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January 30, 2012

Nature, Nurture, Or Both?

The "monogamy is unnatural" meme is a fairly widespread tenet among those who view [their own, but not other people's] biological urges as intrinsically good and self control as unnatural and harmful. But what if culture is intrinsic rather than extrinsic?

...culture is an adaptation, which exists because it conferred a reproductive advantage on our hunter-gatherer ancestors. According to this view many of the diverse customs that the standard social science model attributes to nurture are local variations of attributes acquired 70 or more millennia ago, during the Pleistocene age, and now (like other evolutionary adaptations) “hard-wired in the brain.” But if this is so, cultural characteristics may not be as plastic as the social scientists suggest. There are features of the human condition, such as gender roles, that people have believed to be cultural and therefore changeable. But if culture is an aspect of nature, “cultural” does not mean “changeable.” Maybe these controversial features of human culture are part of the genetic endowment of human kind.

This new way of thinking gained support from the evolutionary theory of morality. Defenders of nurture suppose morality to be an acquired characteristic, passed on by customs, laws and punishments in which a society asserts its rights over its members. However, with the development of genetics, a new perspective opens. “Altruism” begins to look like a genetic “strategy,” which confers a reproductive advantage on the genes that produce it. In the competition for scarce resources, the genetically altruistic are able to call others to their aid, through networks of co-operation that are withheld from the genetically selfish, who are thereby eliminated from the game.

If this is so, it is argued, then morality is not an acquired but an inherited characteristic. Any competitor species that failed to develop innate moral feelings would by now have died out. And what is true of morality might be true of many other human characteristics that have previously been attributed to nurture: language, art, music, religion, warfare, the local variants of which are far less significant than their common structure.

The implications of this dangerous idea would place Progressive public policy squarely in opposition to Science:

If we follow the evolutionary biologists, therefore, we may find ourselves pushed towards accepting that traits often attributed to culture may be part of our genetic inheritance, and therefore not as changeable as many might have hoped: gender differences, intelligence, belligerence, and so on through all the characteristics that people have wished, for whatever reason, to rescue from destiny and refashion as choice. But to speculate freely about such matters is dangerous. The once respectable subject of eugenics was so discredited by Nazism that “don’t enter” is now written across its door. The distinguished biologist James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, was run out of the academy in 2007 for having publicly suggested (admittedly in less than scientific language) that sub-Saharan Africans are genetically disposed to have lower IQs than westerners, while the economist Larry Summers suffered a similar fate for claiming that the brains of women at the top end are less suited than those of men to the study of the hard sciences. In America it is widely assumed that socially significant differences between ethnic groups and sexes are the result of social factors, and in particular of “discrimination” directed against the groups that seem to do less well. This assumption is not the conclusion of a reasoned social science but the foundation of an optimistic worldview, to disturb which is to threaten the whole community that has been built on it.

If morality is a natural survival strategy that confers tangible benefits on both individuals and groups, then it follows that government really should be in the business of encouraging moral behavior. That dangerous idea presents challenges for both progressivism and conservativism.

Posted by Cassandra at January 30, 2012 07:28 AM

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then it follows that government really should be in the business of encouraging moral behavior.

Does it follow? It would seem that all government would really need to do is to not encourage immoral behavior. Society was able to take care of the problem before gov't even existed it so it should be able to continue doing so afterwards as well.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 30, 2012 10:31 AM

If morality is a natural survival strategy that confers tangible benefits on both individuals and groups, then it follows that government really should be in the business of encouraging moral behavior.
Struggling here. If I accept that the surviving strain of humanoid is genetically hardwired to perform altruistically in voluntary association with others who, by virtue of their continued existence, share the same genetic disposition, and collectively these associations codify the traits of their individual members as the groups's "moral codes" which them governs not only the actions of the group, but also the individuals comprising the group, then wouldn't it follow that the "moral code" of the group would always reflect the composite altruism of its members? If so, then why would the group need to encourage adherence to a genetic predisposition? Unless, of course, it preserves the power of the group over the individual.

Which is why we play football.

Posted by: spd rdr - True Blue at January 30, 2012 10:38 AM

So, marriage arises from the law of nature? In other words, its ideal structure can be reasoned from the perfection of its principle goal of genetic survival? That the survival of the species depends on adherence to this "Natural Law"?

That, as you know from our discussions of polygamy in the fall, is Thomas Aquinas' position precisely.

I think this claim is too strong:

Any competitor species that failed to develop innate moral feelings would by now have died out.

I can imagine a case in which a competitor species developed not 'innate morality,' but some other competitive advantage that overcame the gap. For instance, it could be extremely predatory, so that it overcame its competitor's advantage by being that much more effective at killing competitors.

Still, when you ponder just how much more effective it would have to be, you begin to see just how powerful an advantage this innate morality is. In that sense, it really is written into nature.

Posted by: Grim at January 30, 2012 10:44 AM

"Government should be in the business of . . . "

Maybe just those things that enough people can agree on (and financially support) without too much violent opposition, that require such unanimity and broad enforcement powers (like emergency epidemiological response and national defense) that we can't reasonably expect them to get done by voluntary private institutions.

I'm with Yu-Ain -- let's first try not encouraging or subsidizing immoral behavior, then figure out how much government needs to interfere in order to encourage moral behavior.

Posted by: Texan99 at January 30, 2012 11:11 AM

...then wouldn't it follow that the "moral code" of the group would always reflect the composite altruism of its members?

What if we're hard wired to do both constructive (altruistic, moral) and destructive (selfish, immoral) things, spd? Maybe it is the balance of the two instincts that is important.

What if we are hard wired to be selfish - at times - but those selfish instincts are balanced by natural altruism, which is strengthened by breeding/who we associate with/the surrounding culture?

By this measure, successful cultures would be ones in which altruism is somewhat stronger than selfishness, but doesn't ever completely eclipse it. If that's true, and culture stops encouraging moral behavior, the balance shifts.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 30, 2012 11:18 AM

It would seem that all government would really need to do is to not encourage immoral behavior. Society was able to take care of the problem before gov't even existed it so it should be able to continue doing so afterwards as well.

I don't necessarily disagree, though I'm not sure society has done such a great job at a lot of things in the past.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 30, 2012 11:20 AM

That was an interesting article. Our current industrialized civilization is a blink of the eye in our past. Similarly, the rise of agriculture and domestication of animals. All told, that span is about 2% of our time on the planet. Humans are hunter gatherers from an evolutionary standpoint.

However, humans have to be the worst idea for hunting ever. No thick hide, no large teeth, no claws, and no great speed. The two things that made us successful though, was our ability to learn and working in groups.

So, the idea of morality or altruism, is not really what was what was happening for humans. Working as a group was the key. That would include delegation, task selection of individuals for skill, and rewards for exceptional merit. Because those abilities fed the band and allowed it to survive.

Posted by: Allen at January 30, 2012 12:16 PM

...then figure out how much government needs to interfere in order to encourage moral behavior.

Which moral behavior would that be that government should encourage? This group's or that one's? Or that defined by government?

Maybe just those things that enough people can agree on (and financially support) without too much violent opposition, that require such unanimity and broad enforcement powers (like emergency epidemiological response and national defense) that we can't reasonably expect them to get done by voluntary private institutions.

I'm having trouble with this. On the one hand, if the unanimity exists, government has no need at all to get involved, except to facilitate an infrastructure that supports voluntary private institutions' accomplishment (which may include those "broad enforcement powers"). On the other hand, if (substantial) unanimity does not exist, on what basis does government get involved in the compulsion? Which employer group will government compel to comply? Based on what selection criteria?

...though I'm not sure society has done such a great job at a lot of things....

But at least it was that society, and the individuals comprising it, that were doing those things, not an overreaching, out-of-bounds government--which is only society's employee.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at January 30, 2012 12:24 PM

True enough. Though the same can be said of Government.

If Gov't is simply institutionalized society then it would do no better nor worse than society would. The only difference is that it can exert greater influence. But this is a double edged sword. When society does things right, it can do so to an even greater extent. When society does things poorly, it can do so to even greater extent.

The mean is unchanged but the distribution becomes more extreme.

To move the mean, then the gov't would need to be structurally different than society. But not just different, different in the correct direction *and* the correct amount. Take charity, for instance. It's something that is pretty much inaguably in the correct direction of "encouragement". However, in the government's attempt at encouraging charity through modeling charitable behavior we have created entire groups who see no need to be charitable in their own lives because "they already gave with their taxes". Right direction, wrong amount.

How exactly are we, as a society, to enforce this optimal level of morality?

This is the problem of all centrally controlled/planned endevours. Socialism cannot possibly know nor enforce the optimal level of capital allocation and "Moralism" cannot possibly know nor enforce the optimal level of altruism.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 30, 2012 01:02 PM

I'm having trouble with this. On the one hand, if the unanimity exists, government has no need at all to get involved, except to facilitate an infrastructure that supports voluntary private institutions' accomplishment (which may include those "broad enforcement powers").

It is this facilitation that is key. We may all agree that should a natural disaster occur that we would like to have emergency supplies sent to the effected areas. However, having 150 million adults send a $1 check to 100 different building supply companies with a note asking them to send stuff to this city or that just isn't logistically possible.

A senator showing up at Home Depot's corporate center with a $100mm check looking to buy supplies and the shipping for them will get someone's attention real fast though.

And in some cases this sort of outsourcing may be the best way to faciliate this sort of thing. In others, it very well may be having full time employees on staff may be the better option as well.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 30, 2012 01:34 PM

If Gov't is simply institutionalized society.... and ...gov't would need to be structurally different than society.

But government isn't simply institutionalized society, usually. Only in a general, participatory democracy, where everything is put to a plebiscite does this occur. In our present form, for instance, a republican democracy, government is hired for certain specific tasks, and the incumbents are subject to periodic, frequent reviews and can be fired for deviating too far from those tasks. Of course that's the ideal, but there it is.

However, in the government's attempt at encouraging charity through modeling charitable behavior we have created entire groups who see no need to be charitable....

And so it is with morality. Aside from the added contaminant of which morality should be enforced, the same failure of individuals outsourcing their morality would result as does when charity is outsourced. With far greater danger: from the latter, all we get is a population of skin-flints; from the former, we get amorality and a move toward lawlessness.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at January 30, 2012 01:35 PM

After all, if Home Depot says "No" there is always Lowes, or Ace, or even Wal-mart and Target.

If NAVY Ships & Sailors Inc. says "No" you are pretty much screwed since the market for those services is pretty much one buyer and one supplier.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 30, 2012 01:46 PM

I'd much rather keep the government out of the social engineering market altogether. It's not going to happen, but it's the ideal for me. The less government the better. Yes, at its ideal, it's just institutional society. But the real world is far from ideal. In practice, government is institutionalized force. The use of force itself is neither good nor bad, it's just a tool. But inevitably, the good idea fairy wafts along and says, "wouldn't it be nice if we could make people better?" Behave better, act better, physically improve them, whatever. And when you bend the use of force to MAKE people act in ways you think they should (for their own benefit, rather than society's), you're trampling on liberty.

Posted by: MikeD at January 31, 2012 01:22 PM

Thank you for you article, I find the nature vs nurture debate very interesting. I have recently come across this essay by Australian biologist regarding this issue of our morality and our 'soul'. I think you might find it very interesting. http://www.worldtransformation.com/soul

Posted by: Mary at April 3, 2012 06:02 AM

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