Archive for April, 2013

This week’s discussion of the introductory chapter, “Evolutionary Ethics and Christian Morality: Surveying the Issues” by Jeffrey Schloss (in van Huyssteen. 2003. Evolutionary Ethics) focuses on two large camps of scholars from the fields of evolutionary biology and theology with respect the origins of ethics and Christian morality.  Philosophers of science and religion are found on both sides of the issues.  We noted at the beginning of our discussion that neither camp represents a monolithic view of the key issues in this relatively modern dispute – a debate sparked most recently by the publication of Darwin’s (1859) On the Origin of Species.  As noted by Schloss, “many Christians” view evolutionary theory as having the goal of destroying “theological and moral belief.”  Schloss argues (with appropriate references) that the two camps “vary wildly” on how to properly engage in a meaningful discussion of the issues.  Schloss’ paper describes this history with the goal of analyzing the debate in such a way that it can lead to a more constructive discussion of what the issues are.  Thus, he hopes to provide a framework for understanding and possibly reaching a consensus on the “real” issues. His paper sets a tone for the essays that follow in this volume, but are not the within the province of this blog.


The discussion began with Lucas addressing some of the terminology in the paper as it seems overburdened with the jargon of the several disciplines.  Agency was briefly defined as free will but not in the classical sense. Lucas doubts that the classical conception exists any longer.  Also, agency was noted to include the two major ethical categories, means and ends.  Agency was briefly defined again as the free will of a non-philosophical determinist (see Blog 6.1).


Discussion then moved to issues outlined by Schloss (pp. 4-5) in the section General Considerations. Wright (p. 5, paragraph 1) is especially concerned that current scholars with sociobiological approaches have taken positions that can only be described as a “loss of agency” at the organismal and mental levels.  Schloss argues here that the significance of their argument “is not the determinism but the reductive reconceptualization from organism as agent to organism as instrument.”


Some members of both major camps are deeply concerned that the agency of organisms (man) has been cast aside. Lucas phrased the issue in a metaphor of a freight train: are we the cars or the engine; are we the pulled or the puller.  Lucas views the loss of agency as one of the major issues in the disputes between scholars engaged evolutionary ethics and Christian morality debate.  Examples of such evolutionary reductionism are illustrated in the writings of sociobiologists Wilson and Dawkins (Schloss, p. 5).


Subsequently, we talked about the relationship between principles that may be objective or subjective goals – in and of themselves – and habits or categories of behavior that lead to other goals.  We tended to use “ethics” to refer to the former, but note that usage is inconsistent and even the division into those two categories represents certain philosophical commitments. The discussion led to a listing of several ethical categories, definitions and perspectives, e.g., material realism, ethical realism, natural ethics (Aristotle, Aquinas), empirical ethics and constructivism. Each of these categories was defined.



FIG. 1: (Arrows indicate path of inference)


IS                        ——-?———à           OUGHT

Descriptive                                               Prescriptive

Explanatory          ß—-?———–            Normative


(We note that modern biologists tend reject the bottom arrow, at least insofar as they are doing biology.)



Further discussion led to the construction of the diagram in Figure 1 to clarify the “is/ought” relationship in ethical thinking.  We agreed: it is not clear that a descriptive or explanatory “truth” is a valid ethical principle that necessarily leads to a prescriptive ought. (This move is often referred to as the naturalistic fallacy).  We briefly considered this “is/ought” relationship and noted, for example, the relationship between descriptions of evolutionary forces promoting male promiscuity and prescriptive judgments about male promiscuity in humans.  Is this the kind of ethical thinking to which one ought to subscribe?  Lucas noted that Dawkins, Harris and Monod reject the idea that oughts exists in evolutionary ethics.  However, he also noted that the authors then beg the question by advocating for behavior without justifying their preferences.  Following this discussion, the group was polled and nearly all agreed that they are material realists (thinking that physical matter exists objectively, independent of observers).  We pondered the validity of ethical realism (the idea that some things are objectively better than others, independent of the preference of individuals) and posed the following questions.  If there is a real ethics, can we deduce what it is?  Is it empirically based? And how do ethical behaviors relate to the theory of ethical realism?



In discussing Fig. 1 we talked about a number of historical issues.

1) We have a tendency to describe behaviors as either good or bad, that is, we speak with an “ought” component.

2) Historically, Plato spoke of arriving at knowledge of both IS and OUGHT deductively, by reasoning down from known universals.  Platonic Realism has been replaced by (Ocham’s) Nominalism and (Bacon’s) Empiricism, through which we reason up from particular observations to general rules when we speak of knowledge of what IS in science.

3) Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas argued that we could also derive knowledge of OUGHT by reasoning up from particulars, but this has not been as broadly accepted.

4) Aquinas’ inductive ethics (Natural Law), can be contrasted with Augustine’s distinction between what may be known by looking externally (the natural world) and what may be known by looking internally (ethics).  Christian ethics tends to be either Thomistic or Augustinian.

5) Hume and Bacon expressed severe skepticism about the ability to reason about causes, agents, and ethics in the same way one argues about physical reality.



We talked briefly about questions of how altruism and ethical behavior relate to questions of K versus r life history strategies (See Meeting 5.4). From a scientific perspective, we felt that one can only describe how ethical behaviors came to be; we cannot state what they ought to be.  Even for the descriptive questions, we felt that science can only offer very tentative answers at this time.


Lucas attempted to clarify how one’s ethical thinking fits into biological models using equations.  The equations highlighted interesting areas of miscommunication, though in the end we had mixed feelings about their utility.




X:  There is an adapted/evolved component to ethical behavior in the form of predispositions, principles, or behavioral modules.  (reciprocal altruism…)


Q:  If we assume Ethical Realism (ethics exist independent of their observers) and if we further assume some faculty whereby humans can perceive ethics and if we further assume that they have an ability to change their behavior as a function of what they perceive, this is the component of behavior determined by real ethics.  Q may equal 0.


T:  Environmental effects (excluding responses to real ethics, which could be environmental if they exist).  In general members considered this to be physical environment, but that is not necessary to the model.


Can behavior be sufficiently described by F(x, q, t)?  Can it be described by F(x,t)?  Are there other components and how do these components relate?


We discussed whether and how one might empirically investigate the adapted element of ethic principles and behaviors.


We discussed the difference between two types of mindsets: those that speak of human behavioral norms and preferences as ethics, as an end (either identifying the proper ends of things or choosing to pursue a course), and those that see the norms and preferences as a means to some other end (reproduction, success, happiness,…).  Some of us leaned toward the former and worried the latter reduced or demeaned ethics in some way.  Some leaned toward the latter and felt natural selection (by means and to the end of survival and reproduction) provided a compelling and sufficient explanation of “ethical” behavior.


– Malcolm Levin              


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This week we discussed the relationship between altruism and homosexuality, focusing on humans. As with all of our sessions, we began with a discussion of definitions. This was even more important than usual due to the topical and slightly controversial nature of today’s subject.

Sex – dimorphism in sexually reproducing species.  In animals, maleness is assigned to the sex with the reduced gamete – sperm.  Femaleness is assigned to the sex with the larger gamete – egg.  Sex is biological and can be determined empirically: Male/Female.

Gender – socially assigned role usually (not always) correlated with sex but culture dependent. Comes with social expectations of clothing, behavior…  Gender roles can be observed empirically but differ between cultures: Masculine, Feminine.  Note that Samoa and many other cultures have additional genders.  [Gender identity has to do with an individual’s self assigned role.]

Sexual Preference – the sex which an individual is more likely to engage in sexual behavior with, given a choice. This can change over time (sometimes quite quickly), and desire and behavior may not match.


Sexual Orientation – deals with stable and long-term sexual preferences in humans.  May or may not align with sex and gender.  Orientation has empirical and psychological elements:  Androphilia (attraction to men), Gynephilia (attraction to women).  [Homosexual, Heterosexual, Straight, Gay, Lesbian all connote some aspect of orientation relative to sex.] There are correlates in nonhuman animals, but the term “homosexual,” due to its connotations with human society, should not be used to describe nonhuman animals.

Sexual Behavior – empirically observable actions.

Homosexuality in humans is prevalent and has a large heritable component.  From a naïve evolutionary perspective, this presents a puzzle as homosexuals are estimated to have ~20% the reproductive success of their straight counterparts (NB: human homosexuality has been studied much more in males than in females). A major question—and the one on which we focused today—is how this orientation (and associated behavior) could become widespread in light of fitness concerns.  As an extreme example of a trait that appears stable in spite of apparently decreased personal fitness, it may shed light on questions of biological altruism.


In non-human animals, there are a variety of same-sex sexual behaviors, including long-term pair bonds, and also a variety of explanations for these behaviors. These explanations are generally divided into two categories: those that describe same-sex sexual behavior as adaptive and those that describe it as non-adaptive. Common non-adaptive explanations for same-sex sexual behavior include:

Mistaken Identity, where males have a weak ability to discriminate between members of the two sexes and frequently attempt to copulate with other males.

Prison Effect, where individuals will engage in sexual activities with members of the same sex when deprived of the opposite sex. This is well documented in several animals, including humans.

Infection.  Several insect species have parasites that affect sex ratio, reproduction, and mating behavior.  We were not aware of particular examples causing same-sex sexual behavior, but it has been posited.


Most current work has looked for adaptive explanations for same-sex behavior.  We discussed several of these.

Practice – Immature individuals may practice sexual activities with members of the same sex, as occurs in fruit flies, preparing them for later reproductive behavior.

Dominance – Same-sex sexual behavior is often used to reinforce dominance hierarchies independent of fertilization/reproduction attempts.

Heterozygote advantage – Species that have paired chromosomes carry two copies of almost all genes.  In some cases, having one mutated gene (and one normal) results in higher than normal fitness, even though two mutated genes causes lower than normal fitness.  It has been suggested that homosexuality results from homozygosity (two copies) of a gene that provides a heterozygote (one copy) advantage

Sexually antagonistic selection is when a gene increases fitness in one sex and decreases it in the other, so genes that cause same-sex behavior in one sex may increase fitness in the other sex.

Social glue – This theory suggests that sexual behavior can decrease conflict and improve social bonds between members of the same sex.  This has been well studied in dolphins, birds, and non-human primates, and has been extended to humans by suggesting that societies with some gender non-conforming individuals are more cohesive.

Kin Selection – Currently the most popular explanation for human homosexuality is kin selection. Homosexuals may forgo personal reproduction and instead invest resources in their siblings and siblings’ offspring, increasing their inclusive fitness. The theory predicts that homosexuals are more generous aunts and uncles than heterosexuals.


We examined a test of the Kin Selection prediction by reading a psychological paper on Samoan fa’afafine. Fa’afafine are a third gender distinct from “men” and “women”. They are physiologically male individuals who take on female gender roles.  They are usually attracted to men (orientation), typically display effeminate characteristics (gender), and are widely accepted by traditional Samoan society.

Vasey and Vanderlaan (2012) investigated fa’afafine to see whether their self reported inclination to help others matched the predictions of kin selection/ inclusive fitness.  They found that fa’afafine are more generous to children than other islanders on average, but disproportionately generous to nephew and nieces.  The effect held, even in comparison with single “men”.  The observation was consistent with the idea that inclusive fitness might support the prevalence of the trait.  It’s unclear, however, whether this aspect alone could compensate for the direct fitness costs.

Interestingly, the difference between straight and gay men’s avuncular (avuncular = of uncles) inclinations is not found in the United States.  The standard explanation for this is that American families are not as close-knit and gay men are more likely to be ostracized.

We ended our discussion speculating on celibate abstinence among monks, nuns, and priests in medieval Europe.  While not a direct parallel, it also reflects a large class of people taken out of the gene pool.  It is hard to assess the relative causes for this, though clearly there were voluntary and involuntary, pious and pragmatic elements.  From one group selection standpoint, celibacy may have served as a method of minimizing nepotism.  Celibate clerics would be more likely to favor the group or the group’s ideology, not being tempted to focus on their own spouse and progeny.   It may also represent a form of “brood reduction.”  Since childhood mortality rates were high, families wanted to have lots of children, but didn’t have the resources to provision lots of children. In landed families, the first son might be raised as the designated heir, with younger sons held in reserve in case they were needed.  Once the heir had survived the high mortality rates of childhood, younger sons would be “given away” to the Church. Similarly, one or two daughters may be useful for forming alliances, but more may be expensive to maintain or provide a dowry for.  They may be sent to a convent in their early teens.  This provided parents with a way to limit the size of the family, provided children with an occupation and support.  It also the opened possibilities for social and political connections through the Church, especially for the mercantile and upper classes.

-Kea Skeate

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Human Altruism and Social Structure

            This week we discussed the article Strong Reciprocity and the Roots of Human Morality by Gintis et al 2008 in relation to the evolution of human altruism and morality. The authors of this work set up a dichotomy early in the paper between two opposing camps. In the first camp are those who view human morality as “enlightened self-interest.” According to this view, human morality evolved under individual selection in small closely related hunter-gather groups in which altruism was favored because nearly all interactions would be among close kin rather than strangers. However, in the modern day, humans interact much more commonly with strangers and human morality is a maladaptive left over from our hunter-gatherer days. The second camp asserts that human altruism and morality evolved as a result of group selection. The idea dates back to Darwin who suggested in his book The Decent of Man that, under natural selection, “tribes” with a higher proportion of altruists would fare better than those lacking and thus morality would be favored. To help explain why this is the view they favor, the authors introduce their concept of strong reciprocity which they define as “a propensity, in the context of a shared social task, to cooperate with others similarly disposed, even at personal cost, and a willingness to punish those who violate cooperative norms, even when punishing is personally costly.” In their view, morality is an innate trait that is favored by group selection and lacks selfishness. While discussing the paper, our group felt that the authors characterized the biological literature on human morality, altruism and kin selection and seemed not to understand the genetic based views of Hamilton and Dawkins. The authors seemed to feel that group selection is somehow less selfish than kin selection and ignored the parallels between the two schools of thought and the fact that group selection can act synergistically with kin selection if the group in question happens to be made up of closely related kin. Overall, the authors appear to have been trying to make a case for why “true altruism” should be favored.

We also discussed the Ultimatum Game from game theory in relation to human morality. In the basic form of the Ultimatum Game there are two players, A and B. A has a set amount of money, say $100 that it must share with B, so A proposes a split to B which B can either accept or reject. If B accepts the split then both players get to keep their respective amounts, however, if B rejects the split then neither player gets to keep any money. The rational strategy of this game would be for B to accept any offer from A because receiving something is better than nothing, likewise, A should offer B a meager portion the money (say $1) in order to maximize their own profit. However, in experimental trials B subjects tend to reject offers from A that they perceive as unfair even though doing so results in neither player receiving any money, and show emotional upset when presented with an unfair offer. The level that is perceived to be fair varies from culture to culture but the results appear to be similar across cultures. Likewise, A subjects often offer rather high splits that are close to fairness (say 50%) initially despite this not being the rational choice. However, in repeated games (with the same pool of participants but different pairs each time) A subjects gradually begin to offer less and B subjects gradually begin to accept less. However, if B is given the opportunity to spend money to punish A for being unfair the results change. A quickly learns to offer B a fair deal to avoid punishment. This strategy however is also not rational; a rational B can only lose money by spending it to punish individuals with whom he/she will not be paired in the future. Yet in experiments, B subjects often choose to punish A. Similar results are also observed in the opposite situation where B can pay a cost to reward A for acting fairly, despite it being irrational to do so, B subjects often choose to reward A. [Note: “rational” here refers specifically to rational choice theory and not to broader concepts of rationality.]

The Ultimatum Game has been thoroughly studied in a variety of different settings and in tandem with other variables such as culture, status, attractiveness, and gender. The results seem to consistently show that humans tend to act irrationally with some standard of fairness, and are pained when acting or being treated unfairly.

Next we discussed the evolution of human society and culture. As with the discussion of the evolution of morality above, there are two main camps. One camp argues that society evolved due to reciprocal altruism and individual based selection, similarly to the arguments for enlightened self-interest. The other camp argues that society acts as a super-organism and evolved due to group selection. These seem to parallel sociological theories of society (see Meeting 3.3).  In tandem with the evolution of society is the evolution of culture. Again, there are two camps with regards to the interplay between cultural evolution and biological evolution. One camp argues that cultures change too quickly to meaningfully effect biological evolution, and the other camp argues that culture and biological evolution feedback on each other. This lead to a discussion of memes which can be thought of as “cultural genes” that pass information from one generation to the next through books, songs, ideas, etc. Cultural evolution through memes is somewhat controversial because the units of inheritance and a mutational process are difficult to pin down but provides a useful simplification. The group did not reach a formal consensus with regard to the evolution of culture and its interplay with biology, but there was no strong opposition to the idea that genetic and cultural evolution interact.

Lastly, we discussed how behavioral heuristics may be involved in the evolution of human morality and altruism. Heuristics can be thought of as behavioral shortcuts or gut reactions to a stimulus. They apply generally to a wide variety of situations and result in behaviors with little or no “rational thought.” The latter point struck up a discussion in the group of whether rational thought and emotions can be separated, especially when discussing heuristics. Most felt that rational thought and emotions cannot be fully separated, however, again an overall consensus was not reached. The interest in heuristics with respect to the evolution of altruism is whether or not the heuristics humans have evolved are currently adaptive. As with the enlightened self-interest argument, if humans evolved behavioral heuristics during their hunter-gatherer period of evolution where most of the individuals one would encounter were close kin, then heuristics to act altruistically to all would be favored. However, in the modern age where individuals interact with a large number of non-kin, then such heuristics are no longer favored. Group selection could also help explain the evolution of heuristics if acting altruistically toward those in your “in-group” leads to greater group fitness. The discussion of heuristics also sparked a discussion of their cooption toward other animals, namely pets, especially dogs.

To summarize, we discussed the evolution of human altruism and morality and the two overarching schools of thought that attempt to explain the phenomenon. One school favors individual based selection, reciprocal altruism, kin selection and enlightened self-interest. The other favors group selection, and the interaction of genes and culture. Both schools of thought can explain the evolution of heuristics but to different ends. We did not reach any answers or hard conclusions in our discussion, but we certainly left with a lot to ponder over.

            -Zach Grochau-Wright

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