he  would not have to change a word of the book but it would have sold fewer copies. In the introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins wrote:

Many critics, especially vociferous ones learned in philosophy as I have discovered, prefer to read a book by title only. . . The best way to explain the title is by locating the emphasis. Emphasize 'selfish' and you will think the book is about selfishness, whereas, if anything, it devotes more attention to altruism. 

The Selfish Species? The Selfish Group? The Selfish Organism? The Selfish Ecosystem? Most of these could be argued, and most have been uncritically assumed by one or another author, but all of them are wrong. Given that the Darwinian message is going to be pithily encapsulated as The Selfish Something, that something turns out to be the gene, for cogent reasons which this book argues. 

But  Dawkins himself contributed to the misunderstanding by stating in Chapter 1 of the first edition, 'Let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish'. There is nothing wrong with teaching generosity and altruism, but 'born selfish' is misleading. Dawkins realized his error and dropped this sentence from the second edition onwards but the offending sentence is  still quoted in many discussions of the 'selfish gene' concept.

The account of The Selfish Gene serves as a moral and ideological justification for selfishness to be adopted by modern human societies as simply following "nature". This provides an excuse for behavior with bad consequences for future human society. The popularity and influence of the book can be gauged from the fact that in April 2016, it was listed in The Guardian's list of the 100 best nonfiction books. In July 2017, the book was listed as the most influential science book of all time in a poll to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Royal Society science book prize, ahead of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

Efforts to explain the evolution of altruism by only invoking genes went by names such as inclusive fitness (also called kin selection) and evolutionary game theory. These theories had a way of transmuting altruism into selfishness. A relative helping another relative became an individual helping its genes in the body of another individual, thereby maximizing its own “inclusive fitness.” Evolutionary game theory rendered altruism as a matter of scratching your back so that you’ll scratch mine. Selfish gene theory performed the ultimate transmutation of calling everything that evolves by genetic evolution a form of selfishness. 

Another biologist, Robert Trivers, explained how, from an evolutionary perspective, even altruism was really just a sophisticated form of selfishness. He described what he called "reciprocal altruism" as an ancient evolutionary strategy. "Under certain circumstances," he wrote, "natural selection favors these altruistic behaviors because in the long run they benefit the organism performing them." In the 'selfish gene' view, those special human virtues that we value so highly are no exception. Our very genes are selfish; all creatures in nature are ultimately selfish; we humans are merely unique in having taken our selfishness to new levels of Machiavellian manipulation. 

An influential thinker, Richard Alexander comes to a similar conclusion, proposing that "ethics, morality, human conduct, and the human psyche are to be understood only if societies are seen as collections of individuals seeking their own self-interest." We became our own "hostile force of nature," entering into a "social arms race" with each other. The evolution of human intelligence represents a “special kind of struggle with other human beings for control of the resources that support life and allow one to reproduce.” Human nature is all about outmaneuvering, manipulation and control. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 3c

Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection has been rated by many as the single best idea anyone has ever had. His idea had been born as an answer to questions in biology, but it threatened to leak out into human culture, ethics, politics, and religion. It has been abused and misrepresented by many to give an air of scientific respectability to appalling political and social doctrines. If we judged Darwin's theory by some of the people who used it later in morally reprehensibe ways, we would avoid reading about it.

 Using evolution to justify social inequality has become known as "social Darwinism."  It's not as if the world was a nice place before Darwin and became nasty on the basis of his theory. We are especially prone to self-serving biases. It was thus no surprise that many used evolution to advance their nefarious causes.  These biases are advantageous for some people in the short run but they are often harmful to other people and even to everyone in the long run. 

Although Darwin himself never applied his theory to social evolution, Herbert Spencer was only too eager to do so. He liked evolution because he thought it justified the inequalities of British class society. Hitler liked evolution because he thought it justified the ultimate social inequality of genocide. Darwin himself was passionately against slavery and thought that social policy should be based on compassion, which he regarded as "the noblest part of our nature". 

The expression ‘survival of the fittest’, coined by Herbert Spencer, translated Darwin's evolutionary theory into a catchy phrase, so that it came to be applied to society. Evolution — understood erroneously by many to mean progress — might well be based on chance mutations, but surely that didn’t mean we had to resign ourselves to our fate? 'We could give chance a hand, couldn’t we?', was their line of thinking. This provided an important added twist to ideas about change: it could be steered, preferably in the right direction.

This was the aim of social Darwinism, an ideology that caught on in the late-19th century. Darwin used the term ‘fittest’ to mean ‘best adapted to an environment’. In the wake of Spencer, it came to mean ‘most successful’ — that is to say, ‘strongest’. The adherents of social Darwinism saw society as a living organism that evolved like any other, and whose individual cells (social classes and races) were sick or healthy, fit or unfit. According to this line of thought, social abuses are not socio-economic phenomena but diseases, ‘cancers’, whose carriers are ‘parasites’ that must be eradicated. 

For social Darwinists, the remedy was clear. Weak groups only hold the rest back and by properly steering evolution, they must be removed without delay. This led to eugenics as a tool of social Darwinism: the strongest were encouraged to reproduce, while efforts were made to curb the reproduction of inferior specimens. Social Darwinism was advanced as a scientific justification of racism and power abuse. It was used to defend colonization: ‘Negroes’, ‘Indians’, Aborigines, and other ‘savages’ in overseas regions were portrayed as races that had dropped behind in evolution, being only a rung higher than brute creation. 

Failure was seen as a sign of intrinsic weakness and disease; to provide help in such cases was counterproductive, because it merely prolonged the survival of groups who were doomed to die out anyway. Social amenities were abolished to stop the poor reproducing. In 1834, under the influence of the Malthusians, Britain introduced a new Poor Law that defined poverty as a moral shortcoming. When Hitler claimed that the German people had the moral right to conquer the territory of inferior peoples when they needed more 'Lebensraum' or living space, he was voicing the notions that prevailed in his day and age. 

Eugenics was a serious academic discipline at many universities. Institutes devoted to it existed in England, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, America, Germany, and Norway. Its theories were supported by prominent figures, including American presidents. Its founding father, the British anthropologist and polymath Sir Francis Galton, became a fellow of the Royal Society and was knighted well after having espoused ideas about improving the human race. Galton felt that the average citizen was “too base for the everyday work of modern civilization.”

Spencer sold hundreds of thousands of books on his assertion that we should fan the flames of this battle, since ‘the whole effort of Nature is to get rid of [the poor] – to clear the world of them, and make room for better’. The steel baron Andrew Carnegie wrote in a 1889 essay known as “The Gospel of Wealth.” “While the law [of competition] may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore . . . great inequality of environment, the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of the few, and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race.”

This ideology using less extreme language, featuring ruthless economic competition, the brutal exploitation of workers, and extreme inequalities of wealth and poverty, persists to this day. The latest mutation of social Darwinism interprets nature to mean market forces. The strongest man or woman makes it, at the expense of all those other men and women if they try hard enough. The ethical implication is that rich people are rich by virtue of their own effort and dispositions. Luck has nothing to do with it. Paul Verhaeghe writes in What About Me?:

The main thrust of that thinking is clear. If success is the new moral standard, those who commit the sin of failure need to be referred by the high priest (manager) or to the father confessor (psychotherapist) for further treatment. All this must be done as efficiently as possible, of course. 

It is painful to see how mental-health disorders are these days almost automatically translated into economic losses. The most eye-popping example was a small article in a Belgian newspaper of 21 January 2012, reporting that suicide was costing Flanders €600 million a year, ‘seriously threatening our economy’. What appallingly selfish behavior!

The fact that matters could be seen from the opposite perspective — that our economy poses a serious threat to our health — apparently occurs to nobody.

Charles Darwin perceived a fundamental problem of social life, and a possible solution. At first glance, natural selection and the survival of the fittest may seem to reward only the most selfish values. But for animals that live in groups, selfishness must be strictly curbed or there will be no advantage to social living. Yet members who behave “for the good of the group” often put themselves at a disadvantage compared with more selfish members of the same group. If so, then how can altruism and other prosocial behaviours evolve?

The solution, according to Darwin, is that groups containing mostly altruists have a decisive advantage over groups containing mostly selfish individuals, even if selfish individuals have the advantage over altruists within each group.

During the 1960s, evolutionary biologists, while agreeing with Darwin’s logic, decided that between-group selection – the evolutionary force favoring altruism – is almost invariably weak compared with within-group selection, the evolutionary force favoring selfishness.