Friday, April 13, 2007

Richard Dawkins Part II: Morality and the Selfish Gene

I am, as many of you know, spending my weekends commenting on the presentations made at the Beyond Belief 2006 conference. I have reached the end of Session 7, where Richard Dawkins is our presenter. Dawkins actually talked about two different subjects. The first subject was “Consciousness Raising” (which I discussed last weekend). This week, we are looking at what was billed as a discussion of “Morality and the Selfish Gene”.

In fact, Dawkins did not discuss morality much at all. He gave an interesting account of how a selfish gene can select for what he called ‘altruistic’ behavior. However, altruism is not the same as morality. The two have some things in common (certain types of altruism are called moral), but they also have a long list of significant differences.

Dawkins does get around to making a few claims about morality. However, this is toward the end of his presentation. About the only thing he says on the subject is that whatever it is, it does not come from religion.

The situation surrounding Dawkins’ presentation was something like going to a lecture where the speaker said he was going to talk about stellar physics, only to have him spend his time instead talking about the standard combustion found in a camp fire. There are some similarities between stars and campfires – both put out heat and light. However, there are also some important differences. The differences are important enough that it is simply not true that a presentation on campfire combustion can taken for a presentation on stellar physics.

Dawkins’ Case

First, let me explain what Dawkins said about the relationship between ‘morality’ and the selfish gene.

The Selfish Gene

Dawkins is (or, perhaps, was, until recently) most widely known among both professional and lay scientists for his idea of conceptualizing of evolutionary forces by imagining a ‘selfish gene’. This gene is interested in only one thing; its own replication. Of course, genes do not actually ‘care’ about anything. Dawkins does not say that they do. What he says is that we can best explain and predict events in the biological world is by thinking in terms of a selfish gene.

For example, a selfish gene would have reason to select for a host that has the ability to detect others with the same gene. In protecting those others and helping them reproduce, it is succeeding in its task to replicate itself. Replicating a copy of itself and replicating itself both have the same value in this way of thinking. Thus, we get behavior like that of a mother nurturing its young. This is the way that the mother’s ‘selfish genes’ help to ensure that copies of themselves continue into the future.

Four Forms of Altruism

Dawkins presented four ways in which ‘selfish genes’ may bring about altruistic individuals.

(1) Kin selection. Genes can replicate themselves by creating individuals who are prone to nurture and defend and otherwise aid in the reproduction of other individuals who have the same gene. We see instances of this in parental affection for a child, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. The more distant the relationship becomes, the weaker the biological urge to nurture that individual.

(2) Reciprocity: Genes can promote their own replication by aiding individuals who, in turn, aid those who have the gene. Dawkins provides an example of the honey guide bird and the honey badger. The badger cannot find the honey, and the bird cannot break into the hive. So, the bird leads the badger to the honey, the badger breaks in, and they share the bounty.

(3) Reputation: Genes promote their own survival through reciprocity by creating individuals who can recognize who are reliably generous. The vampire bat shares its food when it has a surplus with others who share their food when they have a surplus.

(4) The Handicap Principle: Here, Dawkins’ mentions the case of the Arabian Warbler where, apparently, the strongest and best take on the most dangerous jobs of watching for hawks and providing for the less fortunate. The suggestion here is that these birds declare their superiority by showing that they can afford to take risks and to provide charity. This method of attracting a mate replaces colorful plumage or dances.

In our own biological past, our genes could have selected for these effects because they lived in small communities. Chances are good that they knew everybody in that community and would have opportunities to deal with them again and again. This would have given an opportunity for ‘reciprocation’ and ‘reputation’ to emerge. Of course, communities provided ample opportunity for individuals to aid and be aided by their kin.

However, Dawkins claims that this Darwinian account runs into trouble when it tries to explain altruism outside of these small tribal bands. It cannot, for example, explain why we give charitably to tsunami victims on the other side of the world. Those people are not, in any biologically meaningful way, our ‘kin’. We can expect no reciprocity, and our ‘reputation’ is largely anonymous. Nor is our generosity some form of ostentatious display that we have reason to hope will make us more attractive to potential mates.

According to Dawkins, the best Darwinian account that he can give for this type of behavior is that it is a mistake.

There is nothing in Darwinian Theory that requires a precise match between a trait and its benefit. Some traits over-extend their benefit. Our desire for sex, for example, overextends its effect in terms of reproduction. Our desire to eat overextends our need for calories, particularly in modern societies. Along similar lines, our altruistic sentiments can overextend our local tribe.

The fact that a desire overextends its trait does not make it bad. We have no reason to give up sex simply because the desire for sex is independent of the desire to procreate.

We can find an example of what Dawkins is talking about in our reaction to the offspring of several species. Evolutionary forces caused in us an impulse to nurture and protect small humans who have the physiological characteristics of children. This same quality also probably accounts for the fact that many of us get a similar impulse to protect and nurture kittens, puppies, and the children of species other than human. Our tendency comes from a broader trait among mammals. It still has an effect on our affections even though its evolutionary function is, shall we say, inefficient.

Altruism and Intention

Let’s say that everything that Dawkins said in his presentation was true.

We still have a couple of problems.

The first problem is that a lot of what Dawkins calls ‘altruism’ isn’t really altruism.

Altruism requires an intention. It is not enough to note that I engage in behavior that happens to benefit another person. That benefit could simply be a side effect of something that I like to do for other reasons. I could care less if others benefit. In a case like this, it would be absurd to suggest that my behavior is in any way ‘altruistic’.

An animal dies in the woods, providing worms with food. The worms help to aerate the soil, which causes the plants to grow, which the animals then eat. There is no altruism in any of this.

Altruism requires that the animal dies because it wants to provide the worm with food, and that the worm aerate the soil because it wants to provide the animals with food. At the same time, the animal has to forego any intention or interest in reciprocation. If he performs an act because it wants to get paid for it, this is not altruism either.

Dawkins has not given us any reason to believe that we can find the intentionality necessary for altruism in any of these actions. The Darwinian explanation does not require intentionality either – any more than we need to find intentionality

Altrusim Is Not Morality

Even if Dawkins can explain intention in Darwinian terms, he has another hurdle to cross. Altruism is not morality. It’s true that many moral obligations are altruistic – they involve sacrifice for the benefit of others. However, morality is far more complex than this. In some cases, it requires selfishness and condemns sacrifice.

For example, an employee takes money from the cash register on a regular basis and gives it to homeless people on the street on the way home. His actions are altruistic, but they are not moral.

It is also possible to do the right thing for selfish reasons. It you report that a political rival takes bribes, you are doing the right thing even it you only did it no you can win the election.

At the same time, if I am on a cruise ship with my own children, and the cruise ship starts to sink, I not only have a permission, but I have an obligation, to take care of my own children first. Willingness to sacrifice my own child to save somebody else’s child will not earn me condemnation for abdicating my parental responsibilities, not praise.

One could argue that it is possible to explain parental affection in Darwinian terms. Consequently, this does not provide an objection to Dawkins’ claims. However, Dawkins cannot possibly be claiming that whatever has a Darwinian explanation is moral. If he did, then he would probably have to conclude that a male disposition to rape and racism are moral in the same way that preferring to save one’s own children in an emergency is moral. His theory needs to provide a way to distinguish moral dispositions from immoral dispositions.

What I am arguing here is that ‘altruism’ does not work as a way of distinguishing ‘moral’ from ‘immoral’. Some altruistic acts are immoral, and some selfishness is obligatory. The concepts of ‘altruistic’ and ‘moral’ do not occupy the same logical space. They are not the same thing.

‘Serving genetic replication in past generations’ does not work either. Some traits that served genetic replication in the past are wrong. These concepts do not occupy the same logical space.

Above, when I said that listening to Dawkins is like going to a presentation billed to be about solar physics and discovering a presentation on common combustion describes this objection. Stars and campfires have some things in common, but they do not occupy the same logical space. They are not the same thing. So, a discussion of one is not the same thing as a discussion of the other.

Moral Questions

These are just some examples of where Dawkins’ presentation fails to talk about morality. If he was truly talking about morality, he would have to be talking about something that would be useful in explaining and predicting the whole range of phenomena that those who study morality take themselves to be talking about. His theory would have to be useful in answering questions like:

(1) Why is it that moral concepts only apply to intentional actions? Unintentional actions – including actions that benefit and harm others – are neither moral nor immoral.

(2) How do we account for the distinction between moral responsibility and ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’? Many insane actions are still intentional. Yet, they still sit outside of the realm of moral responsibility.

(3) Why are there three moral categories – obligatory, permissible, and prohibited? What accounts for the difference between them?

(4) What is an excuse and why is it that an excuse can protect somebody from a claim of moral responsibility?

(5) What is the relationship between moral wrong and condemnation or punishment, and between right action and praise or reward?

(6) Why is negligence wrong even though negligence does not involve an intention to do harm?

(7) How can your theory help us to determine whether the following are moral or immoral: early term abortion, capital punishment, the use of animals in experiments, homosexuality, torture, rendition, drug use, privacy, adultery, birth control, etc,?

(8) How is it possible for apron to do the right thing for bad reasons? (the bad Samaritan)

(9) What is the relationship between fact and value?

(10) How is moral argument possible?

(11) What is involved in the moral educational children? (It would seem that if morality is genetic, that it would require no education or training.)

(12) What m the relationship between law and morality? What is an unjust law and is there an obligation to obey unjust law?

I hold Dawkins’ presentation up to this list of questions and I am forced to ask, “Okay, Dawkins, everything you said so far is great, but when are you going to talk about morality? When will you start giving me something that I can use to help to answer these questions?”

The Shifting Moral Zeitgeist

After presenting his Darwinian account of altruism, Dawkins next focuses his attention on what he calls “the shifting moral zeitgeist”. This is the phenomenon of rapid moral change on a large scale over a short period of time. He provides quite a few examples of the type of observations that are to be explained.

From Abraham Lincoln:

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races - that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

From H.G. Wells from “Utopian New Republic”

And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? . . . the yellow man? . . . the Jew? . . . those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? Well, the world is a world, and not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go. . . . And the ethical system of these men of the New Republic, the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favour the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity - beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds. . . . And the method that nature has followed hitherto in the shaping of the world, whereby weakness was prevented from propagating weakness . . . is death. . . . The men of the New Republic . . . will have an ideal that will make the killing worth the while.

These changed quickly – far too quickly to have a Darwinian explanation. Yet, when it comes to accounting for them, Dawkins knows that the moral zeitgeist changes far too rapidly for us to expect a Darwinian account.

I don’t know what causes it. I’ve got ideas. We could talk about it. I think it’s a kind of composite of just plain ordinary conversations among people, dinner party conversations, newspaper editorials, legal decisions, congressional votes. These all feed into the shift that takes place from decade to decade to decade.

So, Dawkins has nothing to offer on this account.

However, he is not even looking in the right direction. Dawkins is looking for a sociological explanation about what causes our beliefs to change. He is not at all looking at the content, much less the truth value, of what we believe.

We can pursue the same project when it comes to evolution. We can provide quotes about what people were saying about the origin of humans in, say, the 1850s. We can compare that to what is believed today. We can look for changes in those beliefs, and seek an explanation for those changes. Those explanations will likely include an account of events such as dinner party conversations and newspaper editorials. It would even include legal decisions and congressional votes.

However, no sane person would try to assert that this is what evolutionary biologists actually study the ‘shifting biological zeitgeist’

It is as absurd to claim that this investigation is what scientists do when they study evolution, as it is to claim that the complimentary investigation is what ethicists (such as myself) study when we study ethics.


By the end of his presentation, even though Dawkins claimed that he was going to talk about morality, he never actually accomplished this. He talked about a Darwinian account for altruism. Some of what he talked about does not even qualify as altruism and, even if it did, altruism is not morality. “That which we are disposed to value for Darwinian reasons” does not count as morality either.

It is also not the case that studying what people think has moral value is not the study of morality itself, any more than a study of what people think is true about the origin and change of living organisms over time is the same as the study of evolution itself.

With all of his words, Dawkins never once talked about morality.

One of these days I actually would like to hear, or read, what Dawkins thinks about the relationship between morality and the selfish gene. But that is not this day.


Sheldon said...

I find Dawkins discussion of these issues very simplistic and superficial. Some grist for your mill might be found at the web site of Herbert Gintis, link above, a very famous social scientist who has been writing about the evolution of cooperation etc.. Go to the home page, hit "papers" on the left, and you will find many .pdf files of Gintis and co-authors peer reviewed papers.

Diganta said...

I feel Dawkins himself avoids the theory those he created. Morality can be better (much better) described though memetics and not genetics. May be there's a little influence of genetics in the earlt stages were there, but, mainly what we call morality today, is mostly developed in last few hundred years. Genetics cannot change us so quickly, can it?