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.