There’s an old joke that people in Alabama can be rest assured that when scholars tote up social statistics there’s always Mississippi to make sure that their state isn’t the last one listed. Sometimes I feel that way when thinking about comparing Bangladesh to Pakistan. Right now it is big news that an atheist blogger […] Continue reading
In relation to what happened in Paris today, Ezra Klein ends a passionate post with this: These murders can’t be explained by a close read of an editorial product, and they needn’t be condemned on free speech grounds. They can only be explained by the madness of the perpetrators, who did something horrible and evil […] Continue reading
The Ben Affleck vs. Bill Maher and Sam Harris debate about Islam is all over the interwebs, and seems like something of a Rorschach test. On my Twitter some people seem awfully impressed by Ben, while others (including me) think that it’s a pretty good illustration of the shallowness of contemporary Left liberalism when it […] Continue reading
Bayesian statistics has made The New York Times, The Odds, Continually Updated. One illustration of the utility of Bayesian methods left out of the piece is in phylogenetics. For example, Mr. Bayes. Just to see how far we’ve come, I like to retell a story from a professor of mine. When he was in grad school […] Continue reading
Several years ago George Will declared that he was an agnostic on the Colbert Report. Last week he pulled no punches: RCR: Do you believe in God? GW: No. I’m an atheist. An agnostic is someone who is not sure; I’m pretty sure. I see no evidence of God. The basic question in life is […] Continue reading
My post The Islamic State Is Right About Some Things was a “success” as far these things go. It was noted in a column in The New York Times, and highlighted issues which you can see being emphasized in pieces in Slate and The Spectator. But obviously in a single post there is a lot […] Continue reading
In Slate, Europe Has a Serious Anti-Semitism Problem, and It’s Not All About Israel: A recent Anti-Defamation League survey found that 24 percent of the French population and 21 percent of the German population harbor some anti-Semitic attitudes. A recent study of anti-Semitic letters received by Germany’s main Jewish organization found that 60 percent of the hate mail came from […] Continue reading
In response to one of my posts someone characterizes a historian as having stated that “the Christianization of Europe as a culturally created event that needn’t have occurred.” The “standard model” in history (which has detractors*) is that in the 390s the Western Roman Empire underwent a traditionalist pagan religious-cultural revival, snuffed out by Theodosius […] Continue reading
On Twitter and elsewhere (e.g., on this weblog, in real life) I often get into confusing arguments with people when it comes to religion because I approach the topic from a somewhat strange angle. Specifically, it is one which integrates cognitive science, evolutionary anthropology, intellectual history and sociology. My interest in this topic was more […] Continue reading
The core focus of this weblog is genetics. Anyone who knows me in “real life” is also aware that this focus is not something that manifests only on the internet, or at the workplace, but suffuses my whole life. Genetics is to me as crack is to Bobby Brown. This is not necessarily always a […]
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Mothers will makes sacrifices for their children, whether they believe in God, karma, or a mindless evolutionary process
The question: What can Darwin teach us about morality?
Is morality meaningless when its natural foundations are exposed? No, unlike the naked emperor there is a clear substance to the genius of human ethical intuitions. Ancient man believed that this vigour must have been imparted by the gods, but modern man has attempted to trace back its origins to our animal past.
Evolutionary theory is the framework which can expose the ultimate causes behind our moral intuitions. In the 1960s WD Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, and George Price elucidated an evolutionary algebra of morals which showed exactly how a gene-centered wold-view could give rise to altruism. To the question of “why”, these thinkers responded with “genes.” Goodness as we understand it is conditioned not upon a deep truth of what is good, but upon the utility of goodness in fostering the replication of particular genes. George Price produced the most general algebra of this genetic morality with his eponymous equation, but this brilliant flash of insight opened the door to the mechanical dissection of altruism which drove him to madness. Price looked to Christianity for the moral foundations which he believed had been torn down by his scientific analysis. His tortured decline and ultimate suicide in 1975 suggests that the answers Price found in religion were not sufficient.
What can this teach us? Not much. George Price was a passionate and mercurial individual before he stumbled upon the evolutionary explanations of altruism; and so he remained to his dying day. Will evolutionary theory be the universal acid, to borrow Daniel Dennett’s metaphor, which eats away at the rational foundations of our morality? There is quite a bit of variation in the belief in evolution across countries. In Denmark most everyone accepts evolution, while in Turkey only a minority do. Are the Danes tortured souls, as opposed to the Turks, who are assured as to the divine roots of their morals? Despite the picture painted by Lars von Trier’s body of work the Danes are by some measures the happiest people in the world, so I would say no.
The origins of morality do not matter. The Danes believe in evolution, yes, but they understand it only marginally better than the Turks. Fewer still could define inclusive fitness. Turks believe in Islam, but most know Islamic theology or jurisprudence as well as a Dane. Sons cherish their mothers, and mothers will sacrifice for their children, whether they believe in a living God above, an eternal karmic cycle, or a mindless evolutionary process across the eons.
The ethos of the age does not rest upon the ratiocinations of the philosopher, it emerges from the consensus of the plain people, informed and constrained by our evolved intuitions. This may cause distress among intellectuals with a zeal for systematic coherency, but the hearts of most men are unmoved by a failure of logic. Human nature is biologically rooted no matter where the canopy sways. The puritans believed with great sincerity that all was predestined by God, yet their daily decisions seemed untroubled by the existential anxieties in their literature. A devout Christian believes that this life is just the beginning, but with a gun to his head he may feel as much fear as an atheist. This may not be coherent, but it is all too human. Our moral consensus is a river whose course shifts across the plain, constrained by the hills thrust upward by biology. Only history knows where the river will flow next, though evolution can hint at the range of possibilities.
In complex and non-linear systems, the only thing we know is that our predictions are unreliable. I fear the reliably unpredictable
I fear the predictable unpredictable. Over the past decade there have been many warnings about Global Warming; precise extrapolations of temperature increases and projections of sea level rise. Such prognostication is understandable, they make the threat concrete to a complacent public. But the reality is that these physical processes are non-linear systems subject to wild fluctuations, with “flips” between alternative equilibrium states. Try to turn that into punchy prose!
More concretely, I do not fear Global Warming, I fear the onset of an Ice Age due to Global Warming. My worries are based on the lessons of past history. The most recent ice core and lake sediment results suggest that the Younger Dryas mini-Ice Age began in a matter of months, and ended over the course of ten years. Any charting of the climatic regime of the past one million years yield a succession of Ice Ages and warmer periods, known as Interglacials. It is a world of temperature plateaus and canyons, not of gentle hills and smooth valleys. Our civilization has matured within one of those canyons of warmth.
Asserting that Global Warming could lead to an Ice Age might seem cryptic, but non-linear systems do not operate in a straightforward fashion. Changes in the current temperature equilibrium could result in a flip to a new state after a chaotic rampage through a wide range of possibilities. A warmer earth might produce more precipitation, and so greater snow-cover in winter, which would increase reflectance of solar radiation. A new cycle of cooler temperatures triggered by greater reflectance might then reduce precipitation, but also increase the proportion of snow-fall. And so might arise a positive feedback loop, leading to a runaway increase in snow-over. Such a scenario is suggestive of a worrisome possibility, not a precise prediction. But such unpredictable possibilities must be considered, as that is what the past yields.
But unpredictable possibilities and wild scenarios are not limited to climate. Our world rests upon on finely-tuned and interlocking social systems and their synergies. The visions of Malthus and animal subsistence have been banished through innovation, productivity growth, and specialization of skills. But like a space shuttle there are many delicate moving parts which need to operate in perfect sync so that the glory which is modern technological civilization can take flight. The slightest defect may ground it at best and send it shattering apart at worst.
We may not live in the world of Thomas Hobbes, but I fear that we could very soon if the social capital of trust and security which modern humans depend upon evaporates due to environmental instability or chaos. Just as climatic systems may be driven by positive feedback loops, so trust and social capital could quickly be cannibalized by the emergence of unforeseen events. Who would have predicted the conflict in Sarajevo in the wake of the 1984 Winter Olympics which showcased the city’s multicultural amity? Who could have predicted that the German nation which was renowned for its cultural and technological genius would have been party to one of the greatest mass atrocities in the history of the world?
Unfortunately for the art of prediction what we should fear is more likely governed by the hidden rules of chaos than the clear axioms of geometry. The clean and predictable certainties of the modern world are built upon the elegant maths of Newton and his heirs, but the darkness which looms over our civilization are children of dynamics which have been woefully neglected because of their obscurity and intractability. We may live to rue our ignorance of the unpredictable darkness.
Update: Just to be clear, I think the variation across cultures is probably explained in large part by confusion as to what is being asked, and differential sampling. In particular, I suspect that the ‘Turkey” sample is more representative than the “Bangladesh” sample, because Turkey is a more developed society. I’ve mentioned before that […] Continue reading
Over at The American Conservative Noah Millman and Rod Dreher are having a discussion over the basic premise that founding texts (e.g., Bible, Koran) and individuals (e.g., Jesus, Muhammad) have a deep influence upon the nature of a religion. Long time readers will be aware that I side much more with Millman on this. In […] Continue reading
The Bill Maher clip has to be watched to be believed. Not the guest’s attempt to obfuscate. The fundamental issue is simple: most non-Muslims don’t care about Islam or Muslims so long as Islam and Muslims don’t impinge upon their lives. We don’t care about the heterogeneity of Islam or history when faced to real […] Continue reading
Rod Dreher has an interesting post up at The American Conservative, The Lie Of Atheism (It’s Not What You Think). He relays a scourging of the New Atheists by Damon Linker. Rod has an interesting passage which I think highlights the difference between his psychology and that of my own: …I have never understood why […] Continue reading
This morning in Slate I encountered a rather peculiar piece, The Original Jewish Genius: How the Gaon of Vilna helps explain Jewish intellectual achievement. The reason I found this piece peculiar is that it strikes me as something of a rewriting of the conventional historical narrative for anyone who is not what we today term […] Continue reading
In a few days South Korea will have a new president, and this is very important because of how large North Korea looms in geopolitics. An interesting aspect of this race for Americans is that the candidate of the conservative party, Park Geun-Hye, may be an atheist, running against a Roman Catholic liberal. I say […] Continue reading
It’s that time of the year, and I quite like “the Holidays.” I am, of course, looking forward to my daughter’s first Christmas. Though no one in our family believes in the religious justification for the holiday, it is still an important time of the year, for reasons I have outlined before. But for the […] Continue reading