Monday, April 25, 2011

Evolutionary Biology and the Virtue of Altruism

Many atheists seem to think that evolutionary biology can answer moral questions and, in this way, defeat the theists' claims that moral goodness requires God.

Yet, their arguments hit very wide of the target. It would not be unfair to say that they do nit understand the question.

For example, one claim is that evolutionary forces can select for altruistic behavior - it can code for self-sacrifice. One specific form of altruism with an apparent evolutionary explanation us kin-selection, such as the sacrifice of a patent for a child. Organisms with this trait have more children which grow to adulthood and have yet another generation of children.

So, evolution can provide at least a partial explanation for altruism.

But why us altruism good?

This is the question that I want the evolutionary biologist to answer: What makes altruism a virtue?

How can altruism itself be a virtue without a God to give it that quality?

The objection states that, without God, anything can be a virtue. For example, a person who does not believe in God might come to the opinion that selfishness us a virtue. A person is free to adopt the attitude that the fact that we evolved to exhibit certain forms of altruism – assuming it is a fact - means that we have evolved certain mental defects and vices to be overcome.

A person without God might adopt domination and cruelty, or the acquisition of power itself, as the greatest good. Kindness is weakness. Compassion makes you vulnerable. Neither are to be sought.

No amount if evidence that we evolved some altruistic dispositions can address this challenge.

Of course, I think that there is an answer to this challenge. I do not believe that goodness requires God. I think that the goodness of altruism has an explanation in natural terms.

However, I do not see how evolutionary biology can even begin to answer the question.


Matt said...

Would you mind expanding more on your second to last paragraph (or providing a link to where you've done so)? It feels like the post builds up to that, and then just ends.

marcellus said...

What we have here is a classic case of domain pollution.

Theists express their opinions in terms of a God-based domain. It's full of concepts like God, sin, virtue, compassion, cruelty, selfishness, power, authority, morality and so on.

Atheistic believers in evolutionary biology express their beliefs in terms of genes, selfish genes, replicators, variation, selection, kin selection, altruism, and so on.

The theists domain model is chocked full of intentionality. People act sinfully or virtuously because of their intentions, and all virtue is down to God's kindness in telling them what's good and what isn't.

The atheistic domain of evolutionary biology has no intentionality in it. It is a model of how the mechanisms and strategies of digital replicators effect each other in a resource-constrained context.

These are two very different worlds, but because there is some overlap in the vocabulary of the two domains, (e.g. altruism, and Dawkin's egregious use of 'selfish' to describe gene dynamics) folks tend to think of the evolutionary biology domain as being intentional, too. Once you've made that mistake it all goes to hell in a hand basket. The domains pollute each other and everyone starts talking at cross purposes because they are using the same words to discuss fundamentally different concepts.

There is no good or bad in the evolutionary biology domain, and there never will be.

Instead, let's ask what constitutes quality in these two domains.

In a God-based morality domain, quality is defined in terms of sins and virtues, in obedience and conformity to a textual moral code, in acts of textually justified kindness, cruelty and power, and a person has quality if they follow their text's moral code, regardless of whether it prescribes altruistic acts or acts of genocide. Comply with the rules and you are, by definition, good. When the Israelites slew all the Canaanite mothers and sons, and raped the unmarried daughters, they were being morally good because their God had told them to do it.

In an evolutionary biology domain, quality is simply judged by the number of grandchildren a replicator has. There are umpteen mechanisms that replicators can effect, at either the level of the gene, the organism, or the species, to effect replication. 'Altruism' is one of them, c.f. Florida scrub jays; biochemical enslavement is another, c.f. queen bees, ants, and naked mole rats; social cooperation with a bit of internal dominance hierarchy thrown in is a popular mechanism with meerkats and humans.

Religious morality, and therefore religious virtue, is arbitrarily defined by a text. Any moral code of a God-based religion serves only to promote the religion itself, hence the Old Testament's admonition to commit genocide and mass rape when the Israelites were winning, and Christ's instructions to turn the other cheek when the Roman's had the upper hand. Religious morality changes to suit the prevailing circumstances and has no consistency over the long term.

To define an objective morality, you need to go below the level of biology - into the realm of physics - and that's when you realize that morality is a function, not a set of rules in a book (atheist or otherwise) ;)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I thought about including it, but it changes the focus on the question.

I want the focus to be on the fact that evolutionary biology cannot answer the question of why altruism is good.

Let's assume that my proposed answer utterly fails. Let's assume that it is such a poor answer that it's not worth looking at. Let's focus on the issue of whether evolutionary biology can explain - not why we have certain altruistic tendencies, but how altruism acquired the quality of being good.

marcellus said...

Ok, here's my thesis on morality, good vs. evil, and a whole load of other aspects of life the universe and everything, in which I relate 'good' in moral terms to 'good' in biological terms through...


A system will select the path or assemblage of paths out of available paths that minimizes the potential or maximizes the entropy at the fastest rate given the constraints


This law is a derivative of the second law of thermodynamics. Though it's framed in terms of entropy, it is easier to think about it if you recast it like so:

The universe acts to dissipate energy at the fastest rate possible given the constraints on a system.

This is why the universe formed at the big bang, instead of collapsing into a black hole; inflating space was a faster way to dissipate the energy of the Big Bang than forming a black hole.

This is why when you drop an apple, it falls in a straight line down to the ground, instead of wandering about in the air; a straight line is the shortest line to the ground, and hence the fastest way to dissipate the apple's potential energy.

Look around at the world and the physics and chemistry that's going on in it and you'll see it everywhere. The universe acts to dissipate energy from high grade energy to low grade energy, and nothing can happen that violates this principle.

Here on Earth, one of the mechanisms for down grading and dissipating energy is life. A high grade photon in the visible spectrum from the sun hits a molecule of chlorophyl and is absorbed. The energy is then triggers a reaction that converts it into lower grade chemical bonding energy by combining water and CO2 to make sugar and low grade thermal waste heat. The energy of the original photon has been dissipated.

Now, if we can agree that assisting the universe in dissipating energy is the purpose of life, then we can say that a biological system that does this better than others can has higher quality. Biological systems that replicate have higher quality than ones that don't, because their offspring can then contribute to the dissipation of energy. Biological systems that cooperate to dissipate more energy than they could as individuals have higher quality than loners. Hence the enormous success of the mitochondria/cell pairing.
Biological systems that develop mutually-beneficial altruism have higher quality than ones that develop one-sided altruism, e.g. a gene that caused a lamb to 'altruistically' present itself as dinner to a lion would not serve the universe's purpose, because the lamb could make a bigger contribution to the dissipation of energy by living a long life and producing more offspring. Life maximizes its energy dissipation if it is sustained.

Now consider virtue in the realm of morality. What do most 'virtues' have in common? They maximize sustainable energy dissipation by encouraging cooperation and the persistence of life at the personal and social levels. Mutually-beneficial altruism in the evolutionary biology domain maps to socially-beneficial altruism in the morality domain. They are both good and virtuous because they contribute to the maximum sustainable energy dissipation given the constraints on the systems.

marcellus said...

PS: A side issue...

The principle of Maximum Sustainable Energy Dissipation (MSED) explains why, 'Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.' You feel good as you make steady progress towards, say, developing and spreading the theory of Desirism, because you are maximizing your sustainable energy dissipation. Indeed, I dare say you feel alive and filled with purpose when you are developing it, writing scripts for the podcast, handling questions raised by it, and refining it as you go along. As long as you are on your way towards your desire for developing and teaching Desirism you are burning through energy. Once you have completed it and got it out there, though, what are you going to do with yourself? Once you have fulfilled your desire you will no longer have Desirism as a reason to maximize your sustainable energy dissipation and until you find something to replace it you will feel less alive and less purposeful. Desirism just won't have the same value to you (according to both Desirism and MSED ;)