Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Altruism, deceit and ethics

Something nice happened to me at the weekend. No, honestly, it's true!

I lost my wallet and, at the very instant that I slipped a hand into my pocket and discovered the loss, my mobile phone rang. It was a policeman calling to say that some lost property belonging to me had been handed in at Bath police station and would I like to come and collect it? So before my shit-happens-primed brain could scream the words 'identity theft' into the uncaring void, the ball of stress coalescing in my sternum dissipated.

The woman who'd handed in my wallet had left her name and address. I went immediately to a florists' and ordered an extravagant bunch of flowers to be delivered to her on Monday with a message that ended 'give yourself a big hug'. I meant it too. Rarely have I felt so well disposed towards a total stranger and never pre-coitus. I was back in the same florists' today, buying a bunch of flowers to go on the kitchen table and, while she was tying an elaborate bow around the bouquet, the woman behind the counter asked 'You're the guy with the wallet, aren't you?' 'You've obviously been talking to my builder.' Is what I should have said but instead admitted I was the same guy. 'So, did she call?' She asked.

Now I hadn't spent more than five minutes considering whether I should append my phone number to the note with the flowers and I had been in no way influenced in my decision not to do so by the fact that my benefactor had given her name as 'Mrs...' but it amused me to discover that florists must get a little kick from the thought that many a relationship has been launched on the rocky road to ruin and recriminations by an extravagant hand-tied bunch of flowers prepared by their own fair hands.

In truth, all that I really know about Mrs... is that she isn't a thief and that she approximates sufficiently closely to a typical Homo sapiens that the following equation is satisfied in respect of our relationship.

If you are unfamiliar with the equation and the meanings of the terms I refer you to the marvelous paper by Robert Trivers in which it was first published, available here, for free - and that's a bargain). 

Understand this equation, which is so simple that even my mathematically challenged brain can grasp its meaning intuitively, and you will have seen something lovelier than the combined magnificence of all the illuminated manuscripts in all the libraries of theology in the world. 

In a sense, this is the equation that states the conditions under which it is possible for something like a human being to evolve. What it says, to paraphrase, is that, in a highly social, intelligent animal species, where members of the species possess memory of social interactions and meet one another frequently, natural selection can favour the evolution of reciprocal altruism. In other words, it can produce human beings. Or Vampire Bats. Vampire Bats are very much like human beings when it comes to reciprocal altruism in that they possess the same salient traits - sociality, intelligence, memory - that we do. A Vampire Bat that returns from a night's unsuccessful foraging will soon die but is often saved by an unrelated bat - a good sanguinarian? - regurgitating some blood into its friend's mouth. The system evolved because Vampire Bats remember who has saved them from certain death in the past and apportion their altruism accordingly.

It is an interesting feature of reciprocal altruism in humans that we seem prepared to act altruistically towards strangers that we have never met and likely never will (as in me and Mrs...). It's an open question, I think, whether this feature of our behaviour is an adaptation or an example of cultural evolution temporarily (I am thinking millennia, not decades, here) out-manoeuvreing natural selection.

I presume that anyone reading this will be either familiar with Trivers' equation or too lazy (or tired, or fried, or whatever) to bother with reading a succinct explanation of the mystery that religion has been trying pointlessly to solve for ever: why are we so damned nice? If you set a million monkeys to masturbating in the corners of their lonely wire cages, the results could not be sadder nor less fruitful than the speculations of Aquinus or Augustine or Mohammed. Give a slightly crazy genius an insight into natural selection, a pad of paper and a pencil, on the other hand, and you get revelations.

Robert Trivers, according to Wikipedia, went bonkers trying to make sense of Wittgenstein, which is an excellent reason not to read Wittgenstein. Having revolutionised his adopted field of evolutionary biology in the 1970s, Trivers disappeared from view until very recently, when he published 'Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others' (buy it here).

What seems to have motivated Trivers to write this book is the desire to answer the question why that, whereas there are obvious benefits (to the deceiver) of deceiving others, the same does not apply to deceiving oneself. When I described this puzzle to a philosophically-minded friend, he denied the possibility of self-deception (how can one both affirm and deny a certain proposition simultaneously, he asked). So I'd better be clear what I (and I think Trivers) means by self-deception: interpreting sense data in a way that conforms with pre-conceived notions of truth, when an unbiased interpretation of the same data would result in a contradiction.

Trivers' claim which, so far as I know, is original is that natural selection can favour the spread of self-deception in species in which there exists an arms race between deceivers and deceiver-detectors. Imagine the following conversation between a husband and wife.

[Husband, staring into the middle distance.]

Wife: 'What are you thinking, darling?'

[Husband suspends contemplation of sex with the au pair; blushes slightly; suppresses blush.]

Husband: 'I was thinking about how much fun we had together before X and Y were born. Why don't we ask your parents to babysit and go on a cruise together?'

[Wife thinks: 'Yeah, I wasn't born yesterday, you wanker; who is she?']

Wife: 'Sometimes you still surprise me, darling. That's a lovely idea.'

[Husband resumes contemplation of whether doggy-style or reverse cowgirl would be more enjoyable, for him].

Wife: 'I'll call my parents tomorrow and ask when they can come over for a week.'

[Husband: Hmm, the au pair is half my age and a third my weight. Perhaps the cruise is a good idea.]

Husband: 'I love you, honey.'

Now I'm not suggesting, and I doubt Trivers would either, that this sort of dialogue is typical. However, I don't think it is particularly unusual either. There are two possibilities: my heterosexual male friends are a strange, sexually-fixated subset of the (otherwise balanced) population; or, all heterosexual men would really like to fuck the au pair, provided there were no consequences. What is more interesting, however, is to notice that, at the end of the hypothetical conversation, the hypothetical wife believes that the hypothetical husband loves her and, more pertinently, the hypothetical husband believes it too. If he didn't, the extraordinarily sensitive deception detector that is the human female brain would have seen the contents of his pitiful sex-crazed brain and left.

Why? I mean, why would any sensible British man (I am speaking from my own, limited, experience; I'm quite sure analogous arguments could be made for any gender, orientation or nationality) risk marriage, reputation, family and fiscal independence for a few brief thrusts into the vagina of an economic refugee from Poland? The answer, of course, is that ancestors in a lineage stretching four billion years into deep time have persisted by, so to speak, coercing Polish refugees into having sex.

Do you not find this fascinating? I mean, perhaps I am telling the story badly, but isn't it the most interesting story of all? What are we and why are we as we are? Come hither... a book that I've recently finished: 'An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics' by Scott M. James. Philosophers write very carefully. That is what they do: they rephrase more carefully what the enthusiasts on the frontiers of discovery have reported. So I must state in words of as few and unambiguous syllables as possible my opinion of the book: dismal. 

How is it possible that, in 2012, an influential moral philosopher can publish a book, three-quarters of which is wasted on convincing its audience that evolution actually happened? The temptation to mock the imbeciles who haven't yet clocked this fact is almost irresistible. I suppose that I should admire Scott M. James for his dogged determination to explain, in Bowdlerised form, the theory that has informed all reasoned discussion since 1853 to persons too stupid or willfully ignorant to have taken it on board yet. But I don't. Why? James, when he finally allows himself to come to the point, argues that the case for what he calls 'moral anti-realism' - aka the truth - is more-or-less accepted. Except for his own theory, on which he will no doubt build a pointlesss career.

Look. Our ancestors, before primates; before mammals if you want to go that far back, did not contemplate right and wrong. Jellyfish, the descendants of our (common) ancestors, do not worry whether they have offended their brother-in-law. But neither did they owe him a small fortune. We are descended from animals that had no moral sense. We have one. Ergo, it evolved. I don't expect to convert anyone with this argument but one can hope.

If we admit that our moral sense evolved, it is worth considering two subsidiary possibilities. Morality could be a property of the universe, like viscosity or gravity. If we ever drag our sorry asses off this planet and discover examples of life on other planets, we can be confident that 'birds' will fly, 'fish' will swim and 'bodies' will fall. Does anyone really think, however, that aliens will avow that sex before marriage is a sin? No, really - do you think this is likely? The other possibility is that morality is a word for the codes that enable society, given the genetic and cultural inheritance of a particular species. As Montesquieu said, triangles would worship a three-sided god and despise rectangles. If ants had a god, the caste system would be morally obligatory.

When you feel the tug of conscience, it isn't god whispering into your ear. It's billions of dead ancestors, all of them evolutionary successes telling you that if it works...

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