Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Evolution of Morality


University of Michigan political science professor Robert Axelrod set up a famous computer experiment, a tournament of very simple computer-simulated beings, detailed in his book The Evolution of Cooperation.  He wanted to see which basic behavior patterns would reap the greatest rewards in a world where the pseudo-beings could help or harm one another upon each encounter.  The tournament demonstrated that a “tit for tat” program, one that cooperated on its first encounter with another being and afterwards responded in kind to the actions of its neighbor (harm for harm, help for help), fared better than almost any other program, despite its great simplicity.  It rewarded cooperation and punished betrayal, instead of being either pacifistic or overly vengeful.

It may be no coincidence that almost all early ethical and legal codes were some variation on the simple idea of “an eye for an eye” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  These basic justice rules may be written in our nature after all, much as conservatives have sometimes contended.  Real human beings, much like the creatures in Axelrod’s simulation, are the product of countless generations of interpersonal conflict, with each succeeding generation (if the model is accurate) being slightly more likely to possess instincts for tit-for-tat behavior, since that is the most sustainable basic strategy: reward kindness with kindness, aggression with aggression (subsequent experiments have shown the even greater efficacy of a slightly modified formula, forgiving the first wrong but thereafter employing tit-for-tat).  Proto-humans whose instincts happened to tend in another direction — such as attacking anyone they saw, whether friend or foe — would tend not to form bonds, receive aid, or pass their antisocial impulses on to a new generation.  This theory is sometimes called evolutionary ethics.

Biologist Robert Trivers at Rutgers, who I mentioned in yesterday’s entry, says that perhaps his own greatest contribution to the field “was to show how cooperation and altruistic behavior find a ready home in evolutionary biology…[We] provided biology with a foundation for a sense of justice.  So, instead of seeing our sense of fairness and justice as being just cultural artifacts, which might in principle disappear with a different upbringing, you saw that there was quite a biological substratum for why we feel that way.”  Trivers’ view of evolution is upbeat enough that he even incorporated Darwinian themes into a marriage ceremony he officiated in California for two biologists, noting how their love was the end product of billions of years of creatures seeking one another out, intermingling to create something new, and feeling devotion to their offspring and kin.  He concluded with Darwin’s comment that “there is grandeur in this view of life.”


Marc S. said...

What are you referring to when you say “These basic justice rules may be written in our nature after all, much as conservatives have sometimes contended.”?

Talk radio conservatives, at least, seem to argue that religion is the source of our morality and that without it we’d be antisocial hedonists or something. (I hear this argument most frequently when they discuss 10 commandments cases, which they claim is the foundation of our Judeo-Christian legal code, even though I suspect theft and murder are frowned upon worldwide and the legal code is pretty silent on whether I need to honor my father & mother and all the rest.)

Todd Seavey said...

Well, as I’ll touch on a bit more on Friday, cultural messages and instincts interact, but I think you’ll often hear conservatives talk of gut instincts and moral intuitions written, as it were, into our bones, whereas the left (not so much mainstream liberals but the academic or hardcore left) is more prone to say it’s all (fairly arbitrary) social construction.