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. 

Friday, October 14, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 3b

Kropotkin thus suggested two forms of struggle with opposite results: (1) organism against organism of the same species for limited resources, leading to competition (the theme that Malthus imparted to Darwin and that Huxley described as gladiatorial); and (2) organism against environment, leading to cooperation (the style that Darwin called metaphorical). If the struggle for existence pits two lions against one zebra, then the zebra has no chance. But if lions are struggling jointly against the harshness of an inanimate environment, then cooperation may overcome a peril beyond the power of any single individual to overcome.

Kropotkin argued that the cooperative style had been underemphasized and must balance or even predominate over competition in considering nature as a whole. As he studied his selected examples, he became more and more convinced that the cooperative style, leading to mutual aid, not only predominated in general but also characterized the most advanced creatures in any group - ants among insects, mammals among vertebrates. Mutual aid therefore becomes a more important principle than competition and slaughter.

The main reason why Kropotkin favored cooperation while most nineteenth-century Darwinians advocated competition as the predominant result of struggle in nature had to do with the different landscapes they studied. Kropotkin spent five years in Siberia. There, in the polar opposite to Darwin’s tropical experiences, he dwelled in the environment least conducive to Malthus’s vision. He observed a sparsely populated world, swept with frequent catastrophes that threatened the few species able to find a place in such bleakness. This led him to conclude:

Sociability thus puts a limit to physical struggle, and leaves room for the development of better moral feelings.

 Darwin acknowledged that both forms existed but his actual examples certainly favored bloody battle. Darwin’s less sophisticated supporters then raised the competitive view to near exclusivity, and gave it a social and moral meaning as well. They came to conceive of the animal world as a world of perpetual struggle among half-starved individuals, thirsting for one another’s blood.  They raised the “pitiless” struggle for personal advantages to the height of a biological principle which man must submit to as well. 

One might argue that the gladiatorial examples have been over-sold and misrepresented as predominant. Perhaps cooperation and mutual aid are the more common results of struggle for existence. Perhaps communion rather than combat leads to greater reproductive success in most circumstances. Kropotkin writes, 'It happened with Darwin’s theory as it always happens with theories having any bearing upon human relations. Instead of widening it according to his own hints, his followers narrowed it still more.' As Stephen J.Gould says in Kropotkin was no Crackpot:

What can we make of Kropotkin’s argument today . . .? I would hold that Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to cooperation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals. 

If Kropotkin overemphasized mutual aid, most Darwinians in Western Europe had exaggerated competition just as strongly. If Kropotkin drew inappropriate hope for social reform from his concept of nature, other Darwinians had erred just as firmly (and for motives that most of us would now decry) in justifying imperial conquest, racism, and oppression of industrial workers as the harsh outcome of natural selection in the competitive mode.

...we may safely say that mutual aid is as much a law of animal life as mutual struggle, but that, as a factor of evolution, it most probably has a far greater importance...

Friday, September 30, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 3a

I am not ... asserting that humans are either genial or aggressive by inborn biological necessity. Obviously, both kindness and violence lie within the bounds of our nature because we perpetrate both, in spades. I only advance a structural claim that social stability rules nearly all the time and must be based on an overwhelmingly predominant (but tragically ignored) frequency of genial acts, and that geniality is therefore our usual and preferred response nearly all the time ... The center of human nature is rooted in ten thousand ordinary acts of kindness that define our days. — Stephen Jay Gould

Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903) was an English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, and sociologist. He coined the term “survival of the fittest” as a way of characterizing Darwin’s natural selection theory. But the term is avoided by modern biologists, because the phrase can be misleading. The problem is that the word "fit" is frequently confused with a state of physical fitness. In the evolutionary meaning, "fitness" is the rate of reproductive output among a class of genetic variants. 

Darwin introduced the phrase as an alternative to "natural selection" only in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species published in 1869. He intended it to mean "better designed for an immediate, local environment". Darwin’s “struggle for existence” is an abstract metaphor, not an explicit statement about bloody battle. Reproductive success, the criterion of natural selection, works in many modes: Victory in battle may be one pathway, but cooperation, symbiosis, and mutual aid may also secure success in other times and contexts. Darwin explained his concept of evolutionary struggle in On the Origin of Species:

I use this term in a large and metaphorical sense including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals, in a time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which shall get food and live. 

But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought.... As the mistletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on birds; and it may metaphorically be said to struggle with other fruit-bearing plants, in order to tempt birds to devour and thus disseminate its seeds rather than those of other plants. In these several senses, which pass into each other, I use for convenience sake the general term of struggle for existence.

Nevertheless, during much of the twentieth century, the science of evolutionary biology was dominated by the idea of ruthless competition. Competition among individual genes, or organisms, was assumed to be the principal driver of evolutionary change. Cooperation, meanwhile, was viewed as a major problem in evolutionary biology because it presumably required altruistic self-sacrifices (which was considered a wrong-headed assumption) and was not in any case considered to be a very important phenomenon. 

Darwin’s own chief disciple, Thomas Henry Huxley, advanced this “gladiatorial” view of natural selection (his word). Huxley maintained that the predominance of bloody battle defined nature’s way as non-moral (not explicitly immoral, but unsuited as offering any guide to moral behavior). He said that any human society set up along these lines of nature will devolve into anarchy and misery. Therefore, the chief purpose of society must lie in mitigation of this struggle. Study natural selection and do the opposite in human society, was his advice.

This apparent discordance between nature’s way and any hope for human social decency has defined the major subject for debate about ethics and evolution ever since Darwin. For Darwin and other leading British evolutionists, the expression "struggle for existence" posed no problem. Huxley’s solution has won many supporters – nature is nasty and no guide to morality except, perhaps, as an indicator of what to avoid in human society.  A contrary view contended that Darwinism undermines morality by claiming that success in nature can only be measured by victory in bloody battle.

Russian intellectuals reacted negatively to what they perceived as injecting British enthusiasm for competition into evolutionary theory. They concluded that Darwin had greatly exaggerated the role of Malthusian overpopulation giving rise to competition as the main force behind evolution. The name most closely associated with this line of thinking was Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist, zoologist and political scientist. 

In 1902, Kropotkin published his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, which gave an alternative view of animal and human survival. He argues that the struggle for existence usually leads to mutual aid rather than combat as the chief criterion of evolutionary success. Human society must therefore build upon our natural inclinations (not reverse them, as Huxley held) in making a moral order that will bring both peace and prosperity to our species. 

Kropotkin did not deny the presence of competitive urges in humans, but did not consider them the driving force of history. He argued that "it was an evolutionary emphasis on cooperation instead of competition in the Darwinian sense that made for the success of species, including the human'. '...the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community.' It was not ‘survival of the fittest’ but ‘survival of the friendliest’. In the last chapter, he wrote: 

The animal species [...] in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits [...] and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development [...] are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress. 

The mutual protection which is obtained in this case, the possibility of attaining old age and of accumulating experience, the higher intellectual development, and the further growth of sociable habits, secure the maintenance of the species, its extension, and its further progressive evolution. The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 2b

What’s fascinating is that most guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment remained hesitant to apply ‘tough’ tactics at all, even under mounting pressure. Two-thirds refused to take part in the sadistic games. One-third treated the prisoners with kindness, to Zimbardo and his team’s frustration. One of the guards resigned the Sunday before the experiment started, saying he couldn’t go along with the instructions. In Why Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment Isn’t in My Textbook, there is a quotation, from John Mark, who had been one of the guards in Zimbardo's "experiment." It's from the July/Aug, 2011 issue of the Stanford Alumni magazine: 

"During the day shift, when I worked, no one did anything that was beyond what you'd expect in a situation like that. But Zimbardo went out of his way to create tension. Things like forced sleep deprivation — he was really pushing the envelope. I just didn't like the whole idea of constantly disturbing people and asking them to recite their prisoner numbers in a count. I certainly didn't like when they put a guy in solitary confinement.

"At that time of my life, I was getting high, all day every day. I got high before I went to the experiment; I got high on my breaks and lunch. I got high afterwards. I brought joints with me, and every day I wanted to give them to the prisoners. I looked at their faces and saw how they were getting dispirited and I felt sorry for them.

"I didn't think it was ever meant to go the full two weeks. I think Zimbardo wanted to create a dramatic crescendo, and then end it as quickly as possible. I felt that throughout the experiment, he knew what he wanted and then tried to shape the experiment — by how it was constructed, and how it played out — to fit the conclusion that he had already worked out. He wanted to be able to say that college students, people from middle-class backgrounds — people will turn on each other just because they're given a role and given power.

"Based on my experience, and what I saw and what I felt, I think that was a real stretch. I don't think the actual events match up with the bold headline. I never did, and I haven't changed my opinion."

The big problem with the Stanford Prison Experiment had always been that it was so unethical that no one dared to replicate it and so Zimbardo had for decades been the final authority on the subject. But then, two British psychologists designed an experiment for the BBC to answer the question: what happens to ordinary people when they don a uniform and step inside a prison? Bregman says that it was an effort to sit through the resulting 4 hr. program because nothing much happened. The main difference from Zimbardo's experiment was that the psychologists didn’t tell the guards what to do. All they did was observe. 

Things were just getting started when one guard announced he didn’t feel suited to the role of guard: ‘I’d rather be a prisoner, honestly …’ On day two, another suggested sharing the guards’ food with the prisoners to boost morale. Then on day four, when it looked like some sparks might fly, a guard advised a prisoner: ‘If we can get to the end of this, we can go down the pub and have a drink.’ Another guard chimed in, ‘Let’s discuss this like human beings.’ Or, as the Sunday Herald summed it up, ‘What happens when you put good men in an evil place and film it for telly? Erm, not that much actually.’ 

From a scientific perspective, the experiment was a resounding success. Haslam and Reicher (the psychologists who conducted the study) published more than ten articles about their results in prestigious academic journals. But the BBC Prison Study has since faded into obscurity, while people still talk about the Stanford Prison Experiment. This exposes a harsh truth: if a study shows the negative side of human character, it will receive wide publicity; if it shows the good side, it will be ignored.

The Stanford Prison Experiment attempts to show what today’s social psychologists call situationism: the idea that people’s behavior is determined largely by what’s happening around them. If you put people in certain situations, they are more likely to be racist or sexist, or they may lie or cheat. But continued to its logical extreme, situationism, according to one psychologist, “has an exonerating effect”. “In the minds of a lot of people, it tends to excuse the bad behavior … it’s not the person’s fault for doing the bad thing, it’s the situation they were put in.” 

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 2a

“Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality.” - Oscar Wilde

In the 1970s, sociologist Erving Goffmann introduced the concept of ‘framing’ – each of us views the world through a mental picture frame which enables us to make sense out of our jumble of experiences. In Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman discusses some of the most well-known narratives of modern times - the novel Lord of the Flies, the end of the Easter Islanders, Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram's Obedience Experiment, the Bystander effect etc. All of them give prominence to the negative side of human character. But the popular interpretations of all of them have major problems.

Take Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo’s experiment is one of the two or three most famous experiments in the history of psychology. It is depicted in movies, television and introductory psychology textbooks. In the years that followed the experiment, Zimbardo would grow to be the most noted psychologist of his time, becoming president of the American Psychological Association. In the decades since the experiment, millions of people have fallen for Philip Zimbardo’s setup. He has repeatedly emphasized his view that this experiment reveals much that is significant in understanding what happens in real prisons.

The standard description of Zimbardo’s experiment is as follows. In order to gain insight about the behavior of prisoners and guards in real prisons, Zimbardo and his colleagues constructed a simulated prison in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University. Then they recruited 21 psychologically healthy male college students and randomly assigned 10 of them to be prisoners and the other 11 to be guards. The prisoners were to be held captive in the simulated prison around the clock for two weeks, and the guards were to serve duty in the prison on eight-hour daily shifts, so there were always at least 3 of them in the prison at any given time. For this, they would be paid $15 a day.

The results, in brief, were that the guards behaved toward the prisoners in “negative, hostile, affrontive and dehumanizing” ways. The prisoners behaved alternately in rebellious and passive ways. At one point, on the second day, they ripped off their clothing and identification numbers while shouting curses at the guards. Later, five of the prisoners reacted with such extreme emotions that they were removed from the study before the end of five days. By the end of the sixth day the behavior of the guards and prisoners had spiraled to the point that Zimbardo decided to end the experiment early. "These guys were all peaceniks," he said of the students chosen to be guards. "They became like Nazis."

The standard interpretation: In a prison, one group has power over another and the powerless group is stripped of their individual identities. This  creates extreme, maladaptive responses that are characteristic of the responses often seen in real prisons. Those in power become abusive, and those subject to that power become immature, passive, and rebellious. These effects do not have to do with differences in original personality (because in the experiment, the subjects were randomly assigned to roles). Rather, they result from the situation in which people find themselves. 

Bregman writes, ‘Philip Zimbardo’s study wasn’t just dubious. It was a hoax.’ A major problem with the experiment is with its 'demand characteristics'. Any characteristics of a psychology experiment that let research participants guess how the experimenters expect or want them to behave are referred to as demand characteristics. In any valid experiment, it is essential to eliminate or at least minimize demand characteristics. In this experiment, the demands were everywhere.

Zimbardo claimed in many interviews that his prison ‘guards’ turned sadistic of their own accord. Subsequent revelations about the experiment reveal that the guards didn’t even have to guess how they were supposed to behave; they were largely told how by Zimbardo and his associates. In his relatively recent book, The Lucifer Effect (which I have not read but is quoted by Bregman), Zimbardo mentions a meeting with the guards that took place on the Saturday preceding the experiment. There could be no mistaking his instructions:

We can create a sense of frustration. We can create fear in them […] We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. They’re going to be wearing uniforms, and at no time will anybody call them by name; they will have numbers and be called only by their numbers. In general, what all this should create in them is a sense of powerlessness.

Is this not an overt invitation to be abusive in all sorts of psychological ways? The supposedly independent scientist had, by his own admission, drilled his guards. They hadn’t come up with the idea to address the prisoners by numbers, or to wear sunglasses, or play sadistic games. It’s what they were told to do. And, when the guards did behave in these ways and escalated that behavior, with Zimbardo watching and apparently (by his silence) approving, it would have confirmed in the subjects’ minds that they were behaving as they should.

Most of the subjects stuck it out because Zimbardo paid well. They didn’t get the money until afterwards. Guards and prisoners alike feared that if they didn’t play along in Zimbardo’s dramatic production, they wouldn’t get paid. Not only that, on the Saturday before the experiment started, Zimbardo was already talking about ‘we’ and ‘they’ as though he and the guards were on the same team. Which meant that the story he later told about losing himself in the role of prison superintendent as the experiment progressed couldn’t be true. 

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 1b

For decades, what the primatologist Frans de Waal called 'Veneer Theory' used to be the dominant biological view of human nature. It regarded genuine kindness as either absent or an evolutionary misstep. Morality was a thin veneer barely able to conceal our true nature, which was entirely selfish. In the past couple of decades, however, Veneer Theory has been increasingly questioned by new evidence to the contrary. For example, anthropologists demonstrated a sense of fairness in people across the world and economists found humans to be more cooperative and altruistic than the Homo economicus view would allow.  

When we behave horribly, we are called 'animals' but when we behave generously, we are called 'humane'. We like to think that our finer characteristics are the result of our culture and have nothing to do with our evolutionary history. But as Stephen Jay Gould said, ‘Why should our nastiness be the baggage of an apish past and our kindness uniquely human? Why should we not seek continuity with other animals for our “noble” traits as well?’ Morality is a direct outgrowth of the social instincts that we share with other animals. 

In the Origin, Darwin drew no distinction between man and other organisms. At the heart of Darwin’s theory  is the denial of humanity’s special status. Humans, just like any other species, were descended, with modification, from more ancient ancestors. Even those qualities that seemed to set people apart — language, wisdom, a sense of right and wrong - had evolved in the same manner as other physical traits, such as longer beaks or sharper incisors. Evolution has shaped people to be altruistic by instilling within us a genuine concern for the fate of certain other individuals. 

Darwin wrote an entire book about animal emotions, including their capacity for sympathy.  Having companions offers immense advantages in locating food and avoiding predators. Darwin’s writing massively contradicts Veneer Theory. He speculated, for example, that 'The social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.' After over 40 years of observation of primate behavior, Frans de Waal  contends that concern for others is their natural conduct. 

It appears that social animals are wired to cooperate and to reduce stress by seeking each others’ company. Many types of social interactions may be best understood in terms of a non-zero-sum game with multiple winners. Darwin had this idea long before scientific studies of animal behavior when he noted that natural selection would opt for “the feeling of pleasure from society”. Studying primate biology brings us closer to the truth than studying Hobbs, which is that we are social to the core. 

Anyone who says that large-scale cooperation is beyond our nature knows too little about primates, including ourselves. Research with other primates has shown that the propensity to forgive can be shaped heavily by one’s cultural experiences. Separate infant monkeys from their mothers, and they’ll grow up to be less conciliatory than is typical for their species. Raise them among individuals from a more conciliatory species, and they’ll become more conciliatory than is typical.

It’s not that religion and culture don’t have a role to play, but the building blocks of morality predate humanity. We recognize them in our primate relatives, with empathy being most conspicuous in the bonobo ape and reciprocity in the chimpanzee. Moral rules tell us when and how to apply our empathic tendencies, but the tendencies themselves have been in existence since time immemorial. Biology holds us “on a leash,” said biologist Edward Wilson, and will let us stray only so far from who we are. 

This also means that the reputation that Darwinism has gained of painting nature as a cold, unforgiving theater is misplaced. The idea that Darwinism has to be replaced in our daily lives so as to build a moral society are based on a profound misreading of Darwin. Since he saw morality as an evolutionary product, he envisioned an eminently more livable world than the one proposed by many of his followers, who believe in a culturally imposed, artificial morality that receives no helping hand from human nature.

The most common theory about our earliest ancestors is the “Man the Hunter” hypothesis. But early hominids were largely defenseless creatures of small stature and had body structures that would have made them less efficient hunters compared to other predators. They much better fit the profile of prey species, vulnerable to a large variety of carnivores. It makes sense to relabel “Man the Hunter” as “Man the Hunted”. It is highly likely that these creatures lived in large groups for protection requiring individuals to be highly social and cooperative. 

It is only because of the prevalence of Veneer Theory that it was believed that goodness is not part of human nature, and that we need to work hard to teach it to our children. Children were seen as selfish monsters, who learn to be moral from teachers and parents despite their natural inclinations. They were seen as reluctant moralists. But experiments have shown that moral understanding develops astonishingly early in life. Infants under one year of age already favor the good guy in a puppet show. The puppet who nicely rolls a ball back and forth with another is preferred over one who steals the ball and runs off with it.

Darwin noted that the only uniquely human expression is blushing, an observation that has stood the test of time. Blushing is an evolutionary mystery that must be particularly perplexing for those who believe that exploitation of others is all that humans are capable of. Such a signal makes no sense for a born manipulator. Blushing tells others that you are aware how your actions affect them. This fosters trust. We prefer people whose emotions we can read from their faces over those who never show the slightest hint of shame or guilt. 

Recent studies support a view of the emotions as rational, functional, and adaptive. Compassion and benevolence are rooted in our brain and biology. For example, helping others triggered activity in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate, portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. People who develop the need for psychiatric intervention are those who have become alienated and antisocial. It works this way only because we are not born as loners. Our bodies and minds are not  designed for life in the absence of others. 

German and Japanese aggression once shook the world, yet only a few decades later it is hard to think of two countries more pacific. Sweden spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe, yet it is now an icon of nurturing tranquility.  Our expectations for ourselves play a strong role in shaping our behavior. It is important that we get out of the rut of giving cooperation and fairness secondary roles in the evolution of cohesive and smoothly functioning social groups. “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” wrote Orwell .