The Problem with the Trolley Problem, or why I avoid utilitarians near subways

 

Master Bertram of Miden The Fall

Human beings are weird. At least, that is, when comparing ourselves to our animal cousins. We’re weird in terms of our use of language, our creation and use of symbolic art and mathematics, our extensive use of tools. We’re also weird in terms of our morality, and engage in strange behaviors visa-via one another that are almost impossible to find throughout the rest of the animal world.

We will help one another in ways that no other animal would think of, sacrificing resources, and sometimes going so far as surrendering the one thing evolution commands us to do- to reproduce- in order to aid total strangers. But don’t get on our bad side. No species has ever murdered or abused fellow members of its own species with such viciousness or cruelty. Perhaps religious traditions have something fundamentally right, that our intelligence, our “knowledge of good and evil” really has put us on an entirely different moral plain, opened up a series of possibilities and consciousness new to the universe or at least our limited corner of it.

We’ve been looking for purely naturalistic explanations for our moral strangeness at least since Darwin. Over the past decade or so there has been a growing number of hybrid explorations of this topic combining elements in varying degrees of philosophy, evolutionary theory and cognitive psychology.

Joshua Greene’s recent Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them   is an excellent example of these. Yet, it is also a book that suffers from the flaw of almost all of these reflections on singularity of human moral distinction. What it gains in explanatory breadth comes at the cost of a diminished understanding of how life on this new moral plain is actually experienced the way knowing the volume of water in an ocean, lake or pool tells you nothing about what it means to swim.

Greene like any thinker looking for a “genealogy of morals” peers back into our evolutionary past. Human beings spent the vast majority of our history as members of small tribal groups of perhaps a few hundred members. Wired over eons of evolutionary time into our very nature is an unconscious ability to grapple with conflicting interests between us as individuals and the interest of the tribe to which we belong. What Greene calls the conflicts of Me vs Us.

When evolution comes up with a solution to a commonly experienced set of problems it tends to hard-wire that solution. We don’t think all at all about how to see, ditto how to breathe, and when we need to, it’s a sure sign that something has gone wrong. There is some degree of nurture in this equation, however. Raise a child up to a certain age in total darkness and they will go blind. The development of language skills, especially, show this nature-nurture codependency. We are primed by evolution for language acquisition at birth and just need an environment in which any language is regularly spoken. Greene thinks our normal everyday “common sense morality” is like this. It comes natural to us and becomes automatic given the right environment.

Why might evolution have wired human beings morally in this way, especially when it comes to our natural aversion to violence? Greene thinks Hobbes was right when he proposed that human beings possess a natural equality to kill the consequence of our evolved ability to plan and use tools. Even a small individual could kill a much larger human being if they planned it well and struck fast enough. Without some in built inhibition against acts of personal aggression humanity would have quickly killed each other off in a stone age version of the Hatfields and the McCoys.

This automatic common sense morality has gotten us pretty far, but Greene thinks he has found a way where it has also become a bug, distorting our thinking rather than helping us make moral decisions. He thinks he sees distortion in the way we make wrong decisions when imagining how to save people being run over by runaway trolley cars.

Over the last decade the Trolley problem has become standard fair in any general work dealing with cognitive psychology. The problem varies but in its most standard depiction the scenario goes as follows: there is a trolley hurtling down a track that is about to run over and kill five people. The only way to stop this trolley is to push an innocent, very heavy man onto the tracks. A decision guaranteed to kill the man. Do you push him?

The answer people give is almost universally- no, and Greene intends to show why most of us answer in this way even though, as a matter of blunt moral reasoning, saving five lives should be worth more than sacrificing one.

The problem, as Greene sees it, is that we are using our automatic moral decision making faculties to make the “don’t push call.” The evidence for this can be found in the fact that those who have their ability to make automatic moral decisions compromised end up making the “right” moral decision to sacrifice one life in order to save five.

People who have compromised automatic decision making processes might be persons with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex, persons such as Phineas Gauge whose case was made famous by the neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio in his book Descartes’ Error. Gauge was a 19th century miner who after suffering an accident that damaged part of his brain became emotionally unstable and unable to make good decisions. Damasio used his case and more modern ones to show just how important emotion was to our ability to reason.

It just so happens that persons suffering from Gauge style injuries also decide the Trolley problem in favor of saving five persons rather than refusing to push one to their death. Persons with brain damage aren’t the only ones who decide the Trolley problem in this way- autistic individuals and psychopaths do so as well.

Greene makes some leaps from this difference in how people respond to the Trolley problem, proposing that we have not one but two systems of moral decision making which he compares to the automatic and manual settings on a camera. The automatic mode is visceral, fast and instinctive whereas the manual mode is reasoned, deliberative and slow. Greene thinks that those who are able to decide in the Trolley problem to push the man onto the tracks to save five people are accessing their manual mode because their automatic settings have been shut off.

The leaps continue in that Greene thinks we need manual mode to solve the types of moral problems our evolution did not prepare us for, not Me vs. Us, but Us vs. Them, of our society in conflict other societies. Moral philosophy is manual mode in action, and Greene believes one version of our moral philosophy is head and shoulders above the rest, Utilitarianism, which he would prefer to be called Deep Pragmatism.

Needless to say there are problems with the Trolley Problem. How for instance does one interpret the change in responses to the problem when one substitutes a push with a switch? The number of respondents who chose to send the fat man to his death on the tracks to save five people significantly increases when one exchanges a push for a switch of a button that opens a trapdoor. Greene thinks it is because giving us bodily distance allows our more reasoned moral thinking to come into play. However, this is not the conclusion one gets when looking at real instances of personal versus instrumentalized killing i.e. in war.

We’ve known for quite a long time that individual soldiers have incredible difficulty killing even fellow enemy soldiers on the battlefield a subject brilliantly explored by Dave Grossman in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Strange thing is, whereas an individual soldier has problems killing even one human being who is shooting at him, and can sustain psychological scars because of such killing, airmen working in bombers who incinerate thousands of human beings including men women and children do not seem to be affected to such a degree by either inhibitions on killing or its mental scars. The US military’s response to this is to try to instrumentalize and automaticize killing by infantrymen in the same way killing by airmen and sailors is disassociated. Disconnection from their instinctual inhibitions against violence allows human being to achieve levels of violence impossible at an individual level.     

It may be the persons who chose to save five persons at the cost of one aren’t engaging in a form of moral reasoning at all they are merely comparing numbers. 5 > 1, so all else being equal choose the greater number. Indeed, the only way it might be said that higher moral reasoning was being used in choosing 5 over 1 was if the 1 that needed to be sacrificed to save 5 was the person being asked. With the question being would you throw yourself on the trolley tracks in order to save 5 other people?

Our automatic, emotional systems are actually very good at leading us to moral decisions, and the reasons we have trouble stretching them to Us vs Them problems might be different than the ones Greene identifies.

A reason the stretching might be difficult can be seen in a famous section in The Brother’s Karamazov by Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. “The Grand Inquisitor” is a section where the character Ivan is conveying an imaginary future to his brother Alyosha where Jesus has returned to earth and is immediately arrested by authorities of the Roman church who claim that they have already solved the problem of man’s nature: the world is stable so long as mankind is given bread and prohibited from exercising his free will. Writing in the late 19th century, Dostoyevsky was an arch-conservative, with deep belief in the Orthodox Church and had a prescient anxiety regarding the moral dangers of nihilisms and revolutionary socialism in Russia.

In her On Revolution, Hannah Arendt pointed out that Dostoyevsky was conveying with his story of the Grand Inquisitor, not only an important theological observation, that only an omniscient God could experience the totality of suffering without losing sight of the suffering individual, but an important moral and political observation as well- the contrast between compassion and pity.

Compassion by its very nature can not be touched off by the sufferings of a whole group of people, or, least of all,  mankind as a whole. It cannot reach out further than what is suffered by one person and remain what it is supposed to be, co-suffering. Its strength hinges on the strength of passion itself, which, in contrast to reason, can comprehend only the particular, but has no notion of the general and no capacity for generalization. (75)

In light of Greene’s argument what this means is that there is a very good reason why our automatic morality has trouble with abstract moral problems- without having sight of an individual to which moral decisions can be attached one must engage in a level of abstraction our older moral systems did not evolve to grapple with. As a consequence of our lack of God-like omniscience moral problems that deal with masses of individuals achieve consistency only by applying some general rule. Moral philosophers, not to mention the rest of us, are in effect imaginary kings issuing laws for the good of their kingdoms. The problem here is not only that the ultimate effect of such abstract level decisions are opaque due to our general uncertainty regarding the future, but there is no clear and absolute way of defining for whose good exactly are we imposing these rules?

Even the Utilitarianism that Greene thinks is our best bet for reaching common agreement regarding such rules has widely different and competing answers to how we should answer the question “good for who?” In their camp can be found Abolitionist such as David Pierce who advocate the re-engineering of all of nature to minimize suffering, and Peter Singer who establishes a hierarchy of rational beings. For the latter, the more of a rational being you are the more the world should conform to your needs, so much so, that Singer thinks infanticide is morally justifiable because newborns do not yet possess the rational goals and ideas regarding the future possessed by older children and adults. Greene, who thinks Utilitarianism could serve as mankind’s common “moral currency”, or language,  himself has little to say regarding where his concept of Utilitarianism falls on this spectrum, but we are very far indeed from anything like universal moral agreement on the Utilitarianism of Pierce or Singer.

21st century global society has indeed come to embrace some general norms. Past forms of domination and abuse, most notably slavery, have become incredibly rare relative to other periods of human history, though far from universal, women are better treated than in ages past. External relations between states have improved as well the world is far less violent than in any other historical era, the global instruments of cooperation, if far too seldom, coordination, are more robust.

Many factors might be credited here, but the one I would least credit is any adoption of a universal moral philosophy. Certainly one of the large contributors has been the increased range over which we exercise our automatic systems of morality. Global travel, migration, television, fiction and film all allow us to see members of the “Them” as fragile, suffering, and human all too human individuals like “Us”. This may not provide us with a negotiating tool to resolve global disputes over questions like global warming, but it does put us on the path to solving such problems. For, a stable global society will only appear when we realize that in more sense than not there is no tribe on the other side of us, that there is no “Them”, there is only “Us”.

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War and Human Evolution

40-12-17/35

 

Has human evolution and progress been propelled by war? 

The question is not an easy one to ask, not least because war is not merely one of the worst but arguably the worst thing human beings inflict on one another comprising murder, collective theft, and, almost everywhere but in the professional militaries of Western powers, and only quite recently, mass, and sometimes systematic rape. Should it be the case that war was somehow the driving mechanism, the hidden motor behind what we deem most good regarding human life, trapped in some militaristic version of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, then we might truly feel ourselves in the grip and the plaything of something like the demon of Descartes’ imagination, though rather than taunt us by making the world irrational we would be cursed to a world of permanent moral incomprehensibility.

When it comes to human evolution we should probably begin to address the question by asking how long war has been part of the human condition? Almost all of our evolution took place while we lived as hunter gatherers, indeed, we’ve only even had agriculture (and anything that comes with it) for 5-10% of our history. From a wide angle view the agricultural, industrial, and electronic revolutions might all be considered a set piece, perhaps one of the reasons things like philosophy, religion, and literature from millennia ago still often resonate with us. Within the full scope of our history, Socrates and Jesus lived only yesterday.

The evidence here isn’t good for those who hoped our propensity for violence is a recent innovation. For over the past generation a whole slew of archeological scholars has challenged the notion of the “peaceful savage” born in the radiating brilliance of the mind of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Back in 1755 Rousseau had written his Discourse on Inequality perhaps the best timed book, ever. Right before the industrial revolution was to start, Rousseau made the argument that it was civilization, development and the inequalities it produced that was the source of the ills of mankind- including war. He had created an updated version of the myth of Eden, which became in his hands mere nature, without any God in the story. For those who would fear humanity’s increasingly rapid technological development, and the victory of our artificial world over the natural one we were born from and into, he gave them an avenue of escape, which would be to shed not only the new industrial world but the agricultural one that preceded it. Progress, in the mind of Rousseau and those inspired by him, was a Sisyphean trap, the road to paradise lie backwards in time, in the return to primitive conditions.

During the revived Romanticism of the 1960’s archeologists like Francis de Waal set out to prove Rousseau right. Primitive, hunter-gatherer societies, in his view, were not war like and had only become so with contact from advanced warlike societies such as our own. In recent decades, however, this idea of prehistoric and primitive pacifism has come under sustained assault. Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined is the most popularly know of these challenges to the idea of primitive innocence that began with Rousseau’s Discourse, but in many ways, Pinker was merely building off of, and making more widely known, scholarship done elsewhere.

One of the best of examples of this scholarship is Lawrence H. Keeley’s War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. Keeley makes a pretty compelling argument that warfare was almost universal across pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer societies. Rather than being dominated by the non-lethal ritualized “battle”, as de Waal had argued, war for such societies war was a high casualty affair and total.

It is quite normal for conflict between tribes in close proximity to be endemic. Protracted periods of war result in casualty figures that exceed modern warfare even the total war between industrial states seen only in World War II.Little distinction is made in such pre-agricultural forms of conflict between women and children and men of fighting age. Both are killed indiscriminately in wars made up, not of the large set battles that characterize warfare in civilizations after the adoption of agriculture, but of constant ambushes and attacks that aim to kill those who are most vulnerable.

Pre-agricultural war is what we now call insurgency or guerilla war. Americans, who remember Vietnam or look with clear eyes at the Second Iraq War, know how effective this form of war can be against even the most technologically advanced powers. Although Keeley acknowledges the effectiveness and brutal efficiency of guerilla war,  he does not make the leap to suggest that in going up against insurgency advanced powers face in some sense a more evolutionarily advanced rival, honed by at least 100,000 years of human history.  

Keeley concludes that as long as there have been human beings there has been war, yet, he reaches much less dark conclusions from the antiquity of war than one might expect. Human aversion to violence and war, disgust with its consequences, and despair at its, more often than not, unjustifiable suffering are near universal whatever a society’s level of technological advancement. He writes:

“… warfare whether primitive or civilized involves losses, suffering, and terror even for the victors. Consequently, it was nowhere viewed as an unalloyed good, and the respect accorded to an accomplished warrior was often tinged with aversion. “

“For example, it was common the world over for the warrior who had just killed an enemy to be regarded by his own people as spiritually polluted or contaminated. He therefore had to undergo a magical cleansing to remove this pollution. Often he had to live for a time in seclusion, eat special food or fast, be excluded from participation in rituals and abstain from sexual intercourse. “ (144)

Far from the understanding of war found in pre-agricultural societies being ethically shallow, psychologically unsophisticated or unaware of the moral dimension of war their ideas of war are as sophisticated as our own. What the community asks the warrior to do when sending them into conflict and asking them to kill others is to become spiritually tainted and ritual is a way for them to become reintegrated into their community.  This whole idea that soldiers require moral repair much more than praise for their heroics and memorials is one we are only now rediscovering.

Contrary to what Freud wrote to Einstein when the former asked him why human beings seemed to show such a propensity for violence, we don’t have a “death instinct” either. Violence is not an instinct, or as Azar Gat wrote in his War in Human Civilization:

Aggression does not accumulate in the body by a hormone loop mechanism, with a rising level that demands release. People have to feed regularly if they are to stay alive, and in the relevant ages they can normally avoid sexual activity all together only by extraordinary restraint and at the cost of considerable distress. By contrast, people can live in peace for their entire lives, without suffering on that account, to put it mildly, from any particular distress. (37)

War and violence are not an instinct but a tactic, thank God, for if it was an instinct we’d all be dead. Still, if it is a tactic it has been a much used one and it seems that throughout our hundred thousand year human history it is one that we have used with less rather than greater frequency as we have technologically advanced, and one might wonder why this has been the case.    

Azar Gat’s theory of our increasing pacifism is very similar to Pinker’s, war is a very costly and dangerous tactic. If you can get what you are after without it, peace is normally the course human beings will follow. Since the industrial revolution, nature has come under our increasing command, war and expansion are no longer very good answers to the problems of scarcity, thus the frequency of wars was on the decline even before we had invented atomic weapons which turned full scale war into pure madness.

Yet, a good case can be made that war played a central role in putting down the conditions in which the industrial revolution, the spark of the material progress that has made war an unnecessary tactic, occurred and that war helped push technological advancement forward. The Empire won by the British through force of arms was the lever that propelled their industrialization. The Northern United States industrialized much more quickly as a consequence of the Civil War, Western pressure against pre-industrial Japan and China pushed those countries to industrialize. War research gave us both nuclear power and computers, the space race and satellite communications were the result of geopolitical competition. The Internet was created by the Pentagon, and the contemporary revolution in bionic prosthetics grew out of the horrendous injuries suffered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thing is, just as is the case for pre-agricultural societies it is impossible to disaggregate war itself with the capacity for cooperation between human beings a capacity that has increased enormously since the widespread adoption of agriculture. Any increase in human cooperative capacity increases a society’s capacity for war, and, oddly enough many increases in human war fighting capacity lead to increases in cooperative capacity in the civilian sphere. We are caught in a tragic technological logic that those who think technology leads of itself to global prosperity and peace if we just use it for the right ends are largely unaware of. Increases in our technological capacity even if pursued for non-military ends will grant us further capacity for violence and it is not clear that abandoning military research wouldn’t derail or greatly slow technological progress altogether.

One perhaps doesn’t normally associate the quest for better warfighting technologies with transhumanism- the idea “that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology”-, butone should. It’s not only the case that, as mentioned above, the revolution in bionic prosthetics emerged from war, the military is at the forefront of almost every technology on transhumanists’ wish list for future humanity from direct brain-machine and brain- to-brain interfaces to neurological enhancements for cognition and human emotion. And this doesn’t even capture the military’s revolutionary effect on other aspects of the long held dreams of futurists such as robotics.

The subject of how the world militaries have and are moving us in the direction of “post-human” war is the subject Christopher Coker’s  Warrior Geeks: How 21st Century Technology Is Changing the Way We Fight and Think About War and it is with this erudite and thought provoking book that the majority of the rest of this post will be concerned.

Warrior Geeks is a book about much more than the “geekification”  of war, the fact that much of what now passes for war is computerized, many the soldiers themselves now video gamers stuck behind desks, even if the people they kill remain flesh and blood. It is also a book about the evolving human condition and how war through science is changing that condition, and what this change might mean for us. For Coker sees the capabilities many transhumanists dream of finding their application first on the battlefield.

There is the constantly monitored “quantified-self”:

And within twenty years much as engineers analyze data and tweak specifications in order to optimize a software program, military commanders will be able to bio-hack into their soldiers brains and bodies, collecting and correlating data the better to optimize their physical and mental performance. The will be able to reduce distractions and increase productivity and achieve “flow”- the optimum state of focus. (63-64)

And then there is “augmented reality” where the real world is overlaid with the digital such as in the ideal which the US army and others are reaching for-to tie together servicemen in a “cybernetic network” where soldiers:

…. don helmets with a minute screen which when flipped over the eyes enables them to see the entire battlefield, marking the location of both friendly and enemy forces. They can also access the latest weather reports. In future, soldiers will not even need helmets at all. They will be able to wear contact lenses directly onto their retinas. (93)

In addition the military is investigating neurological enhancements of all sorts:

The ‘Persistence in Combat Program’ is well advanced and includes research into painkillers which soldiers could take before going into action, in anticipation of blunting the pain of being wounded. Painkillers such as R1624, created by scientists at Rinat Neuroscience, use an antibody to keep in check a neuropeptide that helps transmit pain sensations from the tissues to the nerves. And some would go further in the hope that one day it might be possible to pop a pill and display conspicuous courage like an army of John Rambos. (230)

With 1 in 8 soldiers returning from combat suffering from PTSD Some in the military hope that the scars of war might be undone with neurological advances that would allow us to “erase” memories.

One might go on with examples of exoskeletons that give soldiers superhuman endurance and strength or tying together the most intimate military unit, the platoon, with neural implants that allow direct brain- to-brain communication a kind of “brain-net” that an optimistic neuroscientist like Miguel Nicolelis seems not to have anticipated.

Coker, for his part, sees these developments in a very dark light, a move away from what have been eternal features of both human nature and war such as courage and character and towards a technologically over-determined and ultimately less than human world. He is very good at showing how our reductive assumptions end up compressing the full complexity of human life into something that gives us at least the illusion of technological control. It’s not our machines who are becoming like us, but us like our machines, it is not necessarily our gain in understanding and sovereignty over our nature to understand underlying genetic and neural mechanisms, but a constriction of our sense of ourselves.

Do we gain from being able to erase the memory of an event in combat that leads to our moral injury or lose something in no longer being able to understand and heal it through reconciliation and self-knowledge? Is this not in some way a more reduced and blind answer to the experience of killing and death in war than that of the primitive tribes people mentioned earlier? Luckily, reductive theories of human nature based on our far less than complete understanding of neuroscience or genetics almost always end up showing their inadequacies after a period of friction with the sheer complexity of being alive.

There are dangers which I see as two-fold. First, there is always the danger that we will move under the assumptions that we have sufficient knowledge and that the solutions to some problem are therefore “easy” should we just double-down and apply some technological or medical solution. Given enough time, the complexity of reality is likely to rear its head, though not after we have caused a good deal of damage in the name of a chimera. Secondly, it is that we will use our knowledge to torque the complexity of the human world into something more simple and ultimately more shallow in the quest for a reality we deem manageable. There is something deeper and more truthful in the primitive response to the experience of killing than erasing the memory of such experiences.

One of the few problems I had with Coker’s otherwise incredible book is, sadly, a very fundamental one. In some sense, Warrior Geeks is not so much a critique of the contemporary ways and trend lines of war, but a bio-conservative argument against transhumanist technologies that uses the subject of war as a backdrop. Echoing Thucydides Coker defines war as “the human thing” and sees its transformation towards post-human forms as ultimately dehumanizing. Thucydides may have been the most brilliant historian to ever live, but his claim that in war our full humanity is made manifest is true only in a partial sense. Almost all higher animals engage in intraspecies killing, and we are not the worst culprit. It wasn’t human beings who invented war, and who have been fighting for the longests, but the ants. As Keeley puts it:

But before developing too militant a view of human existence, let us put war in its place. However frequent, dramatic, and eye-catching, war remains a lesser part of social life. Whether one takes a purely behavioral view of human life or imagines that one can divine mental events, there can be no dispute that peaceful activities, arts, and ideas are by far more crucial and more common even in bellicose societies. (178)

If war has anything in human meaning over and above areas that are truly distinguishing between us and animals such as our culture or for that matter experiences we share with other animals such as love, companionship, and care for our young, it is that at the intimate level, such as is found in platoons, it is one of the few areas where what we do truly has consequences and where we are not superfluous.

We have evolved for culture, love and care as much as we ever have for war, and during most of our evolutionary history the survival of those around us really was dependent on what we did. War, in some cases, is one of the few places today where this earlier importance of the self can be made manifest. Or, as the journalist, Sebastian Junger has stated it, many men eagerly return to combat not so much because they are addicted to its adrenaline high as because being part of a platoon in a combat zone is one of the few places where what a 20 something year old man does actually counts for something.

As for transhumanism or continuing technological advancement and war, the solution to the problem starts with realizing there is no ultimate solution to the problem. To embrace human enhancement advanced by the spear-tip of military innovation would be to turn the movement into something resembling fascism- that is militarism combined with the denial of our shared human worth and destiny. Yet, to completely deny the fact that research into military applications often leads to leaps in technological advancement would be to blind ourselves to the facts of history. Exoskeletons that are developed as armor for our soldiers will very likely lead to advances for paraplegics and the elderly not to mention persons in perfect health just as a host of military innovations have led to benefits for civilians in the past.

Perhaps, one could say that if we sought to drastically reduce military spending worldwide, as in any case I believe we should, we would have sufficient resources to devote to civilian technological improvements of and for themselves. The problem here is the one often missed by technological enthusiasts who fail to take into account the cruel logic of war- that advancements in the civilian sphere alone would lead to military innovations. Exoskeletons developed for paraplegics would very likely end up being worn by soldiers somewhere, or as Keeley puts it:

Warfare is ultimately not a denial of the human capacity for social cooperation, but merely the most destructive expression of it. (158)

Our only good answer to this is really not technological at all, it is to continue to decrease the sphere of human life where war “makes sense” as a tactic. War is only chosen as an option when the peaceful roads to material improvement and respect are closed. We need to ensure both that everyone is able to prosper in our globalized economy and that countries and peoples are encouraged, have ways to resolve potentially explosive disputes and afforded the full respect that should come from belonging to what Keeley calls the “intellectual, psychological, and physiological equality of humankind ”, (179) to which one should add moral equality as well.  The prejudice that we who possess scientific knowledge and greater technological capacity than many of our rivals are in some sense fundamentally superior is one of our most pernicious dangers- we are all caught in the same trap.

For two centuries a decline in warfare has been possible because, even taking into account the savagery of the World Wars, the prosperity of mankind has been improving. A new stage of crisis truly earthshaking proportions would occur should this increasing prosperity be derailed, most likely from its collision with the earth’s inability to sustain our technological civilization becoming truly universal, or from the exponential growth upon which this spreading prosperity rests being tapped out and proving a short-lived phenomenon- it is, after all only two centuries old. Should rising powers such as China and India along with peoples elsewhere come to the conclusion that not only were they to be denied full development to the state of advanced societies, but that the system was rigged in favor of the long industrialized powers, we might wake up to discover that technology hadn’t been moving us towards an age of global unity and peace, after all, but that we had been lucky enough to live in a long interlude in which the human story, for once, was not also the story of war.

 

Wired for Good and Evil

Battle in Heaven

It seems almost as long as we could speak human beings have been arguing over what, if anything, makes us different from other living creatures. Mark Pagel’s recent book Wired for Culture: The Origins of the Human Social Mind is just the latest incantation of this millennia old debate, and as it has always been, the answers he comes up with have implications for our relationship with our fellow animals, and, above all, our relationship with one another, even if Pagel doesn’t draw many such implications.

As is the case with so many of the ideas regarding human nature, Aristotle got there first. A good bet to make when anyone comes up with a really interesting idea regarding what we are as a species is that either Plato or Aristotle had already come up with it, or discussed it. Which is either a sign of how little progress we have made understanding ourselves, or symptomatic of the fact that the fundamental questions for all our gee-whiz science and technology remain important even if ultimately never fully answerable.

Aristotle had classified human beings as being unique in the sense that we were a zóon politikón variously translated as a social animal or a political animal. His famous quote on this score of course being: “He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.” (Politics Book I)

He did recognize that other animals were social in a similar way to human beings, animals such as storks (who knew), but especially social insects such as bees and ants. He even understood bees (the Greeks were prodigious beekeepers) and ants as living under different types of political regimes. Misogynists that he was he thought bees lived under a king instead of a queen and thought the ants more democratic and anarchical. (History of Animals).       

Yet Aristotle’s definition of mankind as zóon politikón is deeper than that. As he says in his Politics:

That man is much more a political animal than any kind of bee or any herd animal is clear. For, as we assert, nature does nothing in vain, and man alone among the animals has speech….Speech serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful and hence also the just and unjust. For it is peculiar to man as compared to the other animals that he alone has a perception of good and bad and just and unjust and other things of this sort; and partnership in these things is what makes a household and a city.  (Politics Book 1).

Human beings are shaped in a way animals are not by the culture of their community, the particular way their society has defined what is good and what is just. We live socially in order to live up to their potential for virtue- ideas that speech alone makes manifest and allows us to resolve. Aristotle didn’t just mean talk but discussion, debate, conversation all guided by reason. Because he doesn’t think women and slaves are really capable of such conversations he excludes them from full membership in human society.More on that at the end, but now back to Pagel’s Wired for Culture.

One of the things Pagel thinks makes human beings unique among all other animals is the fact that we alone are hyper-social or ultra-social. The only animals that even come close are the eusocial insects- Aristotle’s ants and bees. As E.O. Wilson pointed out in his The Social Conquest of Earth it is the eusocial species, including us, which, pound-for-pound absolutely dominate life on earth. In the spirit of a 1950’s B-movie all the ants in the world added together are actually heavier than us.

Eusociality makes a great deal of sense for insects colonies and hives given how closely related these groups are, indeed, in many ways they might be said to constitute one body and just as cells in our body sacrifice themselves for the survival of the whole, eusocial insects often do the same. Human beings, however, are different, after all, if you put your life at risk by saving the children of non-relatives from a fire, you’ve done absolutely nothing for your reproductive potential, and may even have lost your chance to reproduce. Yet, sacrifices and cooperation like this are done by human beings all the time, though the vast majority in a less heroic key. We are thus, hypersocial- willing to cooperate with and help non-relatives in ways no other animals do. What gives?

Pagel’s solution to this evolutionary conundrum is very similar to Wilson’s though he uses different lingo. Pagel sees us as naturally members of what he calls cultural survival vehicles, we evolved to be raised in them, and to be loyal to them because that was the best, perhaps the only way, of securing our own survival. These cultural survival vehicles themselves became the selective environment in which we evolved. Societies where individuals hoarded their cooperation or refused to makes sacrifices for the survival of the group overtime were driven out of existence by those where individuals had such qualities.

The fact that we have evolved to be cooperative and giving within our particular cultural survival vehicle Pagel sees as the origin of our angelic qualities our altruism and heroism and just general benevolence. No other animal helps its equivalent of little old ladies cross the street, or at least to nothing like the extent we do.   

Yet, if having evolved to live in cultural survival vehicles has made us capable of being angels, for Pagel, it has also given rise to our demonic capacities as well. No other species is a giving as we are, but, then again, no other species has invented torture devices and practices like the iron maiden or breaking on the wheel like we have either. Nor does any other species go to war with fellow members of its species so commonly or so savagely as human beings.

Pagel thinks that our natural benevolence can be easily turned off under two circumstance both of which represent a threat to our particular cultural survival vehicle.

We can be incredibly cruel when we think someone threatens the survival of our group by violating its norms. There is a sort of natural proclivity in human nature to burn “witches” which is why we need to be particularly on guard whenever some part of our society is labeled as vile and marked for punishment- The Scarlet Letter should be required reading in high school.

There is also a natural proclivity for members of one cultural survival vehicle to demonize and treat cruelly their rivals- a weakness we need to be particularly aware of in judging the heated rhetoric in the run up to war.

Pagel also breaks with Richard Dawkins over the later’s view of the evolutionary value of religion. Dawkins in his book The God Virus and subsequently has tended to view religion as a net negative- being a suicide bomber is not a successful reproductive strategy, nor is celibacy. Dawkins has tended to see ideas his “memes” as in a way distinct from the person they inhabit. Like genes, his memes don’t care all that much about the well being of the person who has them- they just want to make more of themselves- a goal that easily conflicts with the goal of genes to reproduce.

Pagel quite nicely closes the gap between memes and genes which had left human beings torn in two directions at once. Memes need living minds to exists, so any meme that had too large a negative effect on the reproductive success of genes should have lain its own grave quite quickly. But if genes are being selected for because they protect not the individual but the group one can see how memes that might adversely impact an individual’s chance of reproductive success can nonetheless aid in the survival of the group. For religions to have survived for so long and to be so universal they must be promoting group survival rather than being a detriment to it, and because human beings need these groups to live religion must on average, though not in every particular case, be promoting the survival of the individual at least to reproductive age.

One of the more counterintuitive, and therefore interesting claims Pagel makes is that what really separates human beings from other species is our imitativeness as opposed to our inventiveness. It the reverse of the trope found in the 60’s-70’s books and films that built around the 1963 novel La Planète des singes- The Planet of the Apes. If you remember, the apes there are able to imitate human technology, but aren’t able to invent it- “monkey see, monkey do”. Perhaps it should be “human see human do” for if Pagel is right our advantage as a species really lies in our ability to copy one another. If I see you doing something enough times I am pretty likely to be able to repeat it though I might not have a clue what it was I was actually doing.

Pagel thinks that all we need is innovation through minor tweaks combined with our ability to rapidly copy one another to have technological evolution take off. In his view geniuses are not really required for human advancement, though they might speed the process along. He doesn’t really apply his ideas to understand modern history, but such a view could explain what the scientific revolution which corresponded with the widespread adoption of the printing press was really all about. The printing press allowed ideas to be deciminated more rapidly whereas the scientific method proved a way to sift those that worked from those that didn’t.

This makes me wonder if something rather silly like Youtube hasn’t even further revved up cultural evolution in this imitative sense. What I’ve found is that instead of turning to “elders” or “experts” when I want to do something new, I just turn to Youtube and find some nice or ambitious soul who has filmed through the steps.

The idea that human beings are the great imitator has some very unanticipated consequences for the rationality of human being visa-vi other animals. Laurie Santos of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at Yale has shown that human beings can be less not more rational than animals when it comes to certain tasks due to our proclivity for imitation. Monkeys will solve a puzzle by themselves and aren’t thrown off by other monkeys doing something different whereas a human being will copy a wrong procedure done by another human being even when able to independently work the puzzle out. Santos speculates that such irrationality may give us the plasticity necessary to innovate even if much of this innovation tends not to work. One more sign that human beings can be thankful for at least some of their irrationality.

This might have implications for machine intelligence that neither Pagel nor Santos draw. Machines might be said to be rational in the way animals are rational but this does not mean that they possess something like human thought. The key to making artificial intelligence more human like might be in making them, in some sense, less rational or as Jeff Steibel stated it for machine intelligence to be truly human like it will need to be “loopy”, “iterative”, and able to make mistakes.

To return to Pagel, he also sees implications for human consciousness and our sense of self in the idea that we are “wired for culture”. We still have no idea why it is human beings have a self, or think they have one, and we have never been able to locate the sense of self in the brain. Pagel thinks its pretty self-evident why a creature that is enmeshed in a society of like creatures with less than perfectly aligned needs would evolve a sense of self. We need one in order to negotiate our preferences, and our rights.

Language, for Pagel, is not so much a means for discovering and discussing the truth as it is an instrument wielded by the individual to gain in his own interest through persuasion and sometimes outright deception. Pagel’s views seem to be seconded by Steven Pinker who in a fascinating talk back in 2007 laid out how the use of language seems to be structured by the type of relationship it represents. In a polite dinner conversation you don’t say “give me the salt”, but “please pass me the salt” because the former is a command of the type most found in a dominance/submission relationship. The language of seduction is not “come up to my place so I can @#!% you”, but “would you like to come up and see my new prints.” Language is a type of constant negotiation and renegotiation between individuals one that is necessary because relationships between human beings are not ordinarily based on coercion where no speech is necessary besides the grunt of a command.

All of which brings me back to Aristotle and to the question of evil along with the sole glaring oversight of Pagel’s otherwise remarkable book. The problem moderns often have with the brilliant Aristotle is his justification of slavery and the subordination of women. That is, Aristotle clearly articulates what makes a society human- our interdependence, our capacity for speech, the way our “telos” is to be shaped and tuned by the culture in which we are raised like a precious instrument. At the same time he turns around and allows this society to compel by force the actions of those deliberately excluded from the opportunity for speech which he characterizes as a “natural” defect.

Pagel’s cultural survival vehicles miss this sort of internal oppression that is distinct both from the moral anger of the community against those who have violated its norms or its violence towards those outside of it. Aren’t there minature cultural survival vehicles in the form of one group or another that fosters its own genetic interest through oppression and exploitation? It got me thinking if any example of what a more religious age would have called “evil” as opposed to mere “badness” couldn’t be understood as a form of either oppression or exploitation, and I am unable to come up with any.

Such sad reflections dampen Pagel’s optimism towards the end of Wired for Culture that the world’s great global cities are a harbinger of us transcending the state of war between our various cultural survival vehicles and moving towards a global culture. We might need to delve more deeply into our evolutionary proclivities to fight within our own and against other cultural survival vehicles inside our societies as much as outside before we put our trust in such a positive outcome for the human story.

If Pagel is right and we are wired, if we have co-evolved, to compete in the name of our own particular cultural survival vehicle against other such communities then we may have in a very real sense co-evolved with and for war. A subject I will turn to next time by jumping off another very recent and excellent book.