Re: To J.R. Re: A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies

J. R. Molloy (
Fri, 19 Nov 1999 21:30:06 -0800

Robert Owen wrote,
>I thought I might provoke a little controversy by mentioning
>the Field of "Theoretical Biology" and stimulate some painful
>feelings only to be relieved by posting an opinion of Stuart
>Kauffman who studies the origin of life and the origins of
>molecular organization. Twenty-five years ago, he developed
>the Kauffman models, which are random networks exhibiting
>a kind of self-organization that he terms "order for free."

Keven Kelly has a nice essay about Kaufman's Order For Free at: This page, and the four subsequent web pages, comprise Chapter 20 of _Out of Control_, "The Butterfly Sleeps."

>I hope at least one or two readers are sufficiently outraged, or at
>least exasperated, that they will post their devastating critique.
>For example, do you detect an odor of "teleology"? Or do you
>espy "The Anthropic Principle" sneaking through the back door?
>Some kind of neo-Begsonian or Lamarckian decadence? Worse yet,
>is this some weird kind of "closet creationism"?

No, I don't see any of that. I see techniques informally known as parallel distributed processing, Boolean nets, neural nets, spin glasses, cellular automata, classifier systems, genetic algorithms, and swarm computation, all of which contribute to Kaufman's work on autocatalytic autopoesis. (But not nearly as well as Kaufman and Langton see them.)

>Well, say the issue is: can highly qualified biologists study the biological
>determinants of anthropoid social behavior and on the of level conceptual
>mentation in our species expand our understanding of the biogenetic roots
>of our value- and belief-systems without the "conflation" to which Athena
>refers? That is, without dragging-in the non-empirical disciplines of
>"Comparative Cultural Anthropology", "Sociology", and purely theoretical
>models derived from "Depth Psychology"and your infamous "Cultural Studies"?
>My "rhetorical" position is one of abject skepticism, but I am ready to learn!

By way of an answer, I direct to to the following: "Do we invent our moral absolutes in order to make society workable? Or are these enduring principles expressed to us by some transcendent or Godlike authority? Efforts to resolve this conundrum have perplexed, sometimes inflamed, our best minds for centuries, but the natural sciences are telling us more and more about the choices we make and our reasons for making them." "The Biological Basis of Morality"
by Edward O. Wilson: "A Scientific Approach to Moral Reasoning":

"The general empiricist principle takes this form: Strong innate feeling and historical experience cause certain actions to be preferred; we have experienced them, and have weighed their consequences, and agree to conform with codes that express them. Let us take an oath upon the codes, invest our personal honor in them, and suffer punishment for their violation. The empiricist view concedes that moral codes are devised to conform to some drives of human nature and to suppress others. Ought is the translation not of human nature but of the public will, which can be made increasingly wise and stable through an understanding of the needs and pitfalls of human nature. The empiricist view recognizes that the strength of commitment can wane as a result of new knowledge and experience, with the result that certain rules may be desacralized, old laws rescinded, and formerly prohibited behavior set free. It also recognizes that for the same reason new moral codes may need to be devised, with the potential of being made sacred in time."

The Origin of Moral Instincts

IF the empiricist world view is correct, ought is just shorthand for one kind of factual statement, a word that denotes what society first chose (or was coerced) to do, and then codified. The naturalistic fallacy is thereby reduced to the naturalistic problem. The solution of the problem is not difficult: ought is the product of a material process. The solution points the way to an objective grasp of the origin of ethics.

A few investigators are now embarked on just such a foundational inquiry. Most agree that ethical codes have arisen by evolution through the interplay of biology and culture. In a sense these investigators are reviving the idea of moral sentiments that was developed in the eighteenth century by the British empiricists Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith.

What have been thought of as moral sentiments are now taken to mean moral instincts (as defined by the modern behavioral sciences), subject to judgment according to their consequences. Such sentiments are thus derived from epigenetic rules -- hereditary biases in mental development, usually conditioned by emotion, that influence concepts and decisions made from them. The primary origin of moral instincts is the dynamic relation between cooperation and defection. The essential ingredient for the molding of the instincts during genetic evolution in any species is intelligence high enough to judge and manipulate the tension generated by the dynamism. That level of intelligence allows the building of complex mental scenarios well into the future. It occurs, so far as is known, only in human beings and perhaps their closest relatives among the higher apes.

A way of envisioning the hypothetical earliest stages of moral evolution is provided by game theory, particularly the solutions to the famous Prisoner's Dilemma. Consider the following typical scenario of the dilemma. Two gang members have been arrested for murder and are being questioned separately. The evidence against them is strong but not irrefutable. The first gang member believes that if he turns state's witness, he will be granted immunity and his partner will be sentenced to life in prison. But he is also aware that his partner has the same option, and that if both of them exercise it, neither will be granted immunity. That is the dilemma. Will the two gang members independently defect, so that both take the hard fall? They will not, because they agreed in advance to remain silent if caught. By doing so, both hope to be convicted on a lesser charge or escape punishment altogether. Criminal gangs have turned this principle of calculation into an ethical precept: Never rat on another member; always be a stand-up guy. Honor does exist among thieves. The gang is a society of sorts; its code is the same as that of a captive soldier in wartime, obliged to give only name, rank, and serial number.

In one form or another, comparable dilemmas that are solvable by cooperation occur constantly and everywhere in daily life. The payoff is variously money, status, power, sex, access, comfort, or health. Most of these proximate rewards are converted into the universal bottom line of Darwinian genetic fitness: greater longevity and a secure, growing family.

And so it has most likely always been. Imagine a Paleolithic band of five hunters. One considers breaking away from the others to look for an antelope on his own. If successful, he will gain a large quantity of meat and hide -- five times as much as if he stays with the band and they are successful. But he knows from experience that his chances of success are very low, much less than the chances of the band of five working together. In addition, whether successful alone or not, he will suffer animosity from the others for lessening their prospects. By custom the band members remain together and share equitably the animals they kill. So the hunter stays. He also observes good manners in doing so, especially if he is the one who makes the kill. Boastful pride is condemned, because it rips the delicate web of reciprocity.

Now suppose that human propensities to cooperate or defect are heritable: some people are innately more cooperative, others less so. In this respect moral aptitude would simply be like almost all other mental traits studied to date. Among traits with documented heritability, those closest to moral aptitude are empathy with the distress of others and certain processes of attachment between infants and their caregivers. To the heritability of moral aptitude add the abundant evidence of history that cooperative individuals generally survive longer and leave more offspring. Following that reasoning, in the course of evolutionary history genes predisposing people toward cooperative behavior would have come to predominate in the human population as a whole.

Such a process repeated through thousands of generations inevitably gave rise to moral sentiments. With the exception of psychopaths (if any truly exist), every person vividly experiences these instincts variously as conscience, self-respect, remorse, empathy, shame, humility, and moral outrage. They bias cultural evolution toward the conventions that express the universal moral codes of honor, patriotism, altruism, justice, compassion, mercy, and redemption.

The dark side of the inborn propensity to moral behavior is xenophobia. Because personal familiarity and common interest are vital in social transactions, moral sentiments evolved to be selective. People give trust to strangers with effort, and true compassion is a commodity in chronically short supply. Tribes cooperate only through carefully defined treaties and other conventions. They are quick to imagine themselves the victims of conspiracies by competing groups, and they are prone to dehumanize and murder their rivals during periods of severe conflict. They cement their own group loyalties by means of sacred symbols and ceremonies. Their mythologies are filled with epic victories over menacing enemies.

The complementary instincts of morality and tribalism are easily manipulated. Civilization has made them more so. Beginning about 10,000 years ago, a tick in geological time, when the agricultural revolution started in the Middle East, in China, and in Mesoamerica, populations increased tenfold in density over those of hunter-gatherer societies. Families settled on small plots of land, villages proliferated, and labor was finely divided as a growing minority of the populace specialized as craftsmen, traders, and soldiers. The rising agricultural societies became increasingly hierarchical. As chiefdoms and then states thrived on agricultural surpluses, hereditary rulers and priestly castes took power. The old ethical codes were transformed into coercive regulations, always to the advantage of the ruling classes. About this time the idea of law-giving gods originated. Their commands lent the ethical codes overpowering authority -- once again, no surprise, in the interests of the rulers.

Because of the technical difficulty of analyzing such phenomena in an objective manner, and because people resist biological explanations of their higher cortical functions in the first place, very little progress has been made in the biological exploration of the moral sentiments. Even so, it is astonishing that the study of ethics has advanced so little since the nineteenth century. The most distinguishing and vital qualities of the human species remain a blank space on the scientific map. I doubt that discussions of ethics should rest upon the freestanding assumptions of contemporary philosophers who have evidently never given thought to the evolutionary origin and material functioning of the human brain. In no other domain of the humanities is a union with the natural sciences more urgently needed.

When the ethical dimension of human nature is at last fully opened to such exploration, the innate epigenetic rules of moral reasoning will probably not prove to be aggregated into simple instincts such as bonding, cooperativeness, and altruism. Instead the rules will most probably turn out to be an ensemble of many algorithms, whose interlocking activities guide the mind across a landscape of nuanced moods and choices.

Such a prestructured mental world may at first seem too complicated to have been created by autonomous genetic evolution alone. But all the evidence of biology suggests that just this process was enough to spawn the millions of species of life surrounding us. Each kind of animal is furthermore guided through its life cycle by unique and often elaborate sets of instinctual algorithms, many of which are beginning to yield to genetic and neurobiological analyses. With all these examples before us, we may reasonably conclude that human behavior originated the same way.