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.