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    Peter Singer, Group Selection, and the Evolution of Ethics
    By Steve Davis | August 22nd 2012 02:32 AM | 26 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    In 1981 the philosopher Peter Singer published a book titled The Expanding Circle – Ethics, Evolution and Moral Progress. The book was inspired by EO Wilson’s Sociobiology – The New Synthesis, because although Singer claimed to find fallacies in Wilson’s book, he saw Wilson’s work as nevertheless providing a sound basis for exploring the evolution of ethical behaviour. Singer saw the need to republish with added notes in 2011 due to the appearance of fresh ideas on the subject.

    In Chapter One “The Origin of Altruism” he began well with; “Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human” but the rot set in with “Wilson has called altruism ‘the central theoretical problem of sociobiology’ because it has to be accounted for within the framework of Darwin’s theory of evolution. If evolution is a struggle for survival, why hasn’t it ruthlessly eliminated altruists, who seem to increase another’s prospects of survival at the expense of their own?” The regurgitation that followed, of all the tired arguments presented by the gene-centrics as they attempt to explain the impossible – altruism within a Darwinian framework - was not what I had expected from a thinker of Singer’s calibre, but that’s exactly what he did.

    Here’s an example of that, found in the very first instance he gave to explain animal altruism from the Darwinian view. After telling how birds will give warning calls that expose the caller to higher risk but allow others in the group to seek safety, he continued “If, as we would expect, birds who give warning calls are eaten at a higher rate than birds who act to save themselves without warning the rest of the flock, how does such altruism survive?” This was all leading up to the ultimate mistake, the gene-centred view of evolution, but did you detect the initial flaw that prepares the unwary reader for the ultimate? The example was based on assumptions for which no evidence was given. There is no evidence that sentinel birds are killed at a higher rate. There is no evidence that sentinels are even at slightly greater risk. Sentinel birds position themselves in trees in relative safety compared to others in the flock that are feeding on the ground. It’s the ground-feeders and stragglers that are targeted by predators. It was also assumed that altruism can die with the altruist; that altruism is genetic in basis.

    This is a prime example of the fallacies that underpin the Darwinian (gene-centric) view of evolution. Unlike Darwin, who was cautious and temperate in his conclusions, and who based his conclusions on observations from the wild, (and who made few errors) the Darwinians have been, from the time of Thomas Huxley onwards, incautious, intemperate, and have based their conclusions on armchair theorising of the type just discussed. After several more “examples” in the same vein, Singer dug his hole deeper.

    After playing devil’s advocate and presenting the “species selection” explanation for animal altruism, he went on; “The flaw in this simple explanation is that it is hard to see how, except in very special and rare conditions, the evolution of altruism could occur on so general a level...The real basis of selection is not the species, nor some smaller group, nor even the individual. It is the gene. Genes are responsible for the characteristics we inherit. If a gene leads individuals to have some feature which enhances their prospects of surviving and reproducing, that type of gene will itself survive into the next generation;...” Let’s put to one side “genes are responsible for the characteristics we inherit”; a gross over-simplification if ever there was one. And let’s not get into a discussion yet about the level or levels at which selection takes place; let’s focus on the ongoing fallacy. That fallacy has it that altruism has a genetic basis. And of course once the fallacy is established (in the minds of the unwary) it can be progressed into further fallacies, leading ultimately to a thought system or world-view that is without foundation.
    The next fallacy presented of course was kin selection, a concept that presumes to explain altruism from a Darwinian perspective and is therefore of the utmost importance for the gene-centric position to prevail. (1) Singer then engaged in a lengthy discussion of various problems associated with the search for a biological foundation for ethical behaviour, but he continually referred back to the relevance of kin selection to this debate.

    Then came a remarkable shift in position. After subscribing to all the baseless assertions of gene-centrism, (that altruism is gene-based, that genes equal traits etc.,) Singer concluded that the leading lights of socio-biology had failed to appreciate the full significance of altruism as an aspect of evolution because their definitions of altruism and selfishness are deficient. He’s quite right, of course, but he overlooks the fact that if the definitions are deficient, then the conclusions, including kin selection, must be unsound.

    His shift in position continued as he developed the theme of the book – that evolution, through kin selection and reciprocal altruism, has put humans in the unexpected position of having the reasoning capacity to see the merit in extending the area of influence of our altruistic actions to include other humans and other organisms that are far removed from the workings of kin selection. In other words, the “expanding circle” used in the title of the book.
    While his treatment of the development of reason was detailed and well-presented, and while there is no doubt that the capacity for reasoning can result in a move in this direction, it is wrong to give this as the sole or even the primary reason for inter-species and non-kin altruism. Particularly as he is familiar with the comprehensive treatment of extended altruism by the Russian geographer Peter Kropotkin. Here’s what he said of Kropotkin’s work.

    After referring to the “long line of writers who have drawn ethical implications from Darwin’s theory of evolution” he continued; “The line includes Herbert Spencer and the Social Darwinists, the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and in our own century Julian Huxley and C. H. Waddington. Today EO Wilson is the most prominent representative of this line of thought. Herbert Spencer is little read now. Philosophers do not regard him as a major thinker. Kropotkin appeals more to the romantic idealist in us rather than to the strictly scientific side of our intellect. Huxley and Waddington made little headway in their efforts to resurrect evolutionary ethics. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to brush aside Wilson’s attempt to show the relevance of evolutionary theory to ethics just because the attempt has been made often before, and always in vain.”

    Several comments are necessary at this point.
    If, in a serious philosophy paper not dealing with animal rights, Peter Singer’s contribution to the subject matter was dismissed without discussion and he was referred to only as “animal rights activist Peter Singer”, he would be justifiably upset. Kropotkin was a noted geographer who not only wrote about evolutionary ethics in Mutual Aid, but also in his great work Ethics, which was somehow overlooked by Singer. He has therefore earned the right to be treated with rather more respect than was shown by Singer, whose reference to Kropotkin’s political activity could be taken as a deliberate smear.

    And to refer to Kropotkin as promoting romantic idealism is a gross distortion of the truth. Kropotkin actually explained his position on this very point when he stated in the introduction to Mutual Aid “It may be objected to this book that both animals and men are represented in it under too favourable an aspect; that their sociable qualities are insisted upon, while their anti-social and self-asserting instincts are hardly touched upon. This was, however, unavoidable. We have heard so much lately of the “harsh, pitiless struggle for life” which was said to be carried on by every animal against all other animals, every “savage” against every other “savage” and every civilised man against all his co-citizens – and these assertions have become so much an article of faith – that it was necessary first, to oppose to them a wide series of facts showing animal and human life under a quite different aspect.” It seems that not much has changed in the ensuing century; the propaganda of the gene-machine has ensured that those “articles of faith” are now articles of text-book dogma. Despite this clear warning, Singer has disregarded Kropotkin and fallen instead for the flawed assumptions of the “nature red in tooth and claw” version of evolution, if not the colourful rhetoric.

    The falseness of the romantic idealism charge can also be seen in this from the introduction to Mutual Aid; “It is not love, and not even sympathy in its proper sense, which induces a herd of ruminants or horses to form a ring in order to resist an attack from wolves; not love which induces wolves to form a pack for hunting; not love which induces kittens or lambs to play, or a dozen of species of young birds to spend their days together in autumn; not love or even personal sympathy which induces many thousand fallow-deer scattered over a territory as large as France to form a score of separate herds, all marching to a given spot in order to cross there a river. It is a feeling infinitely wider than love or personal sympathy – an instinct that has been slowly developed among animals and men in the course of an extremely long evolution, and which has taught animals and men alike the force they can borrow from the practice of mutual aid and support and the joys they can find in social life.” Kropotkin then proceeded to give the “wide series of facts” and his argument based on those facts in a work of science that is comparable to, and complementary to, Darwin’s Origin of Species. Romantic idealism? I think not.

    It becomes clear that Peter Singer is not treating the matter dispassionately when we consider this from Kropotkin as he returned later to the theme of the passage just quoted. “But it is not love and not even sympathy upon which Society is based in mankind. It is the conscience – be it only at the stage of an instinct – of human solidarity. It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man by the practice of mutual aid; of the close dependency of everyone’s happiness upon the happiness of all, and of the sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own.” Those two sentences are such an accurate summary of The Expanding Circle that they could have been written by Singer himself. Consider the following from Singer. “The pleasures of a self-centred life eventually pall...Real fulfilment is more likely found in working for some other end. Hence, these philosophers claim, if we want to lead a happy life we should not seek happiness directly, but should find a larger purpose in life, outside ourselves.” Consider also the final sentence from Singer’s chapter titled Reason. “That is why I believe that if ethics grows to take into account the interests of all sentient creatures, the expansion of our moral horizons will have at last completed its long and erratic course.”
    I happen to agree with those thoughts, as would Kropotkin, but in light of what Singer has written the question must be asked – who’s the romantic idealist now?
    It’s worth considering also at this point what Darwin had to say on the matter. In The Descent of Man he wrote that the foundation of moral feeling is to be found “in the social instincts which lead the animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.” Which leaves us with more questions.
    Why has Peter Singer been so dismissive of a detailed study of evolutionary ethics which comes to exactly the same conclusions as Singer? And why was Darwin not included in the “long line of writers who have drawn ethical implications from Darwin’s theory of evolution”? Darwin himself was first in line! The power of gene-machine propaganda can be the only answer.(2) Singer accepted all the foundation assumptions of gene-centrism, then, in a manoeuvre of which any gene-centric would be proud, explained how an evolutionary process formed around selfish genes can lead to organisms who defy their selfish genes. Here’s his explanation. In considering the fact that altruism actually exists, he wrote that therefore “Any theory which entails that non-reciprocal altruism towards strangers cannot occur must be wrong. Does this mean that the evolutionary theories of the origin of altruism discussed in the first chapter of this book must be wrong? It may seem that it does, since these theories explained the rise of kin altruism, reciprocal altruism, and possibly a little group altruism, but could not account for altruism to strangers who cannot reciprocate. But recall the argument of the preceding chapter in which I suggested that altruistic impulses once limited to one’s kin and one’s own group might be extended to a wider circle by reasoning creatures who can see that that they and their kin are one group among others, and from an impartial point of view no more important than others. Biological theories of the evolution of altruism through kin selection reciprocity and group selection can be made compatible with the existence of non-reciprocal altruism towards strangers if they can accept this kind of extension of the circle of altruism.”
    There’s so many ifs buts and maybes there, that we can only gasp at Singer’s audacity. It’s so reminiscent of the style and “rigour” of The Selfish Gene that we could be forgiven for thinking that it has Richard Dawkins’ fingerprints all over it.

    So, who is the more believable? Peter Singer the intellectual contortionist and intrepid thought experimenter, or Kropotkin and Darwin who reached conclusions only after many years of observation of the natural world? The only criticism that can be levelled at Kropotkin is that he based his conclusions about evolutionary ethics entirely on his interpretation of the social interaction that he observed throughout the natural world. To deny sociality as the basis of ethics is to deny the concept of ethics outright. It is, by definition, a social concept. Because Kropotkin demonstrated beyond any doubt that sociality is a feature of life itself, he argued that ethics developed from sociality; that rudimentary ethical behaviours can be found in all life forms that have an observable social life. It’s a simple argument; it’s not hard to understand. And it’s so much more acceptable than the convoluted, torturous reasoning path strewn with half-truths presented by Peter Singer, whereby ethical behaviour suddenly sprang from selfish-gene-based kin selection into an expanding circle of concern for all life.
     Here’s Kropotkin’s summary of the matter from Ethics. “...or when we see that a young bird that has stolen some straw from another bird’s nest is attacked by all the other birds of the same colony, we catch on the spot the very origin and growth of the sense of equity and justice in animal societies. And finally, as we advance in every class of animals towards the higher representatives of that class, (the ants wasps and bees among the insects, for example) we find that the identification of the individual with the interests of the group, and eventually even self-sacrifice, grow in proportion. It thus appears that not only does Nature fail to give us a lesson of amoralism...but we are bound to recognise that the very ideas of bad and good, and man’s abstractions concerning “the supreme good” have been borrowed from Nature.”
    What an eloquent refutation of the gene-centric fable concerning the “blind indifference” of a natural world devoid of values, first promoted by Thomas Huxley and parroted ever since by all the Dawkinsian sycophants that followed. A refutation furthermore, that requires no acrobatic leap of faith such as we saw from Peter Singer.

    When we get down to the bare essentials of the argument, the only accusation that Singer and the gene-centrics can throw at Kropotkin is his adherence to large-scale group selection. (Keep in mind that Singer allows “a little group selection.”) But to deny that group selection occurs commonly is to deny logical thought. When an insect that is being eaten leaves so unpleasant a taste in the mouth of the predator that it decides to never eat such prey again, then a selective process has occurred that results in a benefit to the species. The individual insect has gained no benefit, but all life forms that share its visible traits do benefit. It’s called species selection.

    Species die out when all members have a trait or traits that prevent the group from adapting to new selective pressures. When European rats invaded Lord Howe Island they caused the extinction of several bird species while others survived. How can that be anything other than species selection?

    So what can we make of the following definition? “Naïve group selectionism is the unquestioning belief that adaptations can evolve at all levels of the biological hierarchy--for the good of individuals, groups, species and even ecosystems--without requiring special conditions.”
    That sort of thinking ignores the fact that adaptations DO evolve for the good of the group, and in the case of our dear departed insect, can evolve for little benefit to the individual. So the “special conditions” are not special at all – they are commonplace. Adaptations for the greater good? Without doubt! And in such situations the individual becomes a minor player; becomes secondary to the group. Don’t tell the gene-centrics.

    As for the evolution of ethics, this is simply an outcome of the evolution of groups, as ethical behaviours are the bonds that preserve the group; that prevent the group from splitting into sub-groups or individuals. The selection of groups selects ethical behaviours also, so as groups evolve, so do the ethical systems on which they are based.

    Clearly, this is not a complex issue. It is a simple matter made to seem difficult by the ideologues of gene-centrism.

    (1) If you have some lingering regard for kin selection, or inclusive fitness as its originator WD Hamilton called it, please read Hamilton’s “Geometry for The Selfish Herd.” In it you will find a contempt for the scientific method, and a preference for mathematical modelling over observations from nature, that is staggering in its audacity, and which has become the standard operating procedure for gene-centrics. It was mathematical modelling and a refusal to accept evidence from the natural world that caused kin selection to be presented as having universal application. The promotion of the inclusive fitness concept has resulted in Hamilton enjoying near-godlike status and becoming possibly the most cited biologist in history after Darwin. And all based on armchair speculation.

    (2) Possibly the most significant incorrect assumption of gene-centrism, one which was boldly asserted by Singer, is that genes cause behaviours. The actual position is that there is merely a genetic component to behaviours. Genes do not equal traits because all that genes do is synthesise proteins. Proteins are not traits. There is a long chain of cellular activity and input before those proteins contribute to traits. Traits are the products of living systems. Genes are not living systems. .


    Gerhard Adam
    Good article, Steve.  I liked it.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    Thanks Gerhard.
    Hi Steve,

    Yet another good article!
    I would like to draw attention to another weird (at least when you think about it) conceptual mistake that often pops up in evolutionary 'theories' of ethics, and that is that altruism is considered to be the ultimate form of ethical behaviour. Every book, from 'the selfish gene' to 'primates and philosophers' seem to think that altruism is the most 'pure' form of ethics. I personally think that this still draws on the Christian influences in science -was science not considered to be the hunt for God's plan not so long ago- that it is somewhat funny to notice that proclaimed atheists like Richard Dawkins still take these classical biblical foundations as their guide when considering the ethical implications of evolution theory. Their view on ethics tends to be static, universal and timeless, very much like the Christian God they no longer adhere to.

    In my own research on complexity thinking I define 'the ethical moment', that is a point in time where knowledge, intuition, luck and instinct steer a choice (which always forms in a sphere of ambiguity -uh oh... there goes rational choice theory...) and that ethical behaviour is more or less the observed pattern of such choices over time; the chimp may help a fallen bird to fly on one instance, and smash the skull of a rival's baby in another, to misuse a few wonderful examples from primatologist Frans de Waal for sake of argument. Of course, an ethical 'moment' is VERY hard to explain gene-wise, as a gene could never 'fire' such a moment; at best it can contribute to the patterns of behaviour, either to a more selfish, or a more altruistic tendency.

    The problem with altruism as benchmark for ethical behaviour, is that it casts a large shadow over very valid forms of mutual interaction which are probably stronger drivers for evolutionary 'good' behaviour, and that is for instance the win-win situation that you may see with cooperation. Individuals team up because there is an advantage for the entire group AND the individual as well. Maybe not super ethical, but possible even at chemical levels, and with network theory we know that this results in robust (i.e sustainable, i.e. evolutinary advantageousl) systems. Even the evil individual that pops up every now and then who seeks to maximise its own utilty at the expense of the collective is forced to 'manage' its evil, because on the long term its behaviour will ricochet if it becomes too powerful. For example, successions of studies on criminal behaviour show that criminal organisations tend to become invisible because crimianl behaviour is only profitable if it doesn't destabilise society too much. Initially a criminal organisation may be very violent when they enter new territory, but eventually they tend to move out of sight, either by their own evolution, or through elimination by other criminal organisations who do not want this form of high exposure. David Christian in "Maps of Time" draws the interesting parallel with parasites who invade a host, and usually follow a similar evolution.

    Evolution, as we are starting to understand it, boils down to "if there is a benefit (according to certain criteria) and there is sufficient adaptivity to claim the benefit, then evolution will fill the niche" . Note that competition is no longer part of the equation, but just one factor that has an influence in a practical environment. I suspect that the host of literature developed in the 20th Century on the subject of ethics and evolution will say more about that period of time than it dod about the subject itself.
    Gerhard Adam
    Agreed.  It seems that cooperation can be reasonably predicted to occur when "economies of scale" are possible between social organisms.  However, it seems that a major sticking point that keeps being ignored regarding altruism is the role of probability and risk-taking.

    In other words, does the altruist necessarily seek to sacrifice themselves, or is it merely a calculated risk that promises to have huge payoffs if successful?  The only difficulty with this, is that biology has elected to define altruism to exclude this possibility.  So, if an individual performs an act that could result in a reduction in fitness, it is only considered altruistic if it actually does.  A successful gamble isn't considered altruistic, despite it being the same act.

    In my view this is simply foolish.  I expect that if one examines the overall incidences of "altruism" one would find that the actor in question doesn't intend to sacrifice themselves, although that may be a consequence of their action.  Similarly, I expect that when such an altruistic gesture is successful, the same actor enjoys some significant benefits from the group.

    So, if I were to jump into a lake to save a drowning person, it isn't my intend to let myself drown.  The objective is that we both survive, yet I have to be prepared to take this risk, without a guarantee of outcome.  In my view, that's what marks the actual "altruistic" action.  The stuff about reduction in fitness, etc. is rubbish [In fact, even the most cursory analysis of it would indicate that it doesn't work at all for humans, nor most other animals].
    Mundus vult decipi
    The current trend to explain everything in terms of evolutionary psychology, especially to explain away things one would rather not think about, seems to have a parallel in trying to explain away things we don’t like in philosophy or art in terms of how the philosopher or artist “got there”.

    This quote from G.K.Chesterton’s Autobiography (1936) is, methinks, rather apt:

    For instance, there seems to be a much more vivid interest in the lives of such literary men than in their literary works.  Any amount is written and rewritten about the romance of Mr. and Mrs. Browning, in plays and pages of biography and gossip.  But though their story is rewritten, I rather doubt whether Browning is re-read, or whether Mrs. Browning is read at all.  There seem to be more details remembered out of the story of the Brontës than there are details remembered out of the Brontë stories.  It is a queer ending for all the aesthetic talk about an artist being only important in his art.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England

    Do we agree that biology is not the ultimate source of morality?

    Enforced cultural moral standards are what most people think of as morality and a group’s moral standards can be selected for based on whatever people find attractive. Therefore morality was forever unhitched from being only about reproductive fitness and biology with the first emergence of culture in our distant ancestors.

    But consider the cross-species objective aspects of physical reality that are relevant to altruism and cooperation and therefore to morality.

    Everywhere in our universe, synergistic benefits of cooperation are available. For example, the synergistic benefits of cooperation are largely what made us such incredibly successful social animals.

    However, cooperation often, and altruistic cooperation always, leaves agents vulnerable to exploitation. Game theory shows that exploitation is commonly the winning strategy for maximizing short term benefits but destroys the potential for future larger shared benefits. This defines the universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma regarding maximizing benefits in groups.

    As illustrated by the mathematics of game theory, there are cross-species universal altruistic cooperation strategies (cooperation maintained by altruism) that are winning strategies because they solve this cooperation/exploitation dilemma. These strategies include kin selection and reciprocity of various kinds.

    Sure, the philosopher Comte’s original definition of altruism (when he coined the word) as the opposite of egoism makes nonsense of the above paragraphs. (“There can be no such thing as pure altruism!”). But Comte’s definition had nothing to do with the science of morality. Letting the science of morality define altruism we get a much more useful definition: “Acting at a cost to one’s self, benefiting others, and done without consideration of future benefits to one’s self”. This definition threads the needle between the common cultural understanding of altruism and altruism as an evolutionary adaptation, allowing sensible usage of one definition in both domains.

    With this simple knowledge, understanding the origins and nature of social morality becomes an almost trivial exercise. For example, it enables understanding the biology based emotions that motivate altruism, such as empathy, loyalty, guilt, shame, and righteous indignation. it also enables understanding the biology underlying our conscience and moral intuitions (which can learn) and much of our sense of durable well-being, which is arguably largely derived from cooperation in groups. Finally, it enables understanding the origin and function of all past and present enforced cultural norms such as the Golden Rule (direct and indirect reciprocity) and even circumcision and prohibitions against eating pigs (marker strategies from game theory).

    As a matter of logic, the science of morality is not able to tell us what the ultimate goals of our altruistic cooperation in groups (acting morally) ought to be in any imperative sense. However, that science can be wonderfully culturally useful in 1) telling us the most effective moral standards to enforce to achieve whatever our ultimate group goals are and 2) telling us how we can increase our personal experience of well-being by acting evolutionarily morally, even in a community that is morally hostile to us.

    I could go through and dispute some of your assertions point by point, but thought the above explanation of morality as an evolutionary adaptation might be more interesting.

    Gerhard Adam
    Letting the science of morality define altruism we get a much more useful definition: “Acting at a cost to one’s self, benefiting others, and done without consideration of future benefits to one’s self”.
    How does this definition apply if the same act is performed, but it doesn't cost the original actor?  Again, my problem is the supposition [almost requirement] that an individual suffer a "cost" before an act can be considered altruistic.

    A society of altruists is simply suicidal. 
    As illustrated by the mathematics of game theory, there are cross-species universal altruistic cooperation strategies (cooperation maintained by altruism) that are winning strategies because they solve this cooperation/exploitation dilemma. These strategies include kin selection and reciprocity of various kinds.
    I think the point regarding game theory is missed, in that the most successful strategies all begin with "altruistic" gestures and it is from this that cooperation can develop.  In short, the first decision in any game is the "risk" that the actor is willing to take.  If it pays off, then cooperation ensures, if not, then it is about retribution or avoidance.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    Kees, Robert and Mark, thanks for your thoughts.
    Mark, I agree with much of what you have written, but must clarify a few points.
    Do we agree that biology is not the ultimate source of morality?
    No we do not. Morality in the sense understood by most people is derived from biology, whether most people realise this or not.
    ... a group’s moral standards can be selected for based on whatever people find attractive.
    Only for a while. If a change in standards reduces the fitness of the group, it decays.
    However, cooperation often, and altruistic cooperation always, leaves agents vulnerable to exploitation.
    Again, only for a while. Continual exploitation within a group is not sustainable.
    we get a much more useful definition (of altruism): “Acting at a cost to one’s self, benefiting others, and done without consideration of future benefits to one’s self”.
    That's good as far as it goes, which is not far enough.
    It overlooks the fact that organisms that habitually cooperate see themselves as part of a larger whole. This means that any loss to an altruist is not seen as a loss but is seen as a transfer within the larger whole.
    It also overlooks the fact that most acts of altruism cannot be seen as costly as the altruist is giving that which he has in excess.
    As a matter of logic, the science of morality is not able to tell us what the ultimate goals of our altruistic cooperation in groups (acting morally) ought to be in any imperative sense.
    The goal of morality is the preservation of the group so that the cooperation that preserves individuals can be maintained.
    The significance of altruism has been greatly overstated. This has been no more than a tactic to divert attention from the importance of cooperation.
    Mark Sloan
    Steve, thanks for your detailed reply and comments on what I thought you might see as my flakey position (flakey only because I am not aware of it being laid out anywhere in the literature, only perhaps implied by Herbert Gintis’s work in altruistic cooperation).
    The best place to start may be what is “Morality in the sense understood by most people”. In my experience, most people understand morality as their culture’s enforced moral standards (cultural norms whose violation commonly engenders the idea that the violator deserves punishment, at minimum social disapproval). Cultural moral standards can be selected for (can culturally evolve) based on whatever people find attractive, reproductive fitness of the group may or may not be included. 

    I understand your point to be that cultural moral standards that are contradictory to group reproductive fitness cannot survive in the long term. Well, actually they can. First, cultures typically have many moral standards, so a group could still survive even in the long term if some standards reduced reproductive fitness (such as chastity for religious orders) and others increased them, such as religious prohibitions against birth control. 

    But even when the net effect of moral behavior is reduced reproductive fitness, for example when the birth rates in Europe are at less than replacement levels, that has no necessary implications for cultural morality. I don’t think you would claim European social morality as a whole is therefore somehow immoral. Morality really has been unhitched from being only about reproductive fitness since the emergence of culture. 

    "The goal of morality is the preservation of the group so that the cooperation that preserves individuals can be maintained” is false as a descriptive fact. You might argue that this ‘ought’ to be the goal of morality, but I don’t think that is what you are doing. Cultural morality in the end comes down to a culture’s goals for enforcing moral standards, those goals may or may not have anything to do with reproductive fitness.

     Also, altruism (properly defined) is an integral part of winning altruistic cooperation strategies (such as advocated by “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, otherwise known as indirect reciprocity) and a logical necessity for enforced cultural norms (moral standards). Why should a group go to the trouble of advocating and enforcing a moral standard that is NOT altruistic, that has no cost to the individual? It would be a waste of effort. Therefore, enforced moral standards always advocate behaviors that are in some sense altruistic.

    A confusing aspect about cooperation regarding morality is that in cultures with money economies and rule of law, economic cooperation (which does not require altruism) is a fantastically more efficient means of obtaining material goods benefits than altruistic cooperation. Before the emergence of money economies and rule of law, altruistic cooperation was the main way, aside from inefficient barter, that people accessed the material benefits of cooperation in groups. After the emergence of money economies and rule of law, altruistic cooperation became almost obsolete as a means to obtain the material goods benefits of cooperation, and is now mostly a means of obtaining the emotional rewards of cooperation. Hence, morality has moved even further away from being about group survival. 

    Groups of fully amoral people could survive quite well with no morality at all, but just by economic cooperation in money economies under rule of law.
    Gerhard Adam
    I see a couple of problems with your statements.

    In the first place, I think discussing reproductive fitness as it applies to humans is simply erroneous at this stage in our existence.  It is clear that we have succeeded so wildly as a species, that any such drives have long since become essentially irrelevant.  This is precisely why people can choose to not have children.  There simply isn't an impetus to reproduce.

    BTW, this would tend to support the notion of group selection, since obviously our behavior occurs precisely because of our success as a species.  As a result people can operate against their own biological interests without concern.
    Morality in the sense understood by most people
    I think you could consider morality in this sense, but if a biological origin is involved then one would expect to see rudimentary aspects of it in other social animals.  This is precisely what is observed, when one could argue that "morality" is little more than behaving according to the requisite standards of the group. 

    While morality in animals may bear no relationship to our human view, within the context of that animal group it is arguably "moral".
    Groups of fully amoral people could survive quite well with no morality at all, but just by economic cooperation in money economies under rule of law.
    I don't believe that's true.  Even in situations with no reproductive fitness element or economic incentives, we see "morality" arise as a byproduct of social grouping and cooperation.

    This is most readily observed in prisons where groups form for mutual protection and benefit without the incentives indicated.  They are fully formed with protocols and rules of behavior despite originating with individuals that could arguably be called "amoral" by society's standards.

    Again, we can conclude that whether it be economics, threat of force, or simply the need to belong, these methods simply operate to enforce an instinct which is already present and would occur regardless of any other influence.  An amoral set of people could not survive as a group, because even the basis of claiming economic cooperation requires at least one element that honors the morality of being fair with the money.
    Why should a group go to the trouble of advocating and enforcing a moral standard that is NOT altruistic, that has no cost to the individual?
    The success of such advocacy is suspect.  While most groups advocate cooperation, altruism [or the notion of self-sacrifice] isn't as widely embraced.  Again, in most cases, the altruistic behavior is a risk-associated behavior and rarely expects actual sacrifice.  When a fireman goes into a burning building, he's not expecting to die there.  Just as a soldier fighting for a nation doesn't serve with the intent of dying.

    There is a calculated risk involved, that presumes that successfully engaging in such altruistic behavior can produce greater benefits within the group [through whatever cultural devices recognize such actions].  In humans this is readily observed by bestowing honors and prizes on those that achieve such objectives. 

    In turn this establishes the individuals' value to the group and serves to satisfy the needs of internal competition for position.  It is from this basis that one may gain reproductive fitness advantages.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Mark Sloan
     Humm, so you are arguing reproductive fitness has nothing to do with morality and Steve is arguing morality is all about the reproductive fitness of the group? Perhaps you should address you argument to Steve. 

     But I can cheerfully defend my, based in science, middle of that road view. Morality has a basis in reproductive fitness because our moral emotions such as empathy, loyalty, guilt, shame, and our moral intuitions that motivate moral behaviors are all biological adaptations selected for in our ancestors by the increased reproductive fitness these adaptations provided. Sure, since the emergence of culture people have been free to choose enforced moral standards based on whatever they found attractive. But that does not mean that our biology based moral emotions magically vanished or what we find attractive is somehow magically disconnected from our biology. “Preserve life!” is very attractive moral standard simply because it so directly preserves reproductive fitness. 

     That said, people are free to enforce moral standards that have nothing to do with reproductive fitness. 

     We do see morality in lower animals. It is present in behaviors that in people would be motivated by empathy, loyalty, and a willingness to altruistically risk injury and death to defend the group. These are common in chimpanzees, wolves, and meerkats – all (no surprise) cooperative social species. One of my favorite examples of altruistic behavior in animals is a wonderful picture of a meerkat altruistically standing watch while the other members of the group forage. 

     The risk of death of a meerkat or a human soldier defending their group is more than enough altruism for me. They don’t have to actually be killed to have behaved altruistically. The risk is cost enough. 

     It would be irrational to waste resources advocating behaviors that are not altruistic as moral standards and then punishing violators. I can show it is empirical fact that virtually all past and present enforced moral standards advocate behavior that is in a real sense altruistic. 

     It seems to me that amoral people employing money economies under rule of law could be quite successful. Amoral people are people who do not experience empathy, loyalty, guilt, or shame. They are commonly called rational psychopaths. If they were tested, an estimated 1% of the American population would be classified as rational psychopaths. Interestingly, an estimated 4% of the heads of major corporations would be classified as rational psychopaths. My claim is that a group made up only of such rational psychopaths as run major corporations could be quite successful using only economic cooperation under rule of law. Strategies to alleviate the burden of having and raising children could be a problem, but I expect even that could be worked out.
    Gerhard Adam
    ...so you are arguing reproductive fitness has nothing to do with morality...
    No, I'm not saying that morality has nothing to do with reproductive fitness.  In fact, the last statement specifically indicates how altruistic actions or competition in the group could elevate one's standing to improve their reproductive fitness.

    However, in modern human societies, we have to consider that reproductive fitness is not necessarily a criteria as it once was.  There is no pressing social need to reproduce, so while there may be people that feel having their own children is important, our culture has also acknowledge that choosing to have no children or adopting others is equally acceptable.

    This goes completely against any argument that natural selection must operate solely to increase the fitness of individuals.  The answer (at least in humans) is that it does not.  Certainly we can argue that those particular genes will never get passed on to future generations, but equally one could argue that human society doesn't particularly concern itself with the genetic makeup of its members.

    We could just as readily adapt this to any social animal, using for example, a herd of horses.  The stallion will mate with whatever females are available, but let's presume that one of them gives birth to defective foals that invariably die before they reach adulthood.  Effectively her genes have been "selected" out, but it changes nothing in terms of the group or the behavior of the group.  Similarly, even sterile individuals derive benefit from the group without an increase in reproductive fitness, so it seems that while we can argue that at some level morality derives from some of those criteria, it is clear that the group's behavior is oriented towards the success of the group and not the individuals in it.  Even asocial animals have a sense of "morality" [i.e. what is the "right" thing to do], and this can only peripherally improve their fitness [i.e. in the sense of not getting them killed].
    My claim is that a group made up only of such rational psychopaths as run major corporations could be quite successful using only economic cooperation under rule of law.
    My point is that this is a fallacy.  The "rule of law" requires that a sense of justice exists, which is not available by your own definition.  Similarly, even if you wanted to draw the comparison to corporate CEO's, it should be clear that the majority of employees [i.e. those that actually do the work] do not have such characteristics.

    There can be no group of rational psychopaths that succeeds as a group unless they form some cooperative unit that allows them to curtail their personal ambitions for the advantage of the group.  While they may do this, you will never see them succeed as a group while maintaining their individual ambitions intact.

    We've long since seen historical precedence for exactly this kind of behavior, and when the "rule of law" is simply the reflection of a despot, there is no sense of cooperation achieved.  Even the most ruthless leader must surround himself with individuals that are willing to cooperate to protect the individual and to enforce the leader's will.  The only way this works with an amoral group is if the leader is insane and simply is more unpredictable than those that would threaten his existence [i.e. consider Caligula, Stalin, Idi Amin].  However, in examining those types of groups it would hard to argue much for any kind of morality, beyond that of seeking personal advantage.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Mark Sloan
    I actually agree with most of your points. 

    I disagree with your claim that amoral agents could not form a sustainable society under rule of law. What logically prevents their establishing enforced laws in order to gain the expected benefits of cooperation?

    You might read my current response to Steve on this issue. I expect the disagreement, at least with Steve, is due to my insistence that altruism is a necessary part of moral behavior.
    Gerhard Adam
    I also responded in a longer fashion below.  However the logical contradiction is that they very concept of law is grounded in morality.  It is meaningless to discuss law in an amoral society.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    Mark and Gerhard, thanks for taking the trouble to discuss these important concepts.
    Mark, you said "I understand your point to be that cultural moral standards that are contradictory to group reproductive fitness cannot survive in the long term. Well, actually they can."
    We have to keep in mind that fitness for a group can be different to fitness for an individual, which is linked to reproduction. So I did not refer, I think, to group reproductive fitness, just group fitness. A group remains viable simply by surviving, and can attract members from outside. For a species group, reproduction is a factor, but not groups in general.
    It is morality, ethical behaviour, that keeps a group viable. Reproduction is secondary.
    You said, "The goal of morality is the preservation of the group so that the cooperation that preserves individuals can be maintained” is false as a descriptive fact. You might argue that this ‘ought’ to be the goal of morality...
    No, I argue that this must be the goal of morality. The fact that we have forgotten the origin of morality is not relevant.
    The fact that morality can be hijacked by special interest groups for other ends is not relevant.
    The relevant fact is that groups that adopt standards that reduce group fitness run the risk of failure.
    You said, Groups of fully amoral people could survive quite well with no morality at all, but just by economic cooperation in money economies under rule of law.
    I doubt that very much. Such an amoral society would see individual economic gain as the only goal, so economic cooperation would eventually break down.
    Besides, an amoral society cannot exist. In the example you gave, "the rule of law" is the necessary moral framework.
    Mark Sloan
    Steve, I misunderstood what you meant by “group fitness”. I did not recognize that as a standard usage. But yes, a group can survive and prosper, at least in the intermediate term till it runs out of other people who want to join, even if the reproductive fitness of its members is low (as per the “Shaker” religious group in the US who practiced complete chastity). 
    If you define moral behavior as pro-social behavior that includes un-altruistic cooperation such as economic cooperation (which I see as a serious error), then yes, it is sensible to say “It is morality, ethical behavior, that keeps a group viable.” (And since the emergence of culture and cultural moral standards, reproduction can be secondary. Note that moral behavior was only about increasing reproductive fitness prior to that.) 

    My claim that moral behaviors (morality defined consistently with all past and present enforced moral standards) are necessarily altruistic as descriptive fact appears to be key to our disagreements. 

    The idea that "The goal of morality is the preservation of the group so that the cooperation that preserves individuals can be maintained” implies intent by someone. Is that the people in the group? (Or for theists, God?) 

    Rather than talking about the “goal” of morality, the “function of morality” (the primary reason it exists or persists in a system) is more standard in the literature because it has no necessary mysterious intent connotations. So talking about the function rather than the goal should be less confusing for people, depending on what your intent is.

    You might find interesting Philip Kitcher’s (past president of the American Philosophical Society and very mainstream) 2011 book on the function of morality “The Ethical Project”, in which he describes that function as “overcoming altruism failures”. Also, the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a useful entry on “functional moralities”.

    I expect that the estimated 4% of heads of major corporations who would test as rational psychopaths (who are unable to experience empathy, loyalty, or guilt) would be able to form a sustainable society governed by rule of law without much difficulty. Similarly, a society of intelligent computers who also were unable to experience empathy, loyalty, or guilt but did have goals that 1) were advanced by cooperation and 2) put them into conflict with others would also be able to form a sustainable society governed by rule of law without much difficulty.

    Establishing rule of law in a society can be motivated purely by a shared desire to maximize the benefits of cooperation. No “sense of justice” is required. Also, no morality is required, as evidenced by there being no logical barrier to amoral rational psychopaths and amoral intelligent computers establishing such rule of law societies.

    It might make sense to say that "the rule of law is the necessary moral framework" only if altruism is NOT a necessary component of your definition of moral behavior (which I understand to be your position – so you are consistent). The problem is that altruism IS a necessary component of moral behavior if we define “moral behavior” as behavior consistent with acts motivated by our moral emotions or acts advocated by past and present enforced moral standards. 

    So for the assertion "the rule of law is the necessary moral framework" to be true, the definition of “moral” must be inconsistent with all past and present enforced moral standards. Sure, you can define morality to not require altruism (perhaps defining morality as “pro-social” behavior as many in the literature have tried to do) but that counterproductively hides what moral behavior really is, biological and cultural implementations of altruistic cooperation strategies.
    Gerhard Adam
    Establishing rule of law in a society can be motivated purely by a shared desire to maximize the benefits of cooperation. No “sense of justice” is required.
    Actually it is.  Consider that the who concept of the law is based on establishing a means by which individuals can obtain some level of justice for perceived wrongs.  Of course, another aspect of it is simply to establish the boundaries at which the state can enforce its will on individuals.

    However, in both cases, individuals must believe that there is some disinterested third party that is capable of interpreting the information and reaching an unbiased conclusion.  This automatically requires someone that is capable of setting their own bias' aside.  In other words, the individual making such a judgement must be "moral" enough to being "fair".

    Similarly individuals that would obey such laws do so with the implicit understanding that the law will be applied with "justice".  Anything else leads to discontent and invariably rebellion in most societies.  Again, we have numerous historical incidences that we can point to that indicates when "law" is not perceived as a "moral agent", then it is ignored and revolt follows.

    Humans have an intrinsic sense of "fairness", which at heart requires morality; a sense of doing what is "right".

    You're absolutely right that a group might elect to follow such a standard to maximize the benefit to the group, but that simply means that they would've put their amoral standards aside to create a moral code that would be applicable to the group.  In short, they would cease to be amoral.

    Part of the confusion is associated with the "rule of law" because it presupposes that this can only be achieved by conscious choice.  Consider a situation that occurs with Grizzly bears.  These are animals that I would certainly consider "amoral" in that they are fiercely independent and do not readily share territories.  They don't congregate together normally, and would readily challenged each other fiercely.  Yet, while they are not social animals, when large salmon runs occur, we find that they do congregate together and they understand how to adjust their behavior so that they become almost social.  Clearly this can occur because there is such an abundance of food, that one would almost have to be "criminal" to deny access to others [besides it obviously just wasting too much energy and being impossible].  So, when put in this situation, the bears will all behave in a generally appropriate manner to keep the peace.

    In short, they must become "moral" in order to avoid destroying each other.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Mark Sloan
    I have been rethinking my position that it is obvious that an efficient money economy under rule of law could be established by groups of intelligent agents with no moral sense or conscience. (My example groups were the 4% of the heads of large corporations who would test as rational psychopaths and hypothetical intelligent computers without conscience.)

    Today, I came across a video by the game theorist/economist Herbert Gintis who pointed out that the most difficult part in practice of establishing an efficient money-economy under rule of law (in cultures where rule of law was weak) was in instilling a cultural sense of moral obligation to follow the law. Without that moral sense, what occurs is that people with power only enforce laws selectively, as far as they can get by with, to benefit themselves or their groups and people without power flout the law so far as they think they and their groups can get by with doing so. 

    Also, just by coincidence, I am drafting a blog post on the high efficiency of the human conscience in internally enforcing cultural norms (including laws) compared to the inefficiency of group punishment of violation of enforced norms (again including laws). 

    It still seems to me that a “money economy under rule of law could be established by groups of intelligent agents with no moral sense or conscience”, provided they were smart enough, but I agree it would suffer the inefficiencies of required group enforcement since there would be no internal enforcement by biological adaptations such as conscience and an sense of justice. 

    However, saying “a money economy under rule of law” could not be established without a sense of justice and conscience, seems to me to be overreaching.
    Steve, I think your association of Evolutionary Psychology with the gene-centric view of evolution that has prevailed among evolutionary biologists for many years now is fundamentally wrong. You need to go back and read the first chapter of "The Selfish Gene." In it you will find the following:

    These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz's "On Aggression," Ardrey's "The Social Contract," and Eibl-Eibesfeldt's "Love and Hate." The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).

    Who were Ardrey, Lorenz, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt? Well, to begin with, they all warmly accepted Darwin's theory of multiple level selection. They were also the most prominent evolutionary psychologists of their day. I use the term "evolutionary psychology" in the vernacular, that is, a science based on the hypothesis that there is such a thing as human nature. The vernacular term that meant the same thing in the heyday of the above three was "ethology." Later it became "sociobiology." The original sociobiologist was, of course, E. O. Wilson. He never fully accepted Dawkins' gene-centric views, in spite of what you read in the EP textbooks, and, of course, recently came out of the closet as a full-fledged group selectionist. "The Selfish Gene" isn't just about Dawkins theory of gene-centric evolution. It is also a full-fledged attack on the evolutionary psychologists of its day. You will see that immediately if you re-read the book. The above quote is hardly unique, and is followed by many others attacking Lorenz and Ardrey for their support of group selection.

    Your misconception that there is some kind of an indissoluble bond between evolutionary psychology and Dawkins' gene-centric view of evolution is understandable. EP has come of age during a time when Dawkins opinion represented scientific orthodoxy, and reflects that environment, in a manner no different from any of the other biological sciences. However, the fact that many evolutionary psychologists happened to also accept gene-centric orthodoxy hardly implies that the whole field is dependent on or derived from that point of view.

    Your point of view is also understandable in view of the extensive scrubbing of the history of evolutionary psychology. According to this "history," as represented, for example, in Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate," what became EP began with a mythical "big bang" with the publication of E. O. Wilson's "Sociobiology." In fact, as far as the reason for that book's notariety is concerned, its embrace of the fact that there actually is such a thing as human nature, it was just an afterthought. There is nothing in it that was not written more than a decade earlier by the likes of Lorenz, Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and, most prominently, Robert Ardrey. To fact check this statement, you need only read "Man and Aggression," a collection of essays by the Blank Slaters themselves, published in 1968, and still available on Amazon for about a dollar the last time I looked. I suspect one of the reasons the history of EP has been "revised" is the fact that, when it came to Ardrey's claim that there is such a thing a human nature, the fundamental theme of all his work, he was right, and the lion's share of "experts" in the behavioral sciences, at least in the United States, were wrong. Ardrey, you see, was a mere playwright. Hence the "big bang" myth.

    Steve Davis
    Helian, thanks for your interest.
    You said: I think your association of Evolutionary Psychology with the gene-centric view of evolution that has prevailed among evolutionary biologists for many years now is fundamentally wrong.
    The situation may have changed, but I doubt that that association is "fundamentally wrong." After all, EP as we know it today did develop from the selfish gene fable.
    You mentioned in your article on this matter at your site, that some of the most prominent ev. bilogists today accept group selection.
    That is true, but when reading what they say on the matter, it's clear that they still accept some of the base assumptions of gene-centrism. Bill Hamilton is held up as a shining light when in fact he was an armchair theorist. Game theory is presented as having profound implications in this area when in fact its significance is secondary at best.
    There is no substitute in this discussion for observations of the natural world. 
    But that takes effort.
    There's a chance one might get dirty hands, bitten by mosquitoes, frostbite, dehydration, or, perish the thought, a victim of natural selection.
    And this is part of the problem.
    There are many contributing to this debate who consider themselves experts on evolution while having no experience of natural selection. Is it any wonder they are confused?
    If you believe the version of history presented in David Buss' standard textbook, "Evolutionary Psychology," then, yes, EP as we know it today did develop from the selfish gene fable. The problem with that version is that it's a complete fairy tale, and easily identifiable as such by anyone who troubles themselves to read the source material. In chapter one there is a section about how Hamilton revolutionized biology with his inclusive fitness theory, followed by a section about how George Williams demolished group selection theory, followed by a section on Robert Trivers gene-centric theories of reciprocal altruism. Once the unsuspecting student has been thus prepared, Buss springs the "big bang" myth of evolutionary psychology on them, according to which E. O. Wilson, who, by implication, was also a true believer in the selfish gene, put it all together in his book "Sociobiology," and EP sprang forth as Athena from the head of Zeus. Quoting Buss,

    The chapter on humans, the last in the book (Sociobiology) and running a mere twenty-nine pages, created the most controversy. At public talks audience members shouted him down, and once a pitcher of water was dumped on his head. His work sparked attacks from Marxists, radicals, creationists, other scientists, and even members of his own department at Harvard... Further, he speculated that many cherished human phenomena, such as culture, religion, ethics and even aesthetics, would ultimately be explained by the new synthesis.

    Rather than call Buss a liar, I would rather believe that he simply doesn't know what he's talking about. Anyone who bothers to take even a superficial look at the source material will immediately see that, far from single-handedly creating a "new synthesis," E. O. Wilson was merely presenting a truncated and entirely derivative repetition of ideas set down, in some cases, more than a decade earlier by the likes of Ardrey, Lorenz, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt, group selectionists to a man. I admire and respect Wilson, but the myth about how he "invented" EP simply doesn't hold water. As for the abuse he suffered, it pales beside that endured by Ardrey and Lorenz long before he wrote "Sociobiology." As I mentioned earlier, "Man and Aggression," edited by Ashley Montagu is an excellent piece of source material, documenting not only that abuse, but the actual significance and importance of Ardrey and Lorenz, who have a far better claim to be counted among the founders of EP than Wilson.

    Of course, as I mentioned earlier, Wilson has now come out strongly in favor of group selection. It will be interesting to see how Buss' "history" is revised in response. If you visit group selectionist David Sloan Wilson's website, "This View of Life," you will find much other relevant material, including documentation of Hamilton's eventual acceptance of group selection after reading the work of Michael Price.

    Watching the development of this whole group selection, EP nexus has been fascinating. I am in my early 60's, and have seen most of it happen in my lifetime, and I am only an interested lay person (physicist) so I know many behavioral scientists must be well aware of the truth as well. Apparently, many of them prefer the "big bang" myth to the truth, perhaps because it soothes their sense of professional gravitas, or because they prefer a gene-centric version of history.

    Steve Davis
    Helian, I hope you're right.
    But keep in mind that it's one thing to grudgingly accept group selection, but how many who have done so have then recanted on selfish genes.
    Not many if any, I suspect.
    The insanity behind gene-centrism lies in the fact that natural selection and evolution are all about living entities. Genes are not living entities.
    Gerhard Adam

    Perhaps you might care to comment on this article by Matt Ridley "When Genes Look Out Only For Themselves".

    Personally I thought it interesting that the article itself demonstrates explicitly why genes can't be selfish in any meaningful sense and how any such supposition renders them more destructive than useful.

    More importantly I found the following quote from the article quite interesting, because it suggests group level selection.
    In recent years, some scientists have argued that such selfish genetic elements serve the greater good in the long run...
    It seems like an absurd reductionist spin on what is actually just co-evolution.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    Thanks for that Gerhard.
    Yes, you're right. When you finish the article you're left with the thought "Well, what did he actually say?"
    And as for "selfish DNA" being "a throwaway line" that's false for a start, and if it's a throwaway line why keep using it?
    And once again, no evidence for selfishness in DNA because there is none. 
    Just to add a few thoughts to this discussion, without jumping into rights and wrongs...
    Generally speakin, many old-school evolutionary theorists tend to have a very linear conception of evolution theory. The line of reasoning is of the type: animals have such and such behaviour (e.g. social or proto-moral characteristics) and then -hey presto- we see a mutation and suddenly we humans evolve, with  fully moral capacities, veneer or otherwise.

    Now, here is a thought. Stone Age man was biologically (almost) similar to modern man. Take a stone-age baby, raise it in a contemproary, fully postmodern family, and you will get a face-book gazing, IPad zombie such as we can see all around us...hurray for transhumanist improvements!

    Yet, modern man is as distant to Stone Age man, as Stone Age man is from Denisova man or Homo Habilis...maybe not genetically, but in consciousness, knowledge and world-view, yes EVEN in moral sense. Jeremy Rifkin has pointed this out in his recent book "Age of Empathy" that the true unusual aspect of modern man is not that what is usually bickered about in discussions about morality, namely if we are more or less moral than other species, rather it is that we can emphathise with people at the far corners of the world, about animals on the verge of extinction, and even the state of the globe itself.
    Just think about this for a minute: our brains are capable of emphatizing not only with our relatives and neighbours, but even with abstract phenomena such as "the global community", "war children" or melting glaciers. The fact that we can REASON about our double standards, hypocrisy and ethical veneer, is ONLY because our brains are capable of modelling these issues and questioning our attitudes in daily practices. How do we explain this in evolutionary terms? Through genes? Well, I think that this is where linearity is no longer sufficient as source for explanation.

    What happens - i think-  is that genes ARE capable of facilitating certain traits that fall in the discussion that we are having here -see Frans de Waal for strong evidence- , but that ethics ans morality are formed in feedback loops between family, cultural, and social embedding, education, experiences and what have you. In this dynamic, noisy parallelism ideas are shared and can become attractors for individuals who in turn maintain the sustainability and adaptivity of these ideas (I have reservations about 'meme-theory' for technical reasons, but for the sake of argument it could provide an apt analogy), where genes at best faciltiate the slow adaptations in this process, but that the fast changes -from make peace not war hippies to their bank-bonus craving children- take place in the fast dynamics of societies and expansion of knowledge and ideas.
    In terms of complexity, I think that we see a variant of what sociologists call the micro-macro problem, which is that individual behaviour at micro-level does not (fully) explain observable behaviour at macro-scale. Complexity thinknig can then trump the network-theory card to elucidate this, and even use the somewhat hollow term of 'emergence' to make a point. But in the end it is the parallelism of multiple feedback loops between gene and environment in which morality takes a place. The gene discovers a niche (large brains) which result in certain phenomena at macro scale (e.g. binge drinking) which feeds back to the genes (korsakov resistant IPad zombies)..something like that...
    Gerhard Adam
    I think we can trace much of what we currently view as behavior back to more fundamental biological roots.  We can deduce that one obvious requirement for any reproducing organism is the ability to recognize its own offspring [in terms of species relatedness, etc. not in any personal way].  As a result, in my view, this would be generically obtained by ensuring that members of the same species would be recognizable as separate and distinct from other species.

    This occurs even at the bacterial level.

    Now it is obviously difficult to postulate something like behavior at the single-celled level, and yet we are forced to conclude that this is precisely what occurs [regardless of the means by which is achieved].  The division of labor in cells, the regulatory processes by which a multi-celled organism's systems work together, all require that cells "behave" according to the requirements of the system.  Moreover to the skeptics that would argue that this is simply the byproduct of a systemic regulatory mechanism, I would argue that the development of cancerous cells argue against such a mechanism.  Cancerous cells are not produced by a systemic failure and are indicative of cells that no longer "cooperate".  They are invariably localized and only become systemic when they metastasize which suggests that there is something in their "behavior" that is transmissible to other cells.

    So, even though we cannot ascribe cognitive behavioral traits to such organisms, we must acknowledge that there is some fundamental mechanism at work that elicits "good" behavior versus "bad" behavior.

    Once we consider such a background, then it becomes more plausible to consider that "morality" becomes more refined as the organisms become more sophisticated.  In the same that that human evolution has extended the basic biology by including behavioral and cultural aspects to the growth process, similarly would "morality" be a part of those processes.

    In other words, "morality" simply becomes a simple form of "proper behavior" within a group.  The more sophisticated the ability to be intellectually abstract, the more rationalization we will find for such "morality", but in the end, it becomes an intrinsic sense of how would should behave around others.  Part of the evolutionary pressure is to promote cooperation, and to avoid unnecessary energy expenditures in aggressiveness that produces no benefit.  Therefore such a protocol would be beneficial in ensuring basic fitness, since those organisms that did not develop such a sense would likely engage in riskier behavior in confronting others and also incur higher defensive costs if others don't acknowledge such behavior among peers.

    This doesn't mean that there won't be cheats, but in general, I think the idea holds.
    Mundus vult decipi