Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rethinking the Evolutionary Ethic: Towards a Scientific Ethics Once More

I've done quite a bit of writing in the past concerning the arbitrary and made-up nature of ethics as a field of study. I still stand by the proposition that ethical judgments and systems have no more bearing on reality than the rules of Chess or the particulars of this or that language (and if you think that language can correspond to reality in any metaphysically interesting ways, then do I have something for you!). However, I've been rethinking the matter of whether "good" lessons may be derived from a state of nature; as Richard Carrier points out, you certainly can derive an "is" from an "ought" (2:30), as long as you accept that morality is a system of hypothetical imperatives; but you have to be really fuckin' careful or you'll wind up balls-deep in naturalistic fallacies. This entry has been percolating away on my back-burner for quite some time, and I think I've finally got something refined enough to show, so here goes. Oh, one brief caveat: this is an ideal to move towards, not something we can do right away (kind of like how you can't force people to be free, or impose democracy on another nation... cough, cough...). We should take it as a long-term goal to get everyone on-board with this kind of ethic, is what I'm saying.

The bottom line is this: every situation or event lends itself to a "lesson" of sorts, a thing you can take away and learn from that situation or event; but figuring out just what the lesson is can be sticky business. Sometimes the lesson is big and important; sometimes the lesson is that not all lessons are big and important; sometimes the lesson is that you don't always get a new or interesting lesson from every situation or event. If your friend calls you a douchebag, then there are various lessons that you could take away from that: you might need to learn that you are in fact a douchebag from time to time; you might need to learn that sometimes your friend doesn't have the very same idea of douchebaggery as you do; you might need to learn that sometimes the opinions of your friends should be taken with a grain of salt; or maybe you should learn to be a douche-nozzle, not a douchebag. Each of these things is true, by the way, but the particulars of the event (the "full relevant context") will dictate what is the most important lesson to learn at the time. There is a Japanese saying: "shikin haramitsu daikomyo," which pretty much means, "every action holds the opportunity to learn." Insofar as evolving is an action, there is an opportunity to learn from it.

So what can we learn from evolution? What is the lesson to derive from all these molecular replicators puttering about on this rocky, watery marble of ours? Well, this is going to depend on what we adopt as our "full relevant context," and this in turn is a matter of perspective. If we limit our context to the idea that nothing lasts forever, we might rather easily adopt the ethic that we should get all we can while the getting's good. If we limit our context to the idea that any conspiracy of doves will be easily infiltrated by a lone hawk and its descendants, then we might adopt the ethic of, "try to be a hawk in a conspiracy of doves." Combining these two, we might adopt the ethic of, "try to be a 'concealed hawk' (or a cuckoo) in a conspiracy of doves, to extend the conspiracy as long as you can so that you and your descendants may prey upon it as long as possible." Or, in short, "domesticate the doves." So what perspective shall we adopt, what shall we consider as our context from which our ethics shall be derived?

In seeking an evolutionary morality, we must take into account the relevant context of evolutionary situations and events. Which ones? Hopefully, all of them. The following three things will apply to all evolutionary situations and events: every evolved and evolving organism will be a molecular replicator, and so in this sense, all the world is kin; the environment shapes replicators even as those same replicators shape it in their turn; and natural selection is a non-random (though perhaps probabilistic) process of meeting the demands of this very moment with the randomly varying available materials.

Let us begin by looking at all of life, past and present, as a single "tree of replication." Extant organisms are, on this view, buds along their conspecific twigs, which in turn meet in branching clades all connected to the great root of the very first replicator(s). Some of us are atoms arranged ape-wise, some of us are atoms arrange tree-wise, and some of us are atoms arranged spirochete-wise; but all of us are atoms arranged replicator-wise. All the world is kin, and we are all of us molecular replicators; though some of us are more complex than others, we are all the same at root. The main difference between this tree of replication and a literal tree is that entire trees are alive all at once, while the overwhelming majority of the tree of replication is dead and gone. But even this is merely a byproduct of our primitive linear conception of time, so there.

Let us also consider the role of the environment in any evolutionary process. The environment shapes replicators even as replicators shape the environment, yet we are able to identify many instances where an environmental disturbance has greatly impacted the evolutionary trajectory of this or that set of replicators. These vary from the simple and rather boring case of the peppered moth, to the exciting and catastrophic mass extinctions that have dotted our planet's history, to the cyclical routines of geomagnetic reversal or the mish-mash of interesting conditions responsible for the banded iron formations from our planet's reckless, feckless, misspent youth. But all of these events share an interesting and fundamental characteristic: they are opportunities for difference to shine. In all of these cases, there were a number of organisms (from a local population of a single species, all the way up to the entire planetary ecosystem) put on the chopping block and faced with that oldest of ultimata: adapt, or your lineage ends with you. The external environment, which can be tricky to define precisely, is an implacable and unpredictable foe, placing demand after demand upon the replicators inhabiting it.

Finally, let us consider the nature of the evolutionary process itself: it is the blind watchmaker, the forge of diversity and adaptation that has provided the raw materials which the environment (including other organisms) has been continuously refining to meet the demands of the moment. Not to this or that perfection, merely the demands of the moment. Evolution does not plan ahead at all, ever; the imperfect copying fidelity of molecular replicators simply creates difference, and these differences are judged by the environment. Those that do well go on to continue replicating; those that fail are lost forever. Natural selection is nothing more and nothing less than the submission of extant diversity to the demands of the present environment. Yet the environment changes constantly, and as it does, yesterday's superstars become tomorrow's has-beens, and countless might-have-been offshoots are lost as never-weres. The success and failure of this or that replicator has precisely nothing to do with any nonsensical ideas of "intrinsic fitness" or "perfection," and absolutely everything to do with the capricious contingencies of the surrounding environs.

We now have all the pieces of our puzzle. From these relatively simple facts proceed all the complexity we see today, and from these simple facts we may derive an ethic fit to meet the particulars of any evolutionary environment. Let's put them together and see what we get!

One of the first things to notice is that since the environment is fundamentally unpredictable, we can't always tell what will be useful tomorrow or in a thousand years. Sure, we can dream up all the adaptations we think might be useful here and now, but things are only the way that they presently are for now, and we don't know when or how they will change in ways beyond our control. Because we cannot ever be "completely prepared," we must diversify: in order to be prepared for as many eventualities as possible, we must tolerate as much diversity as we possibly can in order to minimize the likelihood of being completely wiped out for good. The lesson here is that homogeneity is not only boring, it is fucking dangerous, because we're putting all our evolutionary eggs into a relatively small eugenic basket. Except when we use eugenics, which may be used for good or evil just like nuclear energy or anything else, to try to permanently cure things such as congenital birth defects. (I'm serious about that, by the way: there is no such thing as an incorruptible good or an irredeemable evil - there is only risk, reward, and consequence.)

Speaking of "we," just what exactly is meant by this? Well, in order to incorporate as much diversity as possible, our use of "we" should be as all-embracing as possible. We see the rewards of kin-selected altruism in nature, but the lines drawn thereby are, for good reason, only as big as they have to be to increase the likelihood of copies of one's own replicators being propagated into the future. Yet, if all the world is kin (and we are), then we must realize that the instincts telling us that this one is kin and this one is not are misleading us. What we are doing here, in essence, is trying to make the largest possible "in-group." (Michael Fridman, of a Nadder! fame, points out in The ReBrook Gambit that Peter Singer argues for just such a thing.) Humans are only able to hold a "phone book" of maybe a couple hundred or so individuals, but this is only a matter of contingency; there is no principled reason why in-groups should be so small, and we see over and over that larger in-groups are often able to out-compete smaller in-groups - so let's all be part of the same in-group.

This leads to a rather interesting pseudo-paradox: all evolutionary fitness is relative to the environment, and the environment includes other organisms. Therefore, to be "fitter" is to be "fitter than" this or that other organism or group at surviving in the environment. Similarly, success can only be described in relation to other degrees of success, and thus to be "more successful" is to be "more successful than" this or that other organism or group at propagating in the environment. But wait! Even on this competitive account, the most success that can be achieved by a group is to completely wipe out all other competitors, and be the only one left. With no competition, there is nothing to be fitter or more successful than, with the sole exception of others within one's own group! So even if you "win" evolution, now you have to compete against your own previous in-group!

What this means is that being "better than" is a never-ending project; a mug's game. Relax and be out-competed; win and compete against the rest of the winners. You just can't "win forever." But what if instead of trying to be "better than" others, you try to be "better than" you were yesterday (or "better period"), and expand your in-group to include as many as possible? Then you maximize your in-group's diversity (and thus its ability to deal with unpredictable environmental threats) while at the same time eliminating competitors by turning them into confederates. In terms of resource acquisition, this is the equivalent of ceasing the attempt to get more than your neighbor, and instead figuring out how much is enough for each of you, then working together to make sure you both get what you need. Let's call this "winning together." As previously explained, winning forever is impossible, but winning together is awesome because it's less dangerous and less wasteful, while still getting you what you need. Sure, you won't win over your neighbor; the proper attitude for both sides to adopt here is, "So what?" The idea is that you care about each other's welfare, not about doing better than each other (or at least not to the point of death - there's still room for economic and political competition). Bottom line: caring is awesome, fighting is bullshit.

Well, whoop-de-doo! All we've done thus far is to explain how a conspiracy of doves is in every individual's best interest, because you're banding together with everyone rather than setting yourself against anyone. But this necessarily creates a perverse incentive for every individual to try to be the lone cuckoo (or the invading hawk), so now what? Well, OK, you want to be the lone cuckoo, and I want to be the lone cuckoo, but I think the two of us can agree that we don't want that guy to be the lone cuckoo. What's more, the two of you don't want me to be the lone cuckoo, and the two of us don't want you to be the lone cuckoo. Hmm. Now what?

Transparency, trust, and culture, that's what. Oh, and some tit-for-tat/retaliator strategery for good measure. Y'know, be a dove unless you come across a hawk, then roxxxorz that hawxxxor'z soxxxorz. And to any would-be hawks or cuckoos, realize that doing that thing may be profitable right now, but you're triggering an arms race that your descendants may or may not be able to continue, especially in light of the fact that the conspiracy of doves is actively trying to find and convert hawks & cuckoos when possible; but the doves will treat you as an implacable force of nature to be conquered or otherwise dealt with if you do not allow yourself to be reasoned with (I should know, because I'm the one telling the doves to do that thing). Take the long view - hawkery is a mug's game, and you're just pissing in the gene pool: you'll eventually get found out and kicked out (even the literal cuckoo has been found out, we humans just don't care enough to convert it or kick it out right now).

The rest of the confederates can work on building a rational and mutually agreeable foundation for trust, which will have to involve some form of transparency: it's informational give-and-take. Just like you sacrifice the liberty of killing whoever you like so that you can reasonably trust that nobody will kill you, a little bit of privacy can be sacrificed so that others can reasonably trust that you're not screwing them over. Not a whole lot, but the particular amount is a matter of contingent legislative agreement, not of general evolutionary ethics. I have a lot more to say on this, because I know it gets really fucking hairy, but I'm going to save it for some philosophy of politics stuff I have planned. Right now, I'm just saying that it's going to be an issue, but it can in principle be decided (just not "once and for all, for everyone everywhere, all the time always").

Finally, there's the matter of culture: teach your descendants that just about any form of difference that is not directly harmful now is of potential future value (and there is always difference), and so they should be as inclusive as possible; teach them to be confederates rather than cuckoos, so that they may be part of the messy and multifaceted in-group majority, and not doomed to be an out-group minority; teach them to actively foster transparency and trust, not to be suspicious or over-cautious with others; and teach them to stand up for themselves and their as-permissive-as-possible way of life, changing when necessary and defending themselves when necessary. In other words, start shaping the environment so that it is conducive to your way of life, but realize that there will be parts that cannot be changed or planned for, and make yourselves capable of dealing with those bits as much as you can. Y'know, plan ahead in the ways that nature, red in tooth and claw, cannot.

In simple, conversational terms, I see this form of ethics as proceeding along the following general lines: "So what's your goal here? Are you trying to work for the long-term benefit of all, including yourself? Or are you trying to work for the short-term benefit of yourself and your very closest kin, to the rest of our detriment? We'd definitely like to work with you, because you're all of potential future value; but if you're not interested in working with us, we'd sure like to change your mind. If we can't change your mind, well, there's going to be problems because you're making yourself into a threat. We don't want a threat in our midst, and we don't want a threat brewing from afar, either. So which is it, pal? Will you cooperate with all of us, or turn all of us against you?" I want to note here that "going off and doing your own thing," insofar as your own thing is of no threat to others, counts as cooperation. This is for the simple reason that if you're not a threat, then you don't need to be eliminated no matter where you are, and the elimination of non-threats is just short-sighted paranoid foolishness. And in a loose sense (which I will also be developing in the future), this also entails non-censorship, open communication, government transparency, a free press, patriotically paying one's taxes, and all sorts of other neat things.

This will still be a never-ending project, but it's one of winning together rather than winning forever (because the risk of getting wiped out for the benefit of others is minimized). And because the in-group is no longer splintering (or at least splintering as little as possible), this is no longer a mug's game because doing it right is winning for now, which is the point - keep winning for now, and you "actually win forever," rather than striving pointlessly to win forever over everyone else. The goals of such an ethic will be to seek out and incorporate as much diversity as possible, to tolerate non-harmful difference, to seek to remedy harmful difference and only use exclusion and violence as a last resort. In short, it will be a constructive ethic of cooperation, rather than a destructive ethic of competition. We cooperate with most of the bacteria in our gut, and look how well that has worked out! We've also cooperated in the past to get our mitochondria and various other organelles, and that's also been a rather resounding success for all involved parties. We imagine ourselves to be integrated individuals, but the truth of the matter is that every single one of us is a messy zoo of confederates - and this is the lesson: be a messy zoo of confederates at the societal level as well. Diseases either kill us or get killed, and this is the inevitable destructive result of competition. There is risk in cooperation (there is always risk in anything), but the dangers pretty much tautologically come from outside, as any individual who engages in hawkery will be immediately out-grouped because the in-group is defined by conspiratorial lovey-dovery.

Of course, this is still arbitrary, it's just that I'm arbitrarily enshrining "doing as much good as possible for as many as possible under the widest variety of circumstances possible," to which "all of everyone" ought to assent, because if this gets started in earnest, then everyone will be assimilated into the messy confederacy or eliminated. Evolutionary utilitarianism, perhaps. This, I think, is a good "ought" to derive from the "is" we see all around us. Whether or not this works, I can't really judge right now; I can only say that I like it, and it makes sense to me - so pick it apart and give me an opportunity to improve! One thing I can say for sure is that, in terms of facing reality, it sure beats the pants off the authoritarian dick-waving of religion, which amounts to the threat, "Be this way, or God's gonna get you!"

Man, now I want to accuse theists of "authoritarian dick-waving" as often as possible just to see the looks on their faces!

This post was featured in the 44th Humanist Symposium.

7 comments:

metamorphhh said...

I love your knowledge, your thinking process, and the way you manage to get it all down on the page. Glad I clicked the 'D' over at cl's.

D said...

Wow, thank you! I briefly perused a couple of your blogs, and you're no slouch yourself!

Glad to know my insomnia-driven commenting spree could bring a couple ex-theists together. Have a great one! (Oh, by the way, I'm officially an unofficial member of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement - officially on account of the non-breeding, unofficially on account of I can't really take them seriously enough to "officially officially" join.)

metamorphhh said...

Wow, an antinatalist to boot! However, I should inform you that if you're not carrying your card, you'll receive no updates on the master plan...mwahahahahaha!

Michael said...

Good post, although I think I'm having a bit of trouble getting my head around it on 5.5 hrs sleep.

I thought you might enjoy this post I found a few years ago on the short-sightedness of evolution
http://lesswrong.com/lw/l5/evolving_to_extinction/

Also how does the voluntary extinction come into it? As in, it seems a bit out of tune with the conspiracy of doves to me (at least if taken as saying that we SHOULD become extinct).

D said...

Thanks for the comment, Michael! Looking back over it, I can see how most people might not grasp a couple parts, and it's entirely for want of good writing on my part. I think I maybe should have revised this one a tad more - ah, well.

As for the voluntary extinction thing, I saw on metamorphhh's blog (or profile?) that he is an antinatalist, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the post at large.

Michael said...

Ah. I just meant that I don't find self-extinction attempts to be very altruistic. Guess I read too much into things!

D said...

No worries, it happens to the best of us! I blame myself for letting the crazy creep into my Serious Internet Philosopher bit.