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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Evolution and self-transcendence

Jonathan Haidt argues that self-transcendence is an evolutionary consequence of group selection, and not merely a side-effect of our brain wiring.










Podcast interview. Thanks to Arnold Kling for recommending Haidt's book The Righteous Mind.

Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings—but no other animals—to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship. But at the same time, our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife.

... intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning. If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post-hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

... human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. Human nature was produced by natural selection working at two levels simultaneously. Individuals compete with individuals within every group, and we are the descendants of primates who excelled at that competition. This gives us the ugly side of our nature, the one that is usually featured in books about our evolutionary origins. We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves.

But human nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups. As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists. Darwin’s ideas about group selection fell out of favor in the 1960s, but recent discoveries are putting his ideas back into play, and the implications are profound. We’re not always selfish hypocrites. We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns. Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war, and genocide.

Once you see our righteous minds as primate minds with a hivish overlay, you get a whole new perspective on morality, politics, and religion. I’ll show that our “higher nature” allows us to be profoundly altruistic, but that altruism is mostly aimed at members of our groups. I’ll show that religion is (probably) an evolutionary adaptation for binding groups together and helping them to create communities with a shared morality. It is not a virus or parasite, as some scientists (the “new atheists”) have argued in recent years. And I’ll use this perspective to explain why some people are conservative, others are liberal (or progressive), and still others become libertarians. People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.

An essay by Haidt from 2010 that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Chronicle: ... When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, the prevailing view was that evolution was so slow that there could be no meaningful genetic differences among human groups. The genetic "blueprint" was assumed to have been finalized during the Pleistocene era, the two million years during which our ancestors lived as relatively egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Modern humans all draw cards from the same deck, the same population of genes, except for some trivial variations related to adaptations for cold weather (such as lighter skin and smaller noses).

But now that we can examine partial genetic maps from thousands of people around the world, the old view is crumbling. Genetic evolution is not slow, and it certainly did not stop around 50,000 years ago, when people began leaving Africa and filling every continent save Antarctica. In fact, it now appears that the human diaspora greatly increased the pace of genetic change. When people exposed themselves to new climates, pathogens, diets, technologies, and social structures, they exposed their genes to new selection pressures. You don't need 50 millennia to get big changes. Some Russian fox breeders created what was essentially a new species of tame, doglike foxes in just 30 generations.

Over the next 10 years, therefore, we'll be hearing less about the Pleistocene and more about the Holocene—the 12,000 years since the beginning of agriculture. We've accepted findings that some ethnic groups adapted during the Holocene to digest milk as adults or to breathe more easily at high altitudes. But what will happen when findings come in about personality traits? Nearly all traits are heritable, and some traits surely paid off more handsomely in commercial cultures than in agricultural ones, or on peaceful islands than on raid-prone steppes. Such findings will be among the greatest threats to political correctness ever to emerge from the natural sciences.

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