Date: Sept. 2, 2003 
From: "Phil Roberts, Jr."
Subject: Re: [evol-psych] Kin Selection vs. Group Selection?

Herbert Gintis wrote:
 > At 02:11 PM 8/29/2003 -0400, Phil Roberts, Jr. wrote:
 >> I assume you agree with me that if human culture were
 >> eradicated and human organisms were to somehow survive the calamity that
 >> it would be many millennia before prudence, let alone prosociality, would
 >> reappear on the planet.  So aren't we both in agreement with Dawkins,
 >> at least on the point that generosity and altruism are cultural inventions
 >> totally dependent on culture for their transmission?
 >         I quite disagree with this.

'Prosocial' is a term I've borrowed from you, and I am no doubt using
it clumsily to refer to something a little too specific, such as
the willfulness of one organism to endure physical discomfort or
pain to relieve the physical discomfort or pain of a non-related
subordinate, e.g., hunger.  In other words, I'm using it to
refer to instances of empathy that cash out in currency
that counts.  And, based on my own childhood experiences with
deficiencies in this department and personal interactions with
young children, I think this sort of behavior is likely only to
appear within a cognitive environment typical of an evolved culture
and, even then, probably limited to mature individuals who have
been properly inculcated with the norms (Kohlberg comes to mind).
Half the time I won't even make those kind of sacrifices for
my own future (repeated postponements of my dental appointments
come to mind), and we're talking a full blown mature individual
functioning in a highly evolved culture here.

To be honest, I don't think it is at all straining credulity to
suspect that even something as basic as maternal concern is highly
dependent on culture.  For example, I recall a TV documentary
in which it was observed that unenculturated zoo gorillas not only
don't care for their newborns, but exhibit no awareness that they
even SHOULD care for them.  And in my psychodynamics paper I
have offered additional arguments based on Hume's observations
on the manner in which "association facilitates the sympathy".
If such were the case, and even something as basic as maternal
concern requres enculturation, then it would mean our
hypothetical experiment with totally unenculturated humans
would require constant behind the scenes intervention just to
keep the experiment going.  And I don't think you have to have
much of an imagination to appreciate what sort of offspring
we would be talking about here (experiments on monkeys, etc.).
Given this possibility, I suspect my contention that
"prosociality" would reappear only after many millennia is
probably too optimistic.

 > Prosocial emotions for instance (empathy, shame, spite, etc.)

As with your practice of referring to non self regarding behavior
as 'prosocial' rather than 'emotionally selfish', I believe your
referring to emotions such as shame, quilt, spite, etc.
as 'prosocial' presupposes we already understand their function.
Of course, I agree that their effects are often prosocial, and
they certainly LOOK like they might have been designed to perform
this function, but I think in a world a little less inculcated
with behaviorist leanings they could with equal justification
be referred to as ego-related or self-worth related emotion.

Of course, viewed from this perspective, their adaptiveness seems
more questionable, in that one is inevitably faced with having to
ask far more difficult and potentially disturbing questions such
as 'Why is there a species of naturally selected organism incurring
huge physical costs in the pursuit of the survivalistically bizarre
non-physical objective of maximizing self-worth?'

While more difficult, and potentially more disturbing, this sort
of question harbors the promise for avoiding the sort of
explanatory narrowness Dawkins has complained about in that,
arguably, 99% of everything human beings think or do could
conceivably come under this heading (e.g., needs for love, romance,
attention, achievement, purpose, meaning, religion, moral integrity,
autonomy, dignity, wealth, power, etc.).

 > are clearly the product of gene-culture
 > coevolution, not simply culture impressed on a genetic "blank slate."

Nor is it the product of just any old culture impressed on a gene
for empathy.  Its gene-culture CO-evolution, IMHO, an ongoing
process in which BOTH culture and prosociality evolve together.
For example, there is a huge increase in the number of individuals
who come under the heading of 'thy neighbor' as a result of modern
forms of communication, etc. in our shrinking world.  (Singer's
views on the expanding circle come to mind).

 > We
 > are genetically predisposed to incorporate generosity and altruism into
 > our behavior, and many of those humans who do not (e.g., sociopaths) are
 > likely lacking in some of the genetic machinery for prosociality.

Agreed.  Its just that I would argue, based on Hume's observations
on the manner in which "association facilitates the sympathy",
that in a totally unenculturated group of humans everyone would
be a sociopath by today's standards, for a time at least
(the wild boy of Aveyron comes to mind).

 >> And aren't
 >> we also in agreement that, whatever has led to these developments,
 >> nature is engaged in a relentless crusade to eliminate self
 >> sacrifice, throttling every 9/11 terrorist and self-incinerating
 >> Buddhist monk she can get her hands on?
 > We cannot agree on this, either. Culture and nature conspire to
 > create as many self-sacrificing individuals as self-sacrifice.

Wow!  You've blown my mind!  Self-incinerating monk genes don't
have to pay a heavy price for their phenotypic propensities?

In my psychodynamics paper (URL'd below) I've offered an alternative
perspective in which it is assumed that, via cultural evolution, nature
has been "inadvertently" manufacturing altruism at a faster rate than it
can be eliminated.

 >> Perhaps you have succeeded where so many have failed.  But I'm
 >> a tad bit skeptical, as I'm sure you will understand.
 >> I don't think this problem is going to be resolved by tinkering
 >> with the models, and I don't think it comes even close to the
 >> sort of radical restart Dawkins has in mind:
 > Tinkering with models??? That's what you call scientific
 > research? Tinkering with models is science, or at least an important
 > part of science. And the models are ways to explain new evidence. New
 > evidence is important in science.

I'm sorry.  It wasn't my intention to be flippant, but I just don't
know of any other way to put it.  But on rereading you're
Hitchhiker paper I think we may agree more than I realized.  I
agree about the hitchhiking business and, indeed, have been
promoting a similar idea (that emotional instability and
increased concern for others are maladaptive by-products of
the evolution of rationality) for almost twenty years now e.g.,
                     Feelings of Worthlessness
   An Annotated Outline of a Theory of Emotional Instability

Just replace your adaptive gene for internal norms with the
gene for rationality and, Voila!, you've entered my domain.
Its also the theme that underlies my psychodynamics paper
(below), in case you haven't noticed.


                    Phil Roberts, Jr.

Why We Turned Out Like Captain Kirk Instead of Mr. Spock:
         The Psychodynamics of Genetic Indeterminism