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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment