one thing that is typical of our scientistic moment, as in the late nineteenth century, is the idea that we can derive morality or moral values from evolution. now, i am afraid not, and i will briefly state the overwhelming problems.
(1) the classical is/ought problem: evolution cannot account for normative force or moral claims. so let's say it was counter-evolutionary to take your stuff. is that a reason not to take your stuff? you might have many good arguments that it's wrong to take your stuff, but the idea that i am swimming against the tide of evolution might be met with a mere shrug. what if it turned out that some forms of violence or crime were adaptive? would that show that they were right? also evolution makes use of counter-adaptive behavior as much as adaptive behavior. acting counter-adaptationally is necessary to the progress of the species, and i and my offspring will pay the price if in fact i am so acting.
(2) the basic inference has to be from actuality to etiology: arguments from evolution start by presuming that we are what evolution made us. so look: staring squarely at the data, we ought to speculate that both what we would think of as good behavior and bad have been selected for, insofar as we so stubbornly display both. insofar as evolution has selected us, it has, obvioously, selected both cooperation and competition, good and evil, happiness and pain, and so on. it appears, like the rest of nature, to be morally indifferent. if it was really selecting against theft or individualist philosophy or something it should have done better than it has so far in weeding out thieves and individualists.
in short if you want ethics without god you are going to have to find it elsewhere.
i'm glad the mississippi personhood thingummy failed. probably, what is and what is not a person is not a matter best left to voters. on the other hand i'm not sure it's best left to philosophers or scientists either: it's a wickedly difficult or impossible question in various cases. to tell or remind you of my views on abortion: i am pro-choice. but i am queasy. i think it has been central to the progress of women in some ways, and specifically i definitely agree that every woman ought to control her own sexuality and reproduction. on the other hand, how much a fetus in vitro counts morally is a serious, and perhaps an impossible question. not nothing, and the question of whether abortion is an exercise of the autonomy of the person on whom its performed or the worst sort of violation of another person is just a really hard question. i was pretty clear when i was 16 and my 14-year-old girlfriend had an abortion. i got queasier, i must say, after seeing a number of births, and having some children. so if ron paul is pro-life obstetrician, i can respect that and understand it.
really it is a relief not to be a lobbyist, an activist, or a politician. in other words, if the head of naral were queasy, she couldn't say so. and she probably couldn't get queasy. her commitment is immune to revision or experience. obviously, so is a fundamentalist pro-life position. in a way, the extreme and absolute nature of the positions reflects the deep obscurity and difficulty and ambiguity of the question: you need subjective certainty - an absolute rigid faith one way or the other - precisely because the questions of objective truth are impossible to answer. it has to be an absolutely clear answer, precisely because ther is no answer. well, i have the luxury of living with that, because it does not matter what i think.
now if it faces me again with one of my daughters, or god forbid a hypothetical pre-menopausal lover of my own, then i will leave the ultimate decision to her, of course. and i do think that's where it belongs. but i also won't feel exactly right about it.
The two species’ social structure could scarcely be more different. Chimp society consists of a male hierarchy, dominated by the alpha male and his allies, and a female hierarchy beneath it. The alpha male scores most of the paternities, cutting his allies in on others. The females try to mate with every male around, so each may think he’s the father and spare her child. How did a chimplike society ever give rise to the egalitarian, largely monogamous structure of hunter-gatherer groups?
um. what distinguishes us from chimps, apparently, is our complete self-delusion. our evolutionary advantage is hallucinatory self-congratulation. no in all honesty, i'm sure that social cooperation is a feature of our species, as it is of many others. and i'm sure it's adaptational in some circumstances. it is also the way we get into stampedes of collective delusion. rockets, the piece points out, can't be made by one person all alone. nor can such a person develop an arsenal of rockets and launch a nuclear exchange. it will take all of us acting in concert to end life on earth for all the species on the planet. not only do we act more like chimps than new york times writers seem to think we do, we act more like chumps. what i like is the way the question is framed: how can we explain the fact that our species is so amazingly great, so much better than all the rest? it's as though i wrote an autobiography with the goal of explaining why i am so much better than everyone around me. that in itself would be a refutation of the presupposition it was meant to explain.
male humans are so peaceful, our societies riddled with extreme pacifism. unlike human females, girl chimps are all flirtatious and exhibitionistic. chimps are so disgusting. we rock! thank god we've overcome the primates' tendency toward power/sex hierarchies. but what can explain this?
a good example of how we have transcended chimp hierarchies and become so excellent is the moammar/beyonce million dollar gig. the blood-soaked cells and idiotic political theories, the banal songs and continuous offering of gold-clad butt are things that chimps can't even dream. nor did moammar and beyonce get to that gig by themselves; you have to have a staff to make alpha. indeed, their ascent pre-supposes our acquiescence/cooperation, crystallized as cash. the key is leadership, role modeling. chimp hierarchies are not the achievement of non-cooperating individuals.
i'll just take one tiny example of the fact that this whole 'intellectual' structure is built in mid-air: the whole orientation takes chimpanzees unproblematically as representing an earlier phase of human evolution. well we used to do exactly the same thing with africans. chimps may not be as smart as we are, but they are not as stupid either.
ok here is an op-ed-style piece summarizing my misgivings about environmentalism. the ideas will be familiar to anyone who reads eyeofthestorm.
Environmentalists Against Nature
By Crispin Sartwell
The practice of environmentalism has, or at least sometimes has, been wholesome. But the basic concepts underpinning it are, I think, profoundly incoherent.
On any reasonably naturalistic conception of human beings - any conception even vaguely compatible with science, for example - we are natural creatures, one variety of mammal. And on any even slightly empirical account of natural history, ecosystems are volatile. Most environmentalists, surely, would accept these assertions. And yet almost every sentence out of their mouths contradicts them.
The environmental movement, first of all, rests on a picture of human actions as encroachments on the order of nature: according to this picture we are distorting, manipulating, and destroying the earth. We have lost our connection with it. But if you believe that we are part and parcel of nature, that we emerged as an animal species by natural selection, then the picture of us as attacking it is an impossible picture. We are it. Everything we do - from hiking the Appalachian Trail to spewing toxins - is completely natural.
Environmentalists often seem to want to return ecosystems to a pristine condition, a natural balance or harmony that we have disturbed. But ecosystems are not static, not even strictly cyclical, and they are in continuous interaction with one another: no ecosystem, not even the entire earth, is a biosphere sealed off from elsewhere. Species have been appearing and disappearing and traveling the globe since life emerged, colonizing this environment, abandoning that one.
Some ecosystems display some elements of balance or harmony for significant periods of time. But such harmonies are always provisional and always in the process of being compromised, whether we're the ones doing the compromising or not.
I live in rural Pennsylvania, more or less in the woods, though there is a strip mall about three miles away, with a Wal-Mart and a Wendy's (the video store, of course, is defunct, thus destroying the balance of strip mall). People have lived around here for centuries, and their traces are everywhere: in the fields cleared for farming, the old stone walls and ancient structures slowly crumbling into the earth. There are little middens here and there, where folks in the good old country tradition have dumped their broken bottles and kitchen scraps.
I haven't actually done a census, but it's hard not to see that there are "invasive" or human-introduced species everywhere. The English ivy grows luxuriantly along the ground and is ascending the trees. Gangs of starlings waft hither and yon. Chinese chestnuts feed the grey squirrels. Invasive European-Americans appear in abundance, though they are fewer here than in some spots. This year we were invaded by stink bugs.
But the place is deliriously alive. I think of the poison ivy out here as a single entity taking over whole regions with its lustrous green leaves and its nasty toxin, perhaps enhanced by climate change that has made the place just a bit more lush and tropical. There are layers of birds, from the hummers and finches and chickadees, through the doves and pigeons, to the several species of woodpeckers overseen by the big pileateds, to the kestrels, sharp-shinned and red-shouldered hawks, to the turkey buzzards floating at altitude. There are voles, chipmunks, colonies of feral cats, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, deer (along with tree stands for those who enjoy shooting them).
The other day a raccoon toddled into my house when I let in my cat; I'm not sure which of the three of us freaked out more.
That, I must say, is a good enough eco-system for me, and I think that perhaps we should think of any such system in terms of its vitality and volatility rather than its stability. We should note and we can value its imbalances and inharmonies as well its balances and harmonies.
And I participate, not only by a feeling of oneness or something, but with my chainsaw, the old mops I toss into the old dumps, my herbicide. I grow roses and butterfly bushes and hybridized tomatoes. My house is as much a part of this ecosystem as the boulders, and I as much as the raccoons.
Plants and animals, as I say, have been moving around and expunging one another since they existed at all. We are one way they do that, and we are animals who do that ourselves. The globe has been cooling and warming since there was a globe, and we are one way it does that too.
The picture of us as disturbing or destroying nature is exactly as supernatural as the religious orientations according to which it was all put here by God for us to do with whatever we please. The environmental movement is still locked into a picture of us as immaterial souls - or at any rate things well beyond nature - who are invaders or visitors on this earthly plane.
And it is just as devoted to controlling or altering this order as the rankest industrialist. We are still trying to transform the world according to our little conceptions, only now our conceptions are slightly different: we'll control it to return it to a pristine balance that emerges only out of our imaginations and has the status of a deity that prescribes moral standards.
What I'd suggest is that environmentalists need to examine their assumptions, and at a minimum reconcile them with each other. And they also need to re-think their practice in a way that is compatible with a fully naturalistic, reality-based conception of the world and of themselves.
Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.
ok so not to merely be savage: the altruism debate is important within evolutionary theory, although it's very old, and kropotkin - both a very serious scientist and the best philosopher anarchism has produced - was already arguing, compellingly or even decisively, for the de waal position in 1902. (he too was drawing moral conclusions, the part that wasn't decisive at all.) because some of the early formulations of evolution just portrayed the whole world as a war of each against each, it seemed to justify dog-eat-dog capitalism. well that was ridiculous, and again, even if evolution was absolutely nothing but a spectacle of mutual devourment, it would not follow that we ought to devour each other. but the opposite view, that evolution justifies an ethics of cooperative action - is precisely as false or as simply misconceived, though perhaps not as reprehensible. and i just want to mark that i think altruism - pure altruism - is perfectly real and something we see and do all the time, and that we wouldn't still exist as a species without cooperation.
so the point is important although behindhand within evolutionary theory. (i do want to drop a monkeywrench into the dewaal's apparently effortless use of other primates as indications of our own evolutionary history: also just a breathtaking fallacy.) but it does not bear on what values we ought to have or on the justification of those values. obviously it does not. you can't get ethics out of evolution any more than you can get, say, the pythagorean theorem out of evolution, or keynesian monetary policy out of evolution, or the principles of literary criticism out of evolution, or the latitude of madagascar out of evolution, or the periodical table of the elements out of evolution, etc etc. that's ok! that's not what this stuff is for, and it's breathtakingly obvious that these folks are out of the realm of their expertise. they don't even really know what questions to ask, or what answers have actually been given. they can't even formulate the problem coherently. but evolutionary biology might be interesting and important even if it does not solve absolutely all questions.
i guess i am in heavy blog mode! on evolutionary ethics. i assume that pretty soon these folks are going to start invoking evolution in detail as a set of moral principles. so if i was a 17-year-old trying to think about whether to go to the party, they'd tell me that drinking beer is counter-evolutionary. (however, it's worth saying that of course "peer pressure" is evolutionary, being the very essence of cooperation, so maybe i should drink beer after all, as long as i'm not doing it because i myself want to, but to establish my spot in the pecking order.) or if i was tempted to oppose, say, the democratic healthcare plan, i'd be informed that my activities were counter-adaptive, leading to an evolutionary degeneration of the species. or if i was considering whether to have an abortion, or whether to contribute to doctors without borders rather than oxfam, the evaluation would come in terms of what evolution demands. or say i was trying to figure out whether the afghan war is a war of self-defense. evolution says yes! pretty soon these people are going to appear in lab coats, on a set smoking with dry ice, interpreting to us the will of evolution. in fact, that is precisely what they're doing already. to which the only reasonable response is (a) that's horseshit. produce the chain of "reasoning," you self-deluded idiot. and (b) so what? why should i do what evolution demands?
i think first you'd better get on board that evolution is not intentional, that it's not guided by a conscious goal. you've got a long long way to go on that. and second, it is amazing to think of creatures defying the course of evolution, rebelling against it, etc. everything i can possibly do is compatible with evolution, and i surely cannot violate the process by which i came to be and that orders the living world around me. it's like looking at a platypus and going: that creature is working against evolution! kill it! or criticizing some squirrel behavior on the grounds that it violates the very laws of nature, the principles underlying all life.
at any rate, in addition to being utterly implausible or just a complete non-starter in multiple dimensions, evolutionary ethics is completely insincere. its only actual function is as a pitiful argument for the stuff you already believe. so: ask yourself: are you genuinely open to empirical data showing that evolution selects for psychopaths and therefore that conscienceless continual random killing is good? will you take up whatever system of values is actually embodied in the evolutionary process (supposing that made any sense)? i'll tell you this: evolution has not eliminated the psychopath. are you taking a scientific approach, at least as science was practiced before the great al gore: i am genuinely open to whatever the empirical results might be? no not at all. absolutely all you're doing is groping for any kind of "scientific" basis, no matter how baldly ridiculous, that confirms your utilitarianism, or your liberal politics. it's pathetic.
see i just wouldn't take the bait; i wouldn't rise to the challenge. how can you have morals in a world without god? ok you'd better explain to me exactly how you get morals in a world with god. by sheer decree? is goodness simply overwhelming power? i don't know; your speculations have grown somewhat too cosmic; you want to be assured at a level that is just not realistic given our actual limitations, our predicament. however, this momentary spasm of scientism that we're in is just as speculative, just as much sheer assertion as the most rococo theological system. the problem though with taking something on faith or with the discipline of evolutionary biology is that the people who do it are not particularly insightful when they come to examine their own foundations. dawkins dogmatizes like an archbishop.
at any rate, expect from science the sort of thing that science can deliver, and not the same sort of thing you might get from speculative metaethics.
alright once more into this thing about getting morality out of evolution. let me just remind anyone who's forgotten that i don't believe in god and i think natural selection has to more or less be true. now let me add that i agree entirely with de waal and kropotkin and gould that cooperative activity is adaptive, or more strongly that without it the species would hardly have got going before extinction. so here's my only question: have you now explicated morality's binding force? have you justified your moral values? no. not even a little.
first of all, though it is not implausible to think that cooperation is selected for, it is also not implausible to think that competition, murder, rape, and war are also selected for. depends on your circs. a pacifist human species would never have arisen. and since the basic form of the argument from evolution (though this is certainly wrong) is that any quality that the species widely displays must be or have been adaptive, then of course our violence and destruction emerges from evolution as surely as our cooperation. the only reason de waal does not believe that evolution teaches that we ought to kill the folks across the river is because he starts out with a moral theory, which he will work evolution to support.
and let's just say, counter-factually, that evolution always only selects for cooperation, and that any failure to cooperate is counter-adaptive. well this supports the idea that we ought to cooperate only only the further premise that the human race ought to exist. i, personally, reject this supposition utterly. but evolution itself certainly rejects it: there is no more reason the species ought to exist than that it ought not. evolution uses extinction just the way it uses flourishing, and just keeps right on. it no more favors the human than the protazoa. it loved the humble pterodactyl no less than it loved sir isaac newton, and killed them both indifferently.
even if it were the case that we always do actually cooperate, as evolution prescribes - the absolutely best possible set of facts for the evolutionary moralists - still it would not follow that we ought to cooperate. but of course we don't always cooperate. if evolution could justify anything, it would justify only exactly what is actually the case. a beautiful thought, but hardly a reasonable moral system or way to show that war is wrong, etc. it's adaptive insofar as it's actual. evolution selected for it insofar as it actually occurs (again that can't be right, but there is no other argument).
i propose that what i've just said is entirely decisive: a knock-down demonstration that the position of de waal or sam harris is false. it is obviously false, justified precisely only by wishful thinking. interacting with apes all day doesn't bear on this matter at all.
i guess what i'd ask de waal is why he wants a substitute for god.
once upon a time i had a student named alex, one of the more problematic in my career as a teacher. i taught him in several classes from his first to last semester, which was a year ago. he usually showed up full of enthusiasm for the first couple of classes, then disappeared for weeks or months on end, then desperately tried to get the work done the last week or whatever. bright as hell, albeit the only student i ever saw drinking a beer in class.
he initially did the disciple thing a bit, was all about my books and blog etc. but he went off me because i was way too depressing and pessimistic. he cultivated optimism as a religion and became an aficionado of the ray kurzweil singularity thesis, which i hadn't previously heard of. he spent a few hours in my office trying to persuade me, indeed proving the whole thing mathematically: some moore's law-type argument, mustering all the greatest advances in human history into an accelerating pattern of amazing and inevitable progress. not only were we, in particular he, going to live forever, but when we achieved immortality we'd immediately realize that war and environmental destruction were non-optimal. in other words, if we could make it to 2035, we would be living in heaven. forever. it would be perverse or crazy, he said, to disagree with people as smart and informed as these singularity dudes.
he was disappointed that i just kept rolling my eyes, kept saying i doubt it, and kept saying i am just not the sort of person who can believe something like that, being profoundly disaffected, cynical, etc. i kept telling him that the people who were going to be doing all this were, unfortunately, people, and that it could be expected to be a disaster, whether or not it was immortality. he was extremely disappointed by my irrationality.
the singularity was an argument, in alex's hands, for smoking, drinking, and doing drugs: soon it wouldn't matter what you were doing to yourself. the dickinsonian, unforgivably, does not give causes of death. but i assume alex died of an overdose. of optimism.
what the human species has been evolving toward is idiotic self-congratulation. indeed, probably the species has been evolving toward extinction in a narcissus mode: so impressed will we eventually be by ourselves that we will forget to move at all. the notion that particular political positions are the outcome of evolution is idiotic. but what's really confused is the idea that "liberalism" is "iconoclastic." dude are you kidding? these people believe in herds: liberalism is mammalian but pre-great ape.
and let me just refresh your tiny iconoclastic mind. let's say that al gore really was the culmination of the human genome. of course maybe the human genome is a boondoggle, a terrible dead end, like the stegosaurus genome. indeed, looking at it squarely: almost all species that have ever existed have evolved toward extinction. but wherever we're evolving to, if the liberal was more highly-evolved than the conservative, would that have any tendency to show that any of the positions were true? i want to hear your arguments, or at least your entertaining formulations, not your mere assertion of personal superiority to me, as edifying as that is for us both.
anyway, i'm vaguely hoping the piece is satirical. either way it's pretty funny!
Something I often hear: that human beings needed violence and aggression at an earlier stage of our evolution, before "civilization" (= state). What we need now is universal healthcare. And in many ways, men are evolutionarily obsolete; we need to adjust to a situation in which cooperation, rather than competition, is the main model. Sports, for example, and the cult of violence in sports, and the egregious or criminal or mind-numbingly sexist behavior of athletes and fans, is a symptom of these matters. Now I agree that most of the violence in our society is perpetrated by men, and that this has both biological and cultural sources. But I wouldn't be too hasty to evolve beyond it, not that we can. The "civilized" bit of human history is microscopic on the evolutionary scale, and is still geographically limited. In another five thousand years (also microscopic) it might seem like a momentary aberration. And as much as we deplore violence we still need it. Civilization (= state) is itself congealed violence: there is no political authority (= civilization) without violence. So even if you just want Swedish-style universal health care, you'd better be able to force people to pay their taxes. And of course, any resistance that may ever arise to such authority will require violence. You can't fight off the Nazis, or have a revolution against the authorities, without it. We are far from having entered into a stage where we could foresee doing completely without violence. Indeed, our stage is probably the most violent in human history, only the violence is slightly camouflaged, disguised under layers of bureaucracy (= civilization). This is not, of course, to endorse OJ or Plaxico or whomever in some particular idiot crime spree. (NHL Suspends Avery for Remarks About Women)