Evolution, Culture, and “Diversity”

The “satirical and opinionated,” but well-read, Fred Reed poses some questions about evolution. He wisely asks John Derbyshire to answer them. In the absence of a response from Derbyshire, I will venture some answers, and then offer some general observations about evolution and two closely related subjects: culture and “diversity.” (The “sneer quotes” mean that “diversity,” as used by leftists, really means favoritism toward their clientele — currently blacks and Hispanics, especially illegal immigrants).

Herewith, Reed’s questions (abridged, in italics) and my answers:

(1) In evolutionary principle, traits that lead to more surviving children proliferate. In practice, when people learn how to have fewer or no children, they do…. [W]hat selective pressures lead to a desire not to reproduce, and how does this fit into a Darwinian framework?

As life becomes less fraught for homo sapiens, reproduction becomes less necessary. First, the ability of the species (and families) to survive and thrive becomes less dependent on sheer numbers and more dependent on technological advances. Second (and consequently), more couples are able to  trade the time and expense of child-rearing for what would have been luxuries in times past (e.g., a nicer home, bigger cars, more luxurious vacations, a more comfortable retirement).

As suggested by the second point, human behavior isn’t determined solely by genes; it has a strong cultural component. There is an interplay between genes and culture, as I’ll discuss, but culture can (and does) influence evolution. An emergent aspect of culture is an inverse relationship between the number of children and social status. Social status is enhanced by the acquisition and display of goods made affordable by limiting family size.

(2) Morality. In evolution as I understand it, there are no absolute moral values: Morals evolved as traits allowing social cooperation, conducing to the survival of the group and therefore to the production of more surviving children….

Question: Why should I not indulge my hobby of torturing to death the severely genetically retarded? This would seem beneficial. We certainly don’t want them to reproduce, they use resources better invested in healthy children, and it makes no evolutionary difference whether they die quietly or screaming.

Here Reed clearly (if tacitly) acknowledges the role of culture as a (but not the) determinant of behavior. Morals may “evolve,” but not in the same way as physiological characteristics. Morals may nevertheless influence the survival of a species, as Reed suggests. Morals may also influence biological evolution to the extent that selective mating favors those who adhere to a beneficial morality, and yields offspring who are genetically predisposed toward that morality.

Religion — especially religion in the Judeo-Christian tradition — fosters beneficial morality. This is from David Sloan Wilson‘s “Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Richard Dawkins Is Wrong about Religion” (eSkeptic.com, July 4, 2007):

On average, religious believers are more prosocial than non-believers, feel better about themselves, use their time more constructively, and engage in long-term planning rather than gratifying their impulsive desires. On a moment-by-moment basis, they report being more happy, active, sociable, involved and excited. Some of these differences remain even when religious and non-religious believers are matched for their degree of prosociality. More fine-grained comparisons reveal fascinating differences between liberal vs. conservative protestant denominations, with more anxiety among the liberals and conservatives feeling better in the company of others than when alone…

In Darwin’s Cathedral, I initiated a survey of religions drawn at random from the 16-volume Encyclopedia of World Religions, edited by the great religious scholar Mircia Eliade. The results are described in an article titled “Testing Major Evolutionary Hypotheses about Religion with a Random Sample,” which was published in the journal Human Nature and is available on my website. The beauty of random sampling is that, barring a freak sampling accident, valid conclusions for the sample apply to all of the religions in the encyclopedia from which the sample was taken. By my assessment, the majority of religions in the sample are centered on practical concerns, especially the definition of social groups and the regulation of social interactions within and between groups. New religious movements usually form when a constituency is not being well served by current social organizations (religious or secular) in practical terms and is better served by the new movement. The seemingly irrational and otherworldly elements of religions in the sample usually make excellent practical sense when judged by the only gold standard that matters from an evolutionary perspective — what they cause the religious believers to do.

What religions do (on the whole) is to cause their adherents to live more positive and productive lives, as Wilson notes in the first part of the quotation.

Despite the decline of religious observance in the West, most Westerners are still strongly influenced by the moral tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Why? Because the observance of those traditions fosters beneficial cooperation, and beneficial cooperation fosters happiness and prosperity. (For a detailed exposition of this point, see “Religion and Liberty” in “Facets of Liberty.”)

Therefore, one answer to Reed’s rhetorical question — “Why should I not indulge my hobby of torturing to death the severely genetically retarded?” — is that such behavior doesn’t comport with Judeo-Christian morality. A second answer is that empathy causes most people eschew actions that cause suffering in others (except in the defense of self, kin, and country), and empathy may be a genetic (i.e. evolutionary) trait.

(3) Abiogenesis. This is not going to be a fair question as there is no way anyone can know the answer, but I pose it anyway. The theory, which I cannot refute, is that a living, metabolizing, reproducing gadget formed accidentally in the ancient seas. Perhaps it did. I wasn’t there. It seems to me, though, that the more complex one postulates the First Critter to have been, the less likely, probably exponentially so, it would have been to form. The less complex one postulates it to have been, the harder to explain why biochemistry, which these days is highly sophisticated, cannot reproduce the event. Question: How many years would have to pass without replication of the event, if indeed it be not replicated, before one might begin to suspect that it didn’t happen?

How many years? 250 million to 1 billion. That’s roughly the length of time between the formation of Earth and the beginning of life, according to current estimates. (See the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article about abiogenesis.) That could be plenty of time for untold billions of random interactions of matter to have produced a life form that could, with further development, reproduce and become more complex. But who knows? And even if someone in a lab somewhere happens to produce such a “critter,” it may well be different than Reed’s First Critter.

I certainly hew to the possibility that seems to lurk in Reed’s mind; namely, that the First Critter was the handiwork of the Creator, or at least came to be because of the physical laws established by the Creator. (See “Existence and Creation,” possibility 5.)

(4) … Straight-line evolution, for example in which Eohippus gradually gets larger until it reaches Clydesdale, is plausible because each intervening step is a viable animal. In fact this is just selective breeding. Yet many evolutionary transformations seem to require intermediate stages that could not survive.

For example there are two-cycle bugs (insects, arachnids) that lay eggs that hatch into tiny replicas of the adults, which grow, lay eggs, and repeat the cycle. The four-cycle bugs go through egg, larva, pupa, adult. Question: What are the viable steps needed to evolve from one to the other? Or from anything to four-cycle? …

Lacking the technical wherewithal requisite to a specific answer, I fall back on time — the billions of years encompassed in evolution.

(5) … Mr. Derbyshire believes strongly in genetic determinism—that we are what we are and behave as we do because of genetic programming….

… A physical (to include chemical) system cannot make decisions. All subsequent states of a physical system are determined by the initial state. So, if one accepts the electrochemical premise (which, again, seems to be correct) it follows that we do not believe things because they are true, but because we are predestined to believe them. Question: Does not genetic determinism (with which I have no disagreement) lead to a  paradox: that the thoughts we think we are thinking we only think to be thoughts when they are really utterly predetermined by the inexorable working of physics and chemistry?

This smacks of Cartesian dualism, the view that “there are two fundamental kinds of substance: mental and material.” It seems to me easier to believe that the nervous system (with its focal point in the brain). It seems to me that experimental psychologists have amply document the links between brain activity (i.e., mental states) and behavior.

The real question is whether behavior is strictly determined by genes. The obvious answer is “no” because every instance of behavior is conditioned by immediate circumstances, which are not always (usually?) determined by the actor.

Further, free will is consistent with a purely physiological interpretation of behavioral decisions:

Suppose I think that I might want to eat some ice cream. I go to the freezer compartment and pull out an unopened half-gallon of vanilla ice cream and an unopened half-gallon of chocolate ice cream. I can’t decide between vanilla, chocolate, some of each, or none. I ask a friend to decide for me by using his random-number generator, according to rules of his creation. He chooses the following rules:

  • If the random number begins in an odd digit and ends in an odd digit, I will eat vanilla.
  • If the random number begins in an even digit and ends in an even digit, I will eat chocolate.
  • If the random number begins in an odd digit and ends in an even digit, I will eat some of each flavor.
  • If the random number begins in an even digit and ends in an odd digit, I will not eat ice cream.

Suppose that the number generated by my friend begins in an even digit and ends in an even digit: the choice is chocolate. I act accordingly.

I didn’t inevitably choose chocolate because of events that led to the present state of my body’s chemistry, which might otherwise have dictated my choice. That is, I broke any link between my past and my choice about a future action.

I call that free will.

I suspect that our brains are constructed in such a way as to produce the same kind of result in many situations, though certainly not in all situations. That is, we have within us the equivalent of an impartial friend and an (informed) decision-making routine, which together enable us to exercise something we can call free will.

My suspicion is well-founded. The brains of human beings are complex, and consist of many “centers” that perform different functions. That complexity enables self-awareness; a person may “stand back” from himself and view his actions critically. Human beings, in other words, aren’t simple machines that operate according hard-wired routines.

(6) … In principle, traits spread through a population because they lead to the having of greater numbers of children….

… Genes already exist in populations for extraordinary superiority of many sorts—for the intelligence of Stephen Hawking, the body of Mohammed Ali, for 20/5 vision, for the astonishing endurance in running of the Tarahumara Indians, and so on. To my unschooled understanding, these traits offer clear and substantial advantage in survival and reproduction, yet they do not become universal, or even common. The epicanthic fold does. Question: Why do seemingly trivial traits proliferate while clearly important ones do not?

First, survival depends on traits that are suited to the environment in which a group finds itself. Not all — or even most — challenges to survival demand the intelligence of a Hawking, the body of an Ali, etc. Further, cooperative groups find that acting together they possess high intelligence of a kind that’s suited to the group’s situation. Similarly, the strength of many is usually sufficient to overcome obstacles and meet challenges.

Second, mating isn’t driven entirely by a focus on particular traits — high intelligence, superior athletic ability, etc. Such traits therefore remain relatively rare unless they are essential to survival, which might explain the “astonishing endurance running of the Tarahumara Indians.”

(7) … Looking at the human body, I see many things that appear to have no relation to survival or more vigorous reproduction, and that indeed work against it, yet are universal in the species. For example, the kidneys contain the nervous tissue that makes kidney stones agonizingly painful, yet until recently the victim has been able to do nothing about them….

What is the reproductive advantage of crippling pain (migraines can be crippling) about which pre-recently, the sufferer could do nothing?

What is the reproductive advantage of Tay-Sachs disease, which is found disproportionately among Ashkenazi Jews? Here is a reasonable hypothesis:

Gregory Cochran proposes that the mutant alleles causing Tay–Sachs confer higher intelligence when present in carrier form, and provided a selective advantage in the historical period when Jews were restricted to intellectual occupations.[9][10] Peter Frost argues for a similar heterozygote advantage for mutant alleles being responsible for the prevalence of Tay Sachs disease in Eastern Quebec.[11]

In sum, the bad sometimes goes with the good. That’s just the way evolution is. In the case of migraines, it may be that those who are prone to them are also in some way attractive as mates. Who knows? But if every genetic disadvantage worked against survival, human beings would have become extinct long ago.

(8) Finally, the supernatural. Unfairly, as it turned out, in regard to religion I had expected Mr. Derbyshire to strike the standard “Look at me, I’m an atheist, how advanced I am” pose. I was wrong. In fact he says that he believes in a God. (Asked directly, he responded, “Yes, to my own satisfaction, though not necessarily to yours.”) His views are reasoned, intellectually modest, and, though I am not a believer, I see nothing with which to quarrel, though for present purposes this is neither here nor there. Question: If one believes in or suspects the existence of God or gods, how does one exclude the possibility that He, She, or It meddles in the universe—directing evolution, for example?

A belief in gods would seem to leave the door open to Intelligent Design, the belief that the intricacies of life came about not by accident but were crafted by Somebody or Something. The view, anathema in evolutionary circles, is usually regarded as emanating from Christianity, and usually does….

In the piece by Derbyshire to which Reed links, Derbyshire writes:

I belong to the 16 percent of Americans who, in the classification used for a recent survey, believe in a “Critical God.”… He is the Creator….

I am of the same persuasion, though Derbyshire and I may differ in our conception of God’s role in the Universe:

1. There is necessarily a creator of the universe [see this], which comprises all that exists in “nature.”

2. The creator is not part of nature; that is, he stands apart from his creation and is neither of its substance nor governed by its laws. (I use “he” as a term of convenience, not to suggest that the creator is some kind of human or animate being, as we know such beings.)

3. The creator designed the universe, if not in detail then in its parameters. The parameters are what we know as matter-energy (substance) and its various forms, motions, and combinations (the laws that govern the behavior of matter-energy).

4. The parameters determine everything that is possible in the universe. But they do not necessarily dictate precisely the unfolding of events in the universe. Randomness and free will are evidently part of the creator’s design.

5. The human mind and its ability to “do science” — to comprehend the laws of nature through observation and calculation — are artifacts of the creator’s design.

6. Two things probably cannot be known through science: the creator’s involvement in the unfolding of natural events; the essential character of the substance on which the laws of nature operate.

Points 3 and 4 say as much as I am willing to say about Intelligent Design.

I turn now to the interaction of culture and biological evolution, which figures in my answers to several of Reed’s questions. Consider this, from an article by evolutionary psychologist Joseph Henrich (“A Cultural Species: How Culture Drove Human Evolution,” Psychological Science Agenda, American Psychological Association, November 2011; citations omitted):

Once a species is sufficiently reliant on learning from others for at least some aspects of its behavioral repertoire, cultural evolutionary processes can arise, and these processes can alter the environment faced by natural selection acting on genes….

Models of cumulative cultural evolution suggest two important, and perhaps non-intuitive, features of our species. First, our ecological success, technology, and adaptation to diverse environments is not due to our intelligence. Alone and stripped of our culture, we are hopeless as a species. Cumulative cultural evolution has delivered both our fancy technologies as well as the subtle and unconscious ways that humans have adapted their behavior and thinking to tackle environmental challenges. The smartest among us could not in a single lifetime devise even a small fraction of the techniques and technologies that allow any foraging society to survive. Second, the available formal models make clear that the effectiveness of this cumulative cultural evolutionary process depends crucially on the size and interconnectedness of our populations and social networks. It’s the ability to freely exchange information that sparks and accelerates adaptive cultural evolution, and creates innovation…. Sustaining complex technologies depends on maintaining a large and well-interconnected population of minds.

…In the case of ethnic groups, for example, such models explore how genes and culture coevolve. This shows how cultural evolution will, under a wide range of conditions, create a landscape in which different social groups tend to share both similar behavioral expectations and similar arbitrary “ethnic markers” (like dialect or language). In the wake of this culturally constructed world, genes evolve to create minds that are inclined to preferentially interact with and imitate those who share their markers. This guarantees that individuals most effectively coordinate with those who share their culturally learned behavioral expectations (say about marriage or child rearing). These purely theoretical predictions were subsequently confirmed by experiments with both children and adults.

This approach also suggests that cultural evolution readily gives rise to social norms, as long as learners can culturally acquire the standards by which they judge others. Many models robustly demonstrate that cultural evolution can sustain almost any behavior or preference that is common in a population (including cooperation), if it is not too costly. This suggests that different groups will end up with different norms and begin to compete with each other. Competition among groups with different norms will favor those particular norms that lead to success in intergroup competition. My collaborators and I have argued that cultural group selection has shaped the cultural practices, institutions, beliefs and psychologies that are common in the world today, including those associated with anonymous markets, prosocial religions with big moralizing gods, and monogamous marriage. Each of these cultural packages, which have emerged relatively recently in human history, impacts our psychology and behavior. Priming “markets” and “God”, for example, increase trust and giving (respectively) in behavioral experiments, though “God primes” only work on theists. Such research avenues hold the promise of explaining, rather than merely documenting, the patterns of psychological variation observed across human populations.

The cultural evolution of norms over tens or hundreds of thousands of years, and their shaping by cultural group selection, may have driven genetic evolution to create a suite of cognitive adaptations we call norm psychology. This aspect of our evolved psychology emerged and coevolved in response to cultural evolution’s production of norms. This suite facilitates, among other things, our identification and learning of social norms, our expectation of sanctions for norm violations, and our ability to internalize normative behavior as motivations….

Biological evolution continues, and with it, cultural evolution. But there are some “constants” that seem to remain embedded in the norms of most cultural-genetic groups. Among them, moral codes that exclude gratuitous torture of innocent children, a belief in God, and status-consciousness (which, for example, reinforces a diminished need to reproduce for survival of the species).

Henrich hits upon one of the reasons — perhaps the main reason — why efforts to integrate various biological-cultural groups under the banner of “diversity” are doomed to failure:

[G]enes evolve to create minds that are inclined to preferentially interact with and imitate those who share their markers. This guarantees that individuals most effectively coordinate with those who share their culturally learned behavioral expectations (say about marriage or child rearing).

As I say here,

genetic kinship will always be a strong binding force, even where the kinship is primarily racial. Racial kinship boundaries, by the way, are not always and necessarily the broad ones suggested by the classic trichotomy of Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid. (If you want to read for yourself about the long, convoluted, diffuse, and still controversial evolutionary chains that eventuated in the sub-species homo sapiens sapiens, to which all humans are assigned arbitrarily, without regard for their distinctive differences, begin here, here, here, and here.)

The obverse of of genetic kinship is “diversity,” which often is touted as a good thing by anti-tribalist social engineers. But “diversity” is not a good thing when it comes to social bonding.

At that point, I turn to an article by Michael Jonas about a study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century“:

It has become increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings….

…Putnam’s work adds to a growing body of research indicating that more diverse populations seem to extend themselves less on behalf of collective needs and goals….

(That’s from Jonas’s article, “The Downside of diversity,” The Boston Globe (boston.com), August 5, 2007. See this post for more about genetic kinship and “diversity.”)

In a later post, I add this:

Yes, human beings are social animals, but human beings are not “brothers under the skin,” and there is no use in pretending that we are. Trying to make us so, by governmental fiat, isn’t only futile but also wasteful and harmful. The futility of forced socialization is as true of the United States — a vast and varied collection of races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures — as it is of the world.

Despite the blatant reality of America’s irreconcilable diversity, American increasingly are being forced to lead their lives according to the dictates of the central government. Some apologists for this state of affairs will refer to the “common good,” which is a fiction that I address in [“Modern Utilitarianism,” “The Social Welfare Function,” and “Utilitarianism vs. Liberty”].

Human beings, for the most part, may be bigger, stronger, and healthier than ever, but their physical progress depends heavily on technology, and would be reversed by a cataclysm that disables technology. Further, technologically based prosperity masks moral squalor. Strip away that prosperity, and the West would look like the warring regions of Central and South America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia: racial and ethnic war without end. Much of urban and suburban America — outside affluent, well-guarded, and mostly “liberal” enclaves — would look like Ferguson.

Human beings are not “brothers under the skin,” and no amount of wishful thinking or forced integration can make us so. That is the lesson to be learned from biological and cultural evolution, which makes human beings different — perhaps irreconcilably so — but not necessarily better.

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