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December 08, 2006


Your reservations about what you call “the commonly held dogma” are well founded. As it turns out, the “accepted paradigm of evolutionary biology (selfish gene) and what Hauser calls "group selection"” is neither accepted nor is Hauser’s idea original. Ever since Dawkins’ came up with the selfish gene theory (70s), it has been contested by Gould and the debate can be said to have turned in Gould’s favor. I quote below from an outstanding 2004 review of Dawkins by H. Allen Orr in the NYRB.

“Dawkins and Gould engaged in an extended dispute over "units of selection": Is the gene the fundamental unit on which natural selection acts or can selection act at other levels too? Gould championed "hierarchical selection," the idea that selection can act at any level in the biological hierarchy, from single genes to entire ecosystems. He was particularly fond of "species selection," in which whole species are the target of natural selection. (Species that split into new species faster than, or become extinct slower than, other species will become more common.) To Gould, there was nothing particularly special about the gene level and any claim to the contrary reflected a regrettable misunderstanding of Darwinism … most evolutionists now accept that natural selection can in principle act at any level in the biological hierarchy. Dawkins admits as much in A Devil's Chaplain.”

Ok, here is my objection to what I see as the thrust of your argument (and Hauser's by extension): evolutionary morality was shaped by the elements, rudimentary tribal units, and a different exposure to disease, the environment, resources, technology, etc. Few, if any, of these factors have similar power over modern humans in the advanced societies and complex cultures of today. What survival, altruism, and cooperation meant to homo erectus is not at all the same as in our media driven age of increasingly isolated “individuals” seeking liberty and the pursuit of happiness (wasn’t the same even in Ashoka’s time for that matter).

The SA article may validate your idea that evolution bestowed upon us a sense of beneficial/harmful actions that once helped us survive “in the wild”. But this sense is a highly inadequate (in many ways, irrelevant) guide for the moral choices we face today. For better or worse, we have dramatically altered the Darwinian milieu of homo erectus. Mass culture, organized faiths, money, cities, literature, civil rights, history, notions of the "self", science, technology, medicine, etc. have altered the situation a great deal. Our evolutionary morality has receded in relevance. We now have to rely even more on things like critical reasoning, wide ranging knowledge, and honest analysis to figure out right from wrong in our own world (which, as I noted earlier, is what the Buddha and the Socrates advocated too). And due to the nature of plurality and diversity of human ends, there is no reason to believe that a single idea of right/wrong (i.e., morality) will appeal to even rational minded people.

Invoking evolutionary morality to suggest that (in some real meaningful way) we are born knowing right/wrong for our world strikes me as rather simplistic and misguided. Further, if you consider what else our evolutionary morality entails (besides notions of altruism), you’ll find some horrifying "immorality" in there (our roots are animal after all), and which we now strive to keep in check. Our evolutionary instincts frequently conflict with our ideas of right and wrong today. One can argue that the whole basis of civilization is to interfere with the brute logic of evolution.

Welcome back! This one really gets your goat, doesn't it?

Actually, what I am saying is perhaps simple but not simplistic. I also tend to agree more with Gould than I do with Dawkins.

I am not arguing so much about at what level ( single gene, species or the eco-system) our morality is generated, rather as to which human quality affects it in the final analysis. I do not think that our animal selves are necessarily derogatory or disparaging facets of our identity. The level at which we are way ahead of other animals, is our intelligence and our power to reason. And I think that is precisely the fountainhead of our morality. That we are able to relate, collate and extrapolate from our immediate experiences is what gives rise to empathy, the basis of our morality. From self to family to tribe to nation to all humankind to all of nature falls into the purview of our moral and ethical concerns. And that ability we acquired somewhere along our evolutionary path - I do not claim to know by exactly which mechanism of natural selection. But I suspect that it was beneficiary to the survival of the self AND the group.

To say that our altruism / morality does not at some level also relate to our primal instinct of survival, is to negate our animal selves - a mistake in my view. What is it that you find objectionable in my argument? Can our entire moral behavior be distilled to the simple (not simplistic) notion of "Do unto others as you would have done to you?" Isn't that at the core of all our morality? Can we perform a moral act or a generate a moral thought without asking that question grounded in empathy? That is the question I am asking. I am not engaged in a debate whether the natural selection for that quality occurred at the level of a single gene or within the species. What I am asserting however, is that altruism doesn't happen in a vaccum. It too is a "selfish" instinct. For the benefit of the group, the tribe, the nation, the eco-system and ultimately the self. Humans as social animals "do good to make good."

Yes, the modern man performs many acts that seemingly seem to fly in the face of preservation of the self. We distinguish between love and lust, greed and generosity, equity and personal gain. But in each case, wouldn't you agree that there is a calculation of cost-benefit which is geared towards the preservation of a social unit? The family, the market place, the nation or the world? What is the conflict here? In my views and yours? Is it the idea of a calculated logic behind our morality that bothers you? It doesn't bother me. It is further illustration in my mind that our morality is in fact a reasoned "instinct" rather than an emotional (or spiritual as some would say) one.

Yes, we are constantly taking stock of our ethics and moral foundations in light of changing circumstances and expanding knowledge. But how does that conflict with anything I have said? I haven't claimed that there is an entire "moral code" written in our heritable chromosomes - something that we are following unchanged from our hunter gatherer days. What we do have is an ability to "fashion" the moral code necessary for the best possible "survival" mechanism for self, group and species at any given time in light of the prevailing knowledge and circumstances.

Also, we haven't very well distilled off our animal instincts of greed, selfishness, need for territorial supremacy if the blood soaked twentieth century was any indication. Religion, political ideology, tribalism were all lethal blunt instruments in that "animal" century. The fact that despite that bloodshed (or because of it) we are engaged in endless debate over how to prevent such rampant destruction of the "species" is the basis of our morality.

Tell me, what is the central basis of your objection? Can it be that we are talking past each other but making the same point? If our morality is not part of our "natural" existence, intimately related to our survival as a society and therefore as individuals, what do you ascribe it to?

Maybe we are talking past each other, but let me try one more time. ;-) Maybe Hauser is the only one I am arguing against. I’ll home in on my central objection.

a) I agree that survival instinct is an important factor in our moral calculation (some other instincts evolution has bestowed on us include greed, lust, anger, power, etc.).

b) Without reasoning and empathy (capacities also granted us by evolution), the instincts above do not reliably lead to good ideas of right and wrong.

c) Bad morality ensues when our reason and empathy fail us. So it is futile to appeal to instincts as a guide to good morality (see b).

Instincts don’t reliably lead to good morality, conscious reasoning does (when not duped that is). It is the failure of the latter that brings on the tragedy (look at 20th cent. mayhem). Reason need not be opposed to our instincts at all; it needs to incorporate them, as well as our fast changing circumstances, in calculating right and wrong. We need to appeal to reason rather than to our instincts for worthy notions of right and wrong.

The thrust of my arguments in both cases was really against organized religion (and political ideologies which are elevated to the rank of religion) as the arbiter of morality as opposed to our power of reason. That is what I meant by "secular ethics."

Religion in my opinion, has actually hamstrung our ability to "evolve" morally. Whatever the validity was for organized religion to come up with a particular set of ethics suitable perhaps for societies one, two or three thousand years ago, they are no longer wholly valid today in light of the vast array of new knowledge. Yet, mainstream morality stays grounded in antiquated guidelines which actually make many of our current "immoral" acts possible. Discrimination (gender, believers vs non-believers); exploitation over stewardship of nature (Biblical view); accident of birth as fate (Hinduism); chosen people (all faiths); and just wars which are not always just.

Our inherent evolutionary advantage of reason is in fact neutralized by our blind faith in religion or unyielding poltical ideologies. It makes us lazy and puts an end to ethical and moral debate by the artificial construct of the "last word." Evolution is real. I believe nature equips us with moral skills by endowing us with the ability to empathize. Religion and rigid political ideologies blunt that sense by telling us from childhood "who" or "what" should be the recipient of that empathy - tribalizing societies.

I don't think that the moral code is heritable but the moral compass is.

After reading more carefully, I think we differ more in emphasis, semantics, etc., than in substance. I agree that “nature equips us with moral skills by endowing us with the ability to empathize” and that religion (and other mass beliefs) blunt the use of the finest ability we get from evolution: reason.

However, based on the reviews I have read, Hauser attempts “a science of morality”, giving short shrift to conscious reasoning and voluntary deliberation as an engine of morality. This I find problematic. To the extent I saw you identifying with this view, I argued against it. Perhaps you approach Hauser from a different vantage point.

That's what I thought too.

I actually haven't paid as close attention to Hauser's claims as you have. I was really running with the idea of an inborn "moral compass" - that we are born with the right faculties to become moral beings rather than having to learn it all from dusty tomes of ancient morality like mindless robots.

Changing subjects a bit, what do you think of the recent phenomenon of scientists and atheists speaking out against religion (9/11 made it possible, I think)? Daniel Dennet, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris being among the most vocal. Recently Nicholas Kristoff of NYT criticized this development as nasty and mean spirited. My co-blogger Dean has reservations about scientists entering the arena of religion and God. My husband (a scientist) believes that they must, being the standard bearers of reasoned and rational thought. After all, it won't be the first time that science has clashed with religious dogma. What do you think? Do scientists have a role to play in this debate?

The question you pose is interesting. I think that only those who feel the urge to speak out against religion should do so. If this sounds facetious, hear me out:

a) I accept that science is a product of reason, but scientists? When it comes to thinking outside their disciplines, scientists can be downright dorky, self-righteous, and as hokey as the next man on the street. As a group, I have no greater respect for scientists than for lawyers, nurses, or oil rig workers. As a group, I wouldn’t trust them a priori with a critique and defense of anything other than what pertains to their own discipline.

b) I have no interest in opposing religion as a whole, only its moral excesses. Science is complemented by religion (or metaphysics, to use a more general term preferred by philosophy majors). Science greatly furthers human self-knowledge but, in the words of Weinberg, faces a seemingly “unbridgeable gulf between is questions and ought questions.” Metaphysics, on the other hand, is a larger inquiry for purpose and meaning in the light of the sciences, and in the light of everyday experiences.

c) The opposition between science and religion is a peculiarly Western concept. That's because Christianity got tied up with explaining nature (creation in seven days, earth at the center of the universe, etc.). The conflict began there. For some very sound reasons, there is hardly a conflict between Buddhism and science. Lots of scientists have acknowledged Buddhism’s unimpeachable insights into the nature of reality. Einstein thought it compatible with science and called it the religion of the future.

Just a couple days ago, I read and liked Terry Eagleton’s excoriating review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion. No offence to your husband Ruchira, but I think that scientists, as a group, don’t need to get uppity about criticizing religion because they think they are the standard bearers of reason. They are not. They, like anyone else, are free to criticize religion, and when they do so, should be prepared to withstand scrutiny from people like Terry and me. ;-) Critique of religion is not useful unless it is a rational critique, where the critic is also acutely aware of the limits of reason. Scientists have no better track record here than your average grandma.

A few other notes: First, some of the most famous scientists, including Newton and Einstein, were religious. Second, what rationality did scientists employ when they built the atomic bomb which (unlike dynamite) had no other use than massive destruction? Third, most wars, gulags, and genocides of the 20th century had secular origins. Can a votary of secular ethics reasonably argue that religion is the bane of humanity?

You relayed the beliefs of others on this topic. Where do you yourself stand on it?

Throughout your discussion so far, one phrase is used repeatedly, and caught my attention "the evolution of empathy", mentioned as a necessary precursor to the development of altruism. Why is empathy considered to be a product of evolution?
The dictionary defines it as "Etymology: Greek empatheia, literally, passion, from empathEs emotional, from em- + pathos feelings, emotion -- more at PATHOS
1 : the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
2 : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this"

But this doesn't mean that it did not exist in the far ranges of prehistory, even if the dominant species had no term for it in their language. ( Even the word empathy was coined only early in the 20th century, as per the Britannica).

In references to the animal world, we see examples of dolphins and whales trying to free trapped members of their species, similarly in elephants. Crows set up a raucous cry in groups if one of their kind are in trouble. Do we have some way to classify this as mere sympathy, rather than empathy? In other words, why this constant reference to 'the evolution of empathy', as though it requires a higher degree of sentience than we see in most of the animal world?

Of course, I don't think that individual scientists are somehow better equipped to enter this debate. A large number of them make foolish / unethical decisions. Brilliant minds were involved in the Manhattan project and Soviet era human rights violations; Einstein supported the atomic bomb; my husband rides a motorcycle in middle age.

Positing that IQ, social conscience and the capacity for a 360 degree view of the world being equal, scientists are capable of ethical debate as much (and perhaps in some cases more) as the next philosopher or theologian, due precisely to the nature of science. (That is a lot of prerequisites) Remember Oppenheimer's regret (I am become death, the destroyer of worlds), Linus Pauling's activism.

What I do believe is that scientists, especially, SHOULD be involved. The scientific disciplines rooted in reason ARE in fact the best antidote to superstition and illogical thinking. With that end mind, science education should include courses in ethics and philosophy so that scientists do learn to think out of their narrow boxes and enter this debate in the town square. That will benefit the field of ethics as well as science. The ancient polymath scientists were fully trained and well positioned to take on an ethical debate. Galileo vs the Catholic Church was an amazing example and it was for the most part grounded in theology. Actually, not just scientists, every thinking person should engage in this discussion - businessmen, doctors, lawyers (especially, lawyers), oil rig workers and grandmas. It is no longer acceptable that this vital aspect of our private and public life be left solely in the hands of self proclaimed "men of god." Yes, my observations and power of reasoning tell me that organized religion has been a huge impediment to progress in this matter.

You may have misread me a bit. I don't claim that empathy is exclusively a human quality. I am aware of the examples you cite. In fact some recent fascinating experiments show that dolphins and elephants may also be aware of "self" as distinct entities over and above their ability to empathize with others in their midst. That is why I was arguing that empathy is a necessary quality for the survival of the self and the species. My main contention (as well as Shunya's, I believe) is that the human evolutionary "moral" advantage may lie in our highly sharpened power to "reason" that enables us to include a vast arena beyond self and tribe within the umbrella of our "empathy."

This is a very difficult topic to tackle on the blog to everyone's satisfaction. After all, the same debate has been raging for centuries. It is especially difficult when my own ideas are half baked. But I do believe that fresh perspective should constantly be sought in the matter of morality in light of ever expanding knowledge of the world and our surroundings, rather than taking comfort in established "wisdoms." I enjoyed the give and take here.

I'm a latecomer to this particular post, and I know in advance that I can't take the discussion beyond what you all have achieved. Ruchira notes that I have "reservations about scientists entering the arena of religion and God." This is true, mostly. The "reservations" part is well measured, but I should clarify that they are over scientists qua scientists barging in on religion and proclaiming it fully subject to their particular modes of analysis and operation. Along these lines, I would not agree with these remarks by Ruchira:

What I do believe is that scientists, especially, SHOULD be involved. The scientific disciplines rooted in reason ARE in fact the best antidote to superstition and illogical thinking.
Scientists have no monopoly on reason, nor is science utterly devoid of superstition. Science can bring its tools to the phenomena of religion and work to rectify religious anomalies, but science no more than politics or literature can or should occupy the space of religion, nor hope like Dawkins to banish it. For what it's worth, by the way, I like to think that I have not a religious bone in my body. I'm not as interested in protecting religion as I am in checking the audacity and hubris of science. (I do understand audacity and hubris.)

Welcome to the debate (I have exhausted most of my power of reasoning here).

I didn't say that scientists should have a monopoly but rather, a rightful place at the table. Despite the superstitions of science, science still does offer the best available tools for this debate, provided they are wielded with thoughtfulness and a lack of hubris. Neither do I contend that they should be the only ones . Notice that I include grandmas and oil rig workers too. And believe me, in a world run by politicians, organized religion and wealthy men, scientists occupy only a middling rung in the ladder of hubris.

Also, I have a feeling that both Shunya and Dean are falling into the trap of buying into the commonly held negative image of scientists. Along the same lines as Terry Eagleton accusing Dawkins of painting all faithfuls with the same broad brush of fundamentalism. Just as there is thoughtful and nuanced faith, there are thoughtful scientists capable of reasonable debates.

In this context, I would like to draw the attention of readers to Shunya's own article on a related topic.

A bit of argument at cross-purposes here regarding the 'evolution of empathy' term. I'm aware that you don't dispute the existence of empathy in other than human/humanoid species, but the main query was why the earlier discussion kept using the term 'evolution of empathy'. To me, it brought to mind images of a timeline divided into pre-empathy, and post empathy periods of sorts ( not necessarily an off/on thing, more like a rising graph of the sense of empathy vs. time. That's why I was curious about your definition of the term, and also the reason why I was trying to illustrate by showing that we can't arguably claim that empathy is something which evolves, just that it exists.

I’d like to defend myself by saying that I'm not falling for the popular negative images of scientists. As I wrote, my image of scientists is no more negative or positive than that of nurses, oil rig workers, and grandmas. They are like other ordinary people who shouldn’t be put on a pedestal of reason by virtue of their profession.

Not to unduly prolong this debate but I feel like raising one final issue. Imagine your ideal non-religious group, comprised of rational people including scientists, who all act thoughtfully and without hubris. Do you advocate that this group should actively take on organized religion as a whole to encourage rational ways in the world? If yes, it doesn’t sound that far a-field from the diehard fans of democracy who say we should topple dictators abroad and hold elections to inculcate democratic ways in the world. Clearly, what’s missing in both cases is the aspect of organic change from within.

Did I say "evolution of empathy" anywhere?

For humans as humans, there probably is no pre / post empathy period in history that we can pinpoint. Like apes and numerous other animals, they too may have had this trait from the very beginning of their existence as herd animals and sentient beings. But yes, I do believe that it is entirely plausible that "somewhere" along the evolutionary pathway, they did "acquire" the trait for the good of the species - entirely selfish communities having disappeared.

While I am not advocating a "jihad" in the name of reason and rationality, I am definitely for a "debate" - a loud one if necessary (a la Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris).

I would be all for organic change from within. But the playing field right now is way tilted in favor of organized religion where children are indoctrinated, circumcized and otherwise learn to behave according to edicts handed down for generations without any scope or opportunity to learn "organically." Religious behavior in observant communities is taught as unselfconsciously as learning to brush your teeth. Given that set of circumstances, reason and rationality on their own may come too late or not at all without someone shouting from the rooftop.

I suspect Ruchira is right about my unwitting susceptibility to negative images of scientists, although I find myself consciously resisting the favorable ones, too, the NYT bestseller types who sensationalize or pontificate about one thing or another. (The very title of James Gleick's Chaos irritates me.) Shunya puts it succinctly: scientists "shouldn’t be put on a pedestal of reason by virtue of their profession."

On November 21, NYT ran a story by George Johnson, "A Free-for-All on Science and Religion" (now unavailable to non-paying customers), to which I began a response for posting on AB. Among my remarks:

I find this unrelenting discussion of the "differences" between science and religion disheartening. I can't imagine two more incommensurable categories of praxis, and so the account ["exploring the irony of a room full of fervid religious hearts and brilliant scientific minds taking snotty potshots at each other like spoiled kids in a schoolyard," as I summarized Johnson] seems entirely absurd to me.
Then I went on to address Dawkins.
Richard Dawkins is of course one of the lightning rods in the controversy. Never mind his knack for provocation, which I gather he exercises nowadays primarily to promote his new book. He is also something of a hypocrite. On a recent PRI broadcast—unfortunately, not the one I find here at—I heard him maintain that he refuses to participate in these "debates" because they do nothing more than allow the advocates of religion whom he opposes to characterize their positions as worthy of scientific consideration. This is something like my point of view, which would further hold that doing so is not only strategically defective, but a ridiculous waste of time. Yet here he is in La Jolla [the site of the conference], reportedly name-calling his opponents and utterly stooping to the level at which he finds them.
On the PRI broadcast linked above, he does make remarkable statements, such as, "Fifty years ago, many more people were racist than they are now" (around 6'50"). This is such a sloppy comment that one should begin to question virtually everything else he utters that doesn’t precisely emerge from the discipline of his formal expertise. And that is one of my primary concerns about this controversy: it is symptomatic of a (perhaps only popular) scientific will to dominate all discussion, including of topics having nothing to do with the purview of science.
And so forth. Yes, pointed debate is good, but the conference reported on by Johnson—giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt that he didn't spruce the story up a bit for the sake of "human interest"—shouldn't be the touchstone.

Thanks Dean, for posting in the comments section what you had planned as a post!

I think the atheists/ secular humanists/rationalists have been emboldened by 9/11 as Scott Adams has speculated. After decades of lurking behind the scenes as the most vilified group, they at last have the podium and are sounding a bit shrill in their exuberance :-) They may be obnoxious but that doesn't make them wrong, necessarily.

You can watch the entire Beyond Belief conference at

Beyond Belief 2006

I liked the talks by Carolyn Porco, V S Ramachandran, and Mahzarin Banaji.

Thank you, Biswajit, for this link! Already, there are some very interesting comments from participants. Carolyn Porco echoes—more forcefully than I do—my concern that the NYT story was distorted, and there are at least a couple folks who are disturbed by, not so much the substance, but the PR effects a badly composed retort to religion by science can precipitate.

Consider this too: Just as there appears to be an evolutionary basis for empathy and altruism, there may be an evolutionary basis for religiosity too. Every culture on earth has had a strong sense of the divine. Fear and reverence for a higher power (god, but also nature, authority, hierarchy) may have had a stabilizing and empowering effect on our ancestors. Its comforts and consolations may have had survival advantages. Science now suggests this is plausible. If other animals can survive without the use of reason, humans may have been designed by nature to survive with only a sporadic use of reason. But to many of us card-carrying rationalists this idea is so un-glam! ;-)

And perhaps it is possible to overpower this “god instinct” today after a lot of secular training. Perhaps this instinct is simply weaker in a proportion of the population who find it easier to become atheists. I myself lost god completely at 13, well before I had a sophisticated rational basis for debunking god. Perhaps, in most atheists, the target merely shifts from a "blind belief in god" to a "blind belief in something else" (the idea of the individual? linear progress? the power of reason? nature reverence? hope and beauty? fame and success? communism? free markets and democracy?).

So it seems to me that ridding humanity of its irrational beliefs and superstitions is an enterprise fit only for the likes of Don Quixote. Why not aspire only to combat those beliefs that often lead to moral infractions, including such beliefs deep within us?

I don't doubt for a moment that we all have our "delicate" spots which leaves open the possibility of a belief in something bigger than one's self. Not to have that capacity is in fact to become robots. I find that quality endearing and entirely human. Our capacity for wonder and reverence may also have the evolutionary advantage of piquing our curiosity and thus be the impetus for knowledge and overall progress. With our limited ability to appreciate nature and the universe, expressions of wonder like "God / Allah only knows" are very understandable. So is the need to create ever newer "isms," be they religious or political, for finding all the answers to what ails us. I have no quarrel with any of that. The problem is that once a critical mass of adherents to any "ism" is achieved, there is a tendency on the part of proponents to shut off debate. "God only knows," then becomes "WE know what God (or Mao; or Marx; or Milton Friedman) knows because God told us." That is when the problem starts. We stop growing as humans and we start trying to fit round truths into square holes of ideologies, resulting in hatred, blood shed and mayhem.

I am all for belief but it ought to be with constant examination and re- evaluation. I find myself agreeing much more with the Buddhist philosophy of eternal spiritual quest (and a culture of open minded scientific query) than the "last word" on anything unless it is verifiable.

And I love Don Quixote. Tilting at windmills is a far nobler pursuit than mindlessly worshipping one.

It takes a while on a blog to understand someone’s views, especially on topics as complex as religion, science, and morality. My persistence was driven by a certain broad-brush stridency against all religion that I might have picked up somewhere in your words. I also heard many lectures at the link Biswajit provided, including by Dawkins and Harris, both of whom struck me as the two biggest yahoos there as far as a nuanced understanding of the human condition goes. Since you had expressed some admiration for their ways, it triggered another post to clarify some things. Now it seems to me that my fears were exaggerated. Thanks for your patience. ;-)

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