The Tea Party mentality

The Plain Dealer had a story on the front page yesterday that summed up perfectly the attitude of the Republican party.

The concrete sound barriers erected along the highways to shield nearby residents from noise were crumbling long before the advertised 20-year life expectancy was reached, presumably because inferior concrete had been used. Repairing them will cost the Ohio transportation department more than $1 million per mile, money that is hard to come by these days when governments are being squeezed by the demand for tax cuts.

What struck me was the comment of one resident who said, “It looks terrible. I know they don’t have the money, and I don’t want my taxes to go up to fix it. But they need to do something.”

Really? No doubt she expects magic elves to do the repair work for free once they have finished helping out the shoemaker.

The biological basis for justice and altruism-part 2

(An expanded version of a talk given at CWRU’s Share the Vision program, Severance Hall, Friday, August 26, 2011 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the ideas in the common reading book selection Justice: What’s the right thing to do? by Michael Sandel. See part 1 here.)

The primatologist Frans de Waal in his excellent book The Age of Empathy (2009) provides case study after case study of animals displaying a keen sense of justice and fairness, providing convincing evidence that these impulses are innate in us and arise from our common evolutionary history with other animals. In a newspaper article titled Morals Without God? he writes about his observations:

Chimpanzees and bonobos will voluntarily open a door to offer a companion access to food, even if they lose part of it in the process. And capuchin monkeys are prepared to seek rewards for others, such as when we place two of them side by side, while one of them barters with us with differently colored tokens. One token is “selfish,” and the other “prosocial.” If the bartering monkey selects the selfish token, it receives a small piece of apple for returning it, but its partner gets nothing. The prosocial token, on the other hand, rewards both monkeys. Most monkeys develop an overwhelming preference for the prosocial token, which preference is not due to fear of repercussions, because dominant monkeys (who have least to fear) are the most generous.

It is not only humans who are capable of genuine altruism; other animals are, too. I see it every day. An old female, Peony, spends her days outdoors with other chimpanzees at the Yerkes Primate Center’s Field Station. On bad days, when her arthritis is flaring up, she has trouble walking and climbing, but other females help her out. For example, Peony is huffing and puffing to get up into the climbing frame in which several apes have gathered for a grooming session. An unrelated younger female moves behind her, placing both hands on her ample behind and pushes her up with quite a bit of effort, until Peony has joined the rest.

We have also seen Peony getting up and slowly move towards the water spigot, which is at quite a distance. Younger females sometimes run ahead of her, take in some water, then return to Peony and give it to her. At first, we had no idea what was going on, since all we saw was one female placing her mouth close to Peony’s, but after a while the pattern became clear: Peony would open her mouth wide, and the younger female would spit a jet of water into it.

Such observations fit the emerging field of animal empathy, which deals not only with primates, but also with canines, elephants, even rodents. A typical example is how chimpanzees console distressed parties, hugging and kissing them, which behavior is so predictable that scientists have analyzed thousands of cases. Mammals are sensitive to each other’s emotions, and react to others in need.

A few years ago Sarah Brosnan and I demonstrated that primates will happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others getting grapes, which taste so much better. The cucumber-eaters become agitated, throw down their measly veggies and go on strike. A perfectly fine food has become unpalatable as a result of seeing a companion with something better.

We called it inequity aversion, a topic since investigated in other animals, including dogs. A dog will repeatedly perform a trick without rewards, but refuse as soon as another dog gets pieces of sausage for the same trick. Recently, Sarah reported an unexpected twist to the inequity issue, however. While testing pairs of chimps, she found that also the one who gets the better deal occasionally refuses. It is as if they are satisfied only if both get the same. We seem to be getting close to a sense of fairness.

Can we assume that the human species has also inherited this biological predisposition to justice? Yes, because we are all linked by the great tree of life to all other species. If we go back far enough in our lineages, we will find a common ancestor for all of use, which makes us all effectively cousins, and so you can treat this occasion, where all of us have gathered together in this magnificent concert hall, as a family reunion where you are meeting long-lost relatives. In fact, if you and your pet dog or cat trace your lineages back about a hundred million years, you will find that you have a common ancestor, which is a nice thing to realize.

So given that the desire for justice is so widespread among so many different species, it is very likely that we have inherited the desire for justice from deep evolutionary times. In his book, de Waal concludes that studies in the fields of anthropology, psychology, biology, and neuroscience reveal that we are essentially group animals: “highly cooperative, sensitive to injustice, sometimes warmongering, but mostly peace-loving. A society that ignores these tendencies cannot be optimal.” (p. 5)

But is there any direct evidence that humans have a biological predisposition that makes them favor justice and fairness? Yes there is, and I will explore that in the next (and last) post of this series.

The inexplicable popularity of awards shows

I see from the news today that yesterday was the Emmy awards show. I do not understand the appeal of such shows for viewers and am curious as to why people watch them at all. Surely it can’t be to see the stars since we see them all the time in their performances themselves. The shows apparently have some moments of comedy and some music and dance but most of the time seems to be spent announcing the nominees, showing clips from their performances, and the acceptance remarks of category winners. Surely this must get stale about fifteen minutes into the proceedings?

It is true that I do not watch TV or go to many plays much, which may explain my lack of interest in the Emmys and the Tonys. But I do watch films a lot and my disinterest extends to the Oscar awards show as well.

Do viewers of these shows see it as a quasi-sporting event and root for particular people to win, thus enjoying the suspense of seeing if their ‘team’ won?

I am genuinely curious.

Voting for gay or atheist for president

Gallup released the results of a poll recently that said that the percentage of people who said that they would vote for a well-qualified homosexual candidate for president is 67% while the number who would vote for a well-qualified atheist was 49%. The number who would not vote for such people was 32% and 49% respectively. These were the two lowest ranked, coming in just behind Mormons, for whom 76% would vote for president and 22% would not vote.

It’s always hard to know how to interpret these results because how people respond to such questions can be influenced by what people think is a socially acceptable response. What one can look at are trends. In 2007, the figures for gays were 55% yes and 45% no, while for atheists it was 45% yes and 53% no, so the trends are in the right direction.

Michael Nugent has looked at the trends over the long haul and has a graph that shows that in 1978, gays had only a 25% acceptance, even below that of atheists who hovered around 40%. But around 1990 gays overtook atheists in acceptability. One has to think that popular culture, with its mainstreaming of gay people in the media, has played an important role in the rapid rise. The rise of atheism has been slower.

What is also extraordinary and encouraging in Nugent’s graph is the rapid rise in acceptability as president of blacks and females over the same time span.

The biological basis for justice and altruism-part 1

(An expanded version of a talk given at CWRU’s Share the Vision program, Severance Hall, Friday, August 26, 2011 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the ideas in the common reading book selection Justice: What’s the right thing to do? by Michael Sandel.)

This year’s common reading book assumes that there is something fundamental about justice that makes its desirability self-evident. What the book discusses are three approaches to justice: the first based on the greatest happiness for the greatest number, the second on respect for the freedom of choice of individuals, and the third on the cultivation of virtue and the common good.

In this talk, I want to examine the very premise that justice is something desirable. What makes us think that people want or seek justice as an end in itself and that the only problem is how to implement that ideal in specific situations? For example, John Rawls’s model of justice (as elucidated in his book The Theory of Justice) assumes that when people are given the opportunity to design a society under the veil of ignorance so that no one knows what situation in life they personally will be placed in, they will create one that is based on the idea of ‘justice as fairness’. Is Rawls justified in assuming that? Is it self-evident that justice is such an obvious good thing that people will want to use it as a central organizing principle?

We may think that it is obvious but one of the characteristics of academia is to not accept things just because they seem obvious and instead look for underlying reasons.

It turns out that there is a solid scientific basis for the desire that humans have for justice and it arises from the theory of evolution. This may come as a surprise to those who think of evolution as based on fierce competition for survival in which justice and fairness plays no role. But in fact, not just justice but also altruism, which can be roughly defined as an act that benefits someone else at a personal cost to us, has been studied extensively and we think we know how it originated biologically.

In his landmark book On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin carefully avoided all discussions of human evolution, limiting it to just one statement near the end: “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” That has to rank as one of the greatest understatements ever. It turns out that the theory of evolution, in addition to providing explanations for the physical features of all life, is increasingly explaining our morality as well. The basic desire for justice is ingrained in us as a result of biological evolution.

The reason for this, as was developed over fifty years ago and summarized by Richard Dawkins in his classic book The Selfish Gene (1989), is that while natural selection acts on the whole organism (whether human or fish or snake), the fundamental unit of evolution is not the whole organism but the individual gene, and evolution can be understood as the means by which individual genes try to maximally propagate themselves. But while organisms are unique in the particular combination of genes they possess, each individual gene is shared by many people, with the closer the relationship, the greater the number of genes being shared. So each one of us shares exactly half our genes with our parents and (on average) half with our siblings, one-eighth of them with our first cousins, and so on, with the fraction shared becoming lower the more distant the kin. As biologist W. D. Hamilton showed, as a result there are circumstances in which can be beneficial for a gene if the organism in which it exists sacrifices its own needs to benefit its relatives. When the eminent population geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, who pioneered a lot of the mathematical studies in this area, was asked if he would give his life to save his brother, he jokingly replied, “No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins.” In short, the mathematics of genes can favor a limited form of self-sacrifice among relatives and so we should not be surprised if that gene is widely present.

But this kind of altruism, known as kin altruism, is just one form of it. Another important form that was shown by Robert Trivers to be biologically based is reciprocal altruism whereby an organism will do a favor for another that is not a relation in the expectation that in its own time of need the favor will be returned. Take vampires, which seem to have grabbed the public’s imagination for some reason and are now all over popular culture. Vampire bats need to drink some blood every day or they will die. But in bat colonies it has been observed that those who return after having obtained a good meal will regurgitate some of the blood to a less fortunate unrelated bat and in return will receive blood from that bat on the days that they are unlucky.

This kind of behavior has been observed in a wide range of animals, and is another source of the idea that our desire for justice has biological roots. Reciprocal altruism only works if people carry out their obligation to return favors. If cheating or other forms of selfishness occur, the system breaks down and so it should not be surprising that quite elaborate structures have evolved in the animal kingdom, of which we are a part, to monitor behavior so as to reward good citizens and punish cheaters, so that the community as a whole benefits.

This sense of fairness and justice even extends to larger groups. For example, there is a remarkable video of penguins in the Antarctic, where temperatures can reach minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit with wind speeds greater than 100 miles per hour. How do they survive in such bitter conditions? They do so by large groups of thousands of them huddling together very closely at a density of about 2 animals per square foot. The temperatures in the inner regions of the group can rise up to our human body temperatures, which is nice and pleasant. Of course, the penguins on the outer rim of the group will be cold but what the video shows is that the density is just sufficient to provide warmth while at the same time allowing for a constant shuffling around. The penguins all face in roughly the same direction and penguins enter at the rear and then slowly work their way to the front and then return to the rear. As a result, each penguin spends a small time on the cold outer rim in return for much longer times in the warmth inside and thus everyone benefits.

Similar cooperative behavior is seen in locusts and fish schools. It is quite remarkable how widespread such practices are in nature.

Next: More evidence from nature

More on the problem of original sin

Stephen Colbert discusses the profound problems created for Christianity and its fundamental doctrine of original sin if the Adam and Eve story is not literally true.

Jason Rosenhouse examines in some detail the attempts by Christian apologists to deal with these difficulties.

Of course, the real absurdity is that anyone in America in the 21st century is talking about Adam and Eve except as a joke.

A prime example of Villager idiocy

The dream world of Villager punditry is truly something to behold. Take William Cohan who has a suggestion in the Washington Post for Elizabeth Warren, who has just declared her candidacy to run for the US Senate seat in Massachusetts currently held by Republican Scott Brown.

Seven weeks removed from the political reality that cost her a job as one of the nation’s best-known — and controversial — advocates for consumers and the middle class, Elizabeth Warren now officially wants to return to Washington as the junior senator from Massachusetts. But if she is really serious about wanting to help working Americans and reform Wall Street, Warren should consider a different line of work: She should get a job as a partner at Goldman Sachs.

The idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

No, it is as crazy as it sounds, if not crazier. The idea that Elizabeth Warren, after railing for years at how banks like Goldman Sachs have been profiting while impoverishing the middle classes by taking advantage of deregulation and lax oversight by the government, could simply pick up the phone and ask Goldman Sachs to hire her to reform it, and that Goldman Sachs would offer her a partnership in order to reform itself is doubly bizarre.

The only way that this could happen is if there is cynical collusion between Warren and Goldman Sachs in which Warren is just another cynical academic on the make and agrees to uses her reputation for integrity to get a high-paying job providing cover for Goldman Sachs for the pretense that it is serious about reforming itself. But if that is the case, then this demolishes Cohan’s argument that this move would help in reforming Goldman Sachs and Wall Street.

What amazes me is that these Villager pundits actually get paid to churn out this drivel.