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The Moral Animal

Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology
Robert Wright 

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Just finished “The Moral Animal”. I didn't really like it, but it has some important things to say. The most important thing missing is culture and cultural evolution. I'm also pretty sure the idea of “group selection” has been too hastily dismissed, and this raises the idea that we may be programmed for our culture's propagation to the detriment of our genetic fitness. This looks somewhat different because it is selfish-for-the-culture not selfish-for-the-gene.

The similarity between chimpanzees and humans is exaggerated. Chimps don't have culture, so there is no status from innovation. Chimps have a dominance partial-ordering, not a hierarchy. There is no chain of command. The top chimp can't issue an order and expect everyone to obey. Chimp warfare is disorganized, and perhaps somewhat rare.

He does consider some cultural characteristics, and does acknowledge the importance, but seems to suppose that culture is imposed top-down by the leaders, so reflects the selfish interests of the power-group in that culture. However, this seems somewhat incoherent and rather inconsistent with the evidence. If leaders impose a culture that doesn't work, the polity will disintegrate.

An interesting cultural observation he makes is that the real beneficiaries of monogamy are lower-status males. Assuming the highest status male is at least twice as desirable a mate as the lowest, a woman can benefit by being a second wife. The beneficiaries are definitely not the high-status power figures. He suggests that cultures have chosen monogamy because it avoids social disorder caused by having large numbers of unmarried males. [I think it is clear that monogamy was culturally evolved, rather than being consciously chosen by a wisely self-sacrificing leader. It may also be that the need for large numbers of motivated warriors is a decisive factor. If men have no children (or no hope of having children), what motivation do they have to fight and die for the polity? Men with no mate are likely to either die in a status struggle or leave, resulting in a female-skewed sex ratio. Monogamy increases the tooth-to-tail ratio of the polity.]

The thing that is most troubling (and thought-provoking) is self-deception. I guess I believe that people tend to show unconscious self-serving biases in what they say, and this is what Trivers, etc., means when he says that the purpose of self-deception is to lie better. Religious traditions also observe the tendency for self-serving biases. But the deception/self-deception framework puts a somewhat gratuitous moral spin on the phenomenon by arguing that you “really know better”, and this part seems somehow important to its advocates, hence interest in experiments that show “true self deception.” This is related to the “smarty-pants” critique, which is that these guys seem like such a bunch of smarty-pants. What exactly does this mean? I think the big thing is that it seems condescending. w.r.t. The self-deception thing, though the author understands that he too has self-serving biases (and is trying to overcome them), somehow the terminology militates against this understanding, perhaps because we self-servingly understand that self-deception is something that other people do. Some of the discussion of mate choice, family conflict, value vs. age for children, seems condescending because it trivializes the emotional importance of these events, and may anyway be wrong (just so stories.) I think there's also an element of the iconoclastic glee of the evangelical atheist.

Another way to talk about the self-serving bias is Robert Anton Wilson's “reality tunnel” idea. This is a way of acknowledging that each person's perceptions seem really real even though they may be incompatible with other's perceptions. This doesn't deny real reality because these reality tunnels are just models (or maps) of reality, and the map is not the territory.

Then there's the storytelling model. Unless we're consciously manipulative, we tell stories either to get people to think the way that we do, or to establish empathy by getting people to think that we think the way they do. In storytelling, it is understood that the ends justify the means. You can say whatever you need to in order to carry the story payload. It is understood that you don't muddy the message with conflicting evidence. Of course, getting people to think like you is self-serving, especially when your thoughts are self-serving. But getting people to think like you is also crucial for the transmission of culture. Trying to get people to think like you is fundamental to communication, and thus to being human. You could say it is a moral imperative. The question is where truth and deception come into storytelling. A good story carries truth, which normally happens only when the teller has a true belief. Can we recognize some stories as deceptive “lies” independent of whether they happen to be true? The canonical lie is making a statement which you believe to be false to influence other's behavior to your self-serving ends.

An ordinary lie is a conscious attempt to get someone to believe something which you don't believe, either by false statements or a more subtly deceptive story.

There was some interesting stuff in the chapter in “The Moral Animal” about commonly asked questions. In particular, he made the (what is in hindsight obvious) point that demographic transition is associated with contraceptive use, and that formerly the heavy lifting of making sure that people reproduce was achieved by the urge to have sex, and that possibly in some cultures they may not have even realized the connection between sex and reproduction. With contraception you have to actually decide, and whatever understandings you bring to bear about the desirability of having children, these are traded against your craving for status, etc. This is rather ironic given the theory that people crave status in order to increase their reproductive success.

books/moral_animal.txt · Last modified: 2010/09/07 10:22 by ram