Marc Hauser— where do morals come from? NOT religion.

Whoa. This was a data-rich talk, and my ability to transcribe it was over-whelmed by all the stuff Hauser was tossing out. Unfortunately, I think the talk also suffered from excess and a lack of a good overview of the material. But it was thought-provoking anyway.

One of the themes was how people resolve moral dilemmas. He began with a real world example, the story of an overweight woman in South Africa who insisted on joining a tour exploring a cave, and got stuck in the exit tunnel, trapping 22 people behind her. Do you sacrifice one to save many? One of the trapped people was a diabetic who needed to get out—should they have blown up the woman so the others could escape? This was presented as a kind of philosophical trolley problem, and the audience was asked what was best to do…but I don’t think it works, because unlike those philosophical dilemmas, in the real world we pursue different strategies, and it’s rarely a black and white situation where one has to choose between precisely two possibilities — as in this case, which was resolved by greasing her up with paraffin and pulling her out.

Hauser gave an overview of the philosophical explanations for making moral decisions.

  • Hume: morality intuitive, unconscious, emotional

  • Kant: rational, conscious, justified principles

  • Theist: divine inspiration, explicit within scripture

  • Rawls: intuitive, unconscious, grammar of action: not emotional, built on principles

He’s going to side with Rawls. The key difference between a Rawlsian morality and the others is that a moral decision is made unconsciously, and THEN emotional and rational justifications are made for it. This is testable if you have a way to remove the emotional component of decision; a Rawlsian moral agent will still make the same moral judgments. Studies of brain damaged patients with loss of emotional affect support the idea so far.

He analogized this to linguistics, in which we make abstract, content-free computations to determine, for instance, whether a particular sentence is grammatical. This computation is obligatory and impenetrable; we can’t explain the process of making the decision as we’re doing it, although we can construct rules after the fact.

For instance, he summarized three principles that seem to be general rules in moral judgments.

  • Harm intended as the means to a goal is worse than harm seen as a side-effect.

  • Harm caused by action is morally worse than harm caused by omission.

  • Harm caused by contact is morally worse than equivalent harm caused by non-contact

We don’t judge morality purely on the basis of reasonable outcomes, but also on intent. He suggested that judging only on the basis of whether an outcome is bad or good is a primitive and simplistic strategy, that as people mature they add nuance by considering intentionality — someone who poisons a person accidentally is less morally culpable than someone who does it intentionally.

One example he gave that I found a bit dubious is the use of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to shut down regions of brain, in particular the right temporal/parietal junction (which seems to be a locus of intent judgment). In subjects that have that region zapped (a temporary effect!) all that matters is outcome. These studies bother me a bit; I don’t know if I really trust the methodology of TMS, since it may be affecting much more in complex and undefined ways.

Does knowledge ofthe law affect moral judgments? Holland no longer makes a legal distinction betwwen active and passive euthanasia, and many Dutch people are able to articulate a belief that passive euthanasia is less human than active euthanasia. Do the Dutch no longer percieve the action/omission distinction in Hauser’s 3 rules? In a dilemma test, they still make the same distinctions on active and passive stories as others do — actively killing someone to save others is morally worse than simply allowing someone to die by inaction to have the same effect — which again suggests that the underlying mechanisms of making moral decisions are unchanged.

In these same dilemma tests, they’ve correlated outcomes with demographic data. The effects of religion, sex, etc. are negligible on how people make moral decisions.

He makes an important distinction: These are effects on judgment, not behavior. How does behavior connect with judgment?

Hauser describe Mischel’s longitudinal studies of kids given a simple test: they were given a cookie, and told they’d get more if they could hold off on eating it for some unspecified length of time. Kids varied; some had to have that cookie right away, others held off for longer periods of time. The interesting thing about this experiment is that the investigator looked at these same kids as adults 40 years later, and found that restraint in a 3 year old was correlated with greater marital stability, for instance, later in life. The idea is that these kinds of personal/moral capacities are fixed fairly early in people and don’t seem to be affected much by experience or education.

There were some interesting ideas here, and I would have liked to have seen more depth of discussion of individual points. The end of the talk, in particular, was a flurry of data and completely different experiments that weren’t tied in well with the thesis of the talk, and there weren’t opportunities for questions in these evening talks, so it was a bit difficult to sort everything out.

Ron Numbers—Anti-evolution in America, from creation science to Intelligent Design

Ron Numbers gave a brief history of creationism, reminding us that perhaps a majority of the people in the world reject Darwin, and he also emphasized a few facts in that history that many would find surprising.

There was no organized opposition to evolution until the 1920s, when it was marshalled by William Jennings Bryan, who was most concerned about the ethical implications of evolution. He made the point that the popular movie about the Scopes trial, Inherit the Wind, was historically inaccurate. One of the most memorable moments in the movie was when Darrow pinned Bryan down on the date of the creation to 4004 BC…but Bryan had no such preconception. The primary strain of creationism at that time had absolutely no problem with the age of the Earth, and Bryan plainly stated in interviews and speeches that he was a proponent of the day-age theory, in which the “days” of creation week were not required to be 24-hour modern days.

These early creationists had no bone to pick with geology at all, and were unperturbed at the thought that the world was hundreds of millions of years old. The two dominant explanations were the day-age theory, which stretched out the time-span of creation week to cover the whole of geological time, and gap theory, which argued that between the creation of the world mentioned at the beginning of Genesis, and the account of the 6 creation days, there was a long undocumented period of time in which geological history occurred. The latter model was also popular because it was presented in the Scofield Reference Bible, which specifically placed the geological column in a ‘gap’ in the account, and stated that the 6 days referred to the creation of Eden.

The dissenters from this position were a tiny minority, the Seventh Day Adventists, who were regarded as weird by the majority of fundamentalists. The Seventh Day Adventists credited a source of divine information other than the Bible, the prophecies and visions of their founder, Ellen White, who was the source of the idea that Genesis had to be describing a literal six 24-hour day creation occurring 6000 years ago. Her disciple, George MacReady Price, came up with the idea of wedging all of geology into the Noachian Flood. These were not popular ideas.

The mainstreaming of literalist creationism occurred in the 1960s, when John Whitcomb and Henry Morris wrote The Genesis Flood. It’s basically the same nonsense he Seventh Day Adventists were peddling, but Whitcomb and Morris were not SDAs, making it possible for conservative Christians, who regarded Seventh Day Adventism as a freaky cult, to coalesce in the formation of the Creation Research Society. These people had no ambition to convert the research community, but instead wanted to wean bible-believers away from what they considered the compromises of day-age and gap theory.

Another consequence of this shift was that it opened up hard-core creationists to a kind of hyper-evolution: they had to explain how a small ark of fixed size could contain all the animals in the world, so they had to postulate a small number of created “kinds” that diversified into new species after the flood, at a pace evolutionary biologists consider absurd.

In the early 1980s, these new, literal creationists got ambitious and started trying to push into classrooms by legislation, efforts that got stymied by major court decisions in Arkansas and Louisiana, which ruled that mandatory teaching of creationism was unconstitutional. One consequence of the Arkansas decision was that, when the creationists had been anticipating victory, they had begun assembling a creationist textbook. When they lost instead, they had to rewrite to remove the word “creationism” and replace it with “intelligent design”.

Numbers talked a bit about Intelligent Design, and argued that it was different from the previous version of creationism…but not in a good way, or in a milder way. The brainchild of Philip Johnson, Intelligent Design was far more radical than the previous iterations — Johnson opposed methodological materialism, and specifically wants to incorporate god into science. While arguing that ID is something new, though, he also made it clear that it is not because ID is a secular theory — it’s an extraordinarily religious idea, backed by religious proponents, and funded by theocratic extremists like Howard Ahmanson.

He ended by giving us the discouraging news that 65.5% of Americans believe in creationism, and that the movement is expanding beyond US borders to the Islamic and Jewish world, too. Bummer, man. He could have at least offered some hope for the future.

Richard Lewontin—Genetic Determination and Adaptation: Two Bad Metaphors

It was a fine evening here in Chicago, with all these superstars of evolutionary biology in attendance. It was also an information-dense evening — I tried to keep up on my little laptop, but I know I missed a lot. Fortunately, I’m not alone: Rob Mitchum and Jeremy Manier were also covering the event, and have a play-by-play available. I’ll just dump what I’ve got here tonight. I do have wi-fi passwords so I can get things up a little more promptly tomorrow and Saturday.

Richard Lewontin opened up with a few deprecatory comments about the religiosity of our surroundings (the talks were given in a chapel) and our purpose, the reverence given to Saint Darwin. He was there to talk about the importance and danger of metaphors, and addressed two of them. The New Testament metaphor of genes make organisms, and the Old Testament metaphor that organisms adapt to the environment.

It’s not true that genes make organisms. Organisms are consequence of interactions between inside and outside, genes and molecules, and the phenotype is not predictable from the genotype. He discussed the classic example of norms of reaction in Achillea, showing growth of clones in different environments. Cloned plants taken from cuttings — so they’re genetically identical — and grown in different environments show different patterns of growth, and, for instance, don’t show a simple relationship between morphology and the elevation at which they’re grown. Another example is bristle number in Drosophila which show similar unpredictable pattern of response to temperature. Another thing to think about: look at the fingerprints on your left and right index fingers. They’re not identical, but they have the same genes and formed in the same environment at the same time. Living organisms are the outcome of developmental and physiological processes influenced four factors: genes, non-genic molecules in the embryo, environment, and random variation.
Biologists have known this for years but have fallen prey to the metaphor of genetic determinism. (He also mentioned another bad metaphor as an aside: the cell as a machine.)

The other bad bad metaphor is the idea that organisms adapt to ecological niches. Organisms do not fit into preexisting niches. You can’t look at “niches” in the environment…there are an infinity of them. The organism determines the niche. A better idea is the concept of niche construction, in which niches change as organisms evolve. Organisms take whats available and integrate it with their biology, and the life activities of organisms determine what is relevant. When did living in water become the niche of the ancestral seal?

Organisms seek out appropriate environments, the idea of microclimate. Put mesic (adapted to environments with a moderate amount of moisture) and xeric (dry or desert) flies in evironments with different zones of humidity, one surprising result is that the xeric flies move most quickly and determinedly to moist areas, more so than mesic flies. It’s not that dry-adapted flies can handle dryness better…it’s that they’re better at finding damp microenvironments.

Lewontin gave several other examples of organisms that respond in sophisticated ways to confound simple interpretations of adaptation: that we all produce shells of altered microenvironments around us by our metabolic activity; that trees can count the number of days of a certain temperature to trigger flowering; that Daphnia measure the rate of environmental change to determine whether to reproduce sexually or asexually; that organisms modulate the statistical properties of their environment by storage.

He suggested that we need to set aside the bad metaphor of adaptation for a less bad metaphor of construction. Unfortunately, this creates a difficult situation for scientists interested in selection, because, for instance, frequency dependent selection means that the addition of new genotypes to the gene pool (which happens constantly) causes fitness to change in unpredictable ways. It’s a game of rock-paper-scissors with a lot more than just three possibilities. He closed by saying that addressing this kind of problem should be the goal of the next generation of evolutionary biologists.

Oh, give it a rest, Bill

Bill Donohue has put me on his mailing list, so I get these ‘alerts’ from the Catholic League several times a day. Here’s the latest (the colors are as sent to me: I guess it was very important!)

On Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 8:45 am ET, Catholic League President Bill Donohue will appear on Fox News Channel’s “Fox and Friends.”

He will discuss the recent attack on Jesus on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“Attack on Jesus”. Jebus, what a loon.

Well, you know what the only reasonable response to such foolishness is. We must watch the Attack on Jesus, and laugh, even if I didn’t think it was that funny.

You know, I still have a stash of holy crackers. I might just have to escalate some more, just to witness Donohue’s public meltdown, and make a point: nobody, especially anyone who is not Catholic, has to revere Catholic icons, and demanding that we do is only gonna get Jesus hurt some more.

I’ll be traveling tomorrow, so I’ll have to miss the execrable Fox and Friends…but I’m sure the swollen and empurpled spitting Donohue will be on youtube when I get back.

I get email

It’s rather pathetic when banned loons like “help ma boab” come crawling back, begging to be released from the dungeon…especially when their apologies are this insincere. It just reaffirms why he got tossed in there in the first place.

I’m Sorry

I’m sorry that I trod on someone’s arrogant, over-inflated, preposterous ego. Can I come back onto your blog? I promise I won’t do it again. Pretty please?