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Robert Wright’s Evolution of Compassion Revisited

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Here is a video of Robert Wright’s lecture on the evolution of compassion. I’ve written on this recently at UD here.

My point in the other blog was to note that if compassion has an evolutionary explanation for its existence, then so does not being compassionate, and so does every other aspect of our entire humanity by being the product of the same process. This leaves one with no more ultimate standard to use to judge whether we should or shouldn’t be compassionate, for whatever we try to use for the standard is itself subject to the trial. And of course this includes all thoughts, not just ones we call compassion and being in-compassionate. The explanation of our thinking resulting from evolution necessitates that all thoughts, even contradictory ones, have the same grounds in evolution. And this brings us to the difficulty: On this premise, there could be no escape from evolution to find a more solid ground on which to make judgments about any other thoughts that are, themselves, also the result of evolution. Evolutionary Psychologists like Robert Wright, very contradictorily, contends that evolution has given us false beliefs, not seeing that the judgment he is using also comes from the same process as the one he claims produced the false belief. If evolution gives us false beliefs, what grounds have we to trust it in any other regard? This excerpt from C. S. Lewis’s essay The Abolition of Man may help to clarify the matter; and let’s say that our evolved capacities of thought (including compassion) are called Instincts for the sake of argument:

It looks very much as if the Innovator would have to say not that we must obey Instinct, nor that it will satisfy us to do so, but that we ought to obey it. But why ought we to obey Instinct [compassion]? Is there another instinct of a higher order directing us to do so, and a third of still higher order directing us to obey it?—an infinite regress of instincts? This is presumably impossible, but nothing else will serve. From the statement about psychological fact ‘I have an impulse to do so and so’ we cannot by any ingenuity derive the practical principle ‘I ought to obey this impulse’. Even if it were true that men had a spontaneous, unreflective impulse to sacrifice their own lives for the preservation of their fellows, it remains a quite separate question whether this is an impulse they should control or one they should indulge. For even the Innovator admits that many impulses (those which conflict with the preservation of the species [and compassion]) have to be controlled. And this admission surely introduces us to a yet more fundamental difficulty.

Telling us to obey Instinct is like telling us to obey ‘people’. People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war. If it is held that the instinct for preserving the species should always be obeyed at the expense of other instincts, whence do we derive this rule of precedence? To listen to that instinct speaking in its own cause and deciding it in its own favour would be rather simple-minded. Each instinct, if you listen to it, will claim to be gratified at the expense of all the rest. By the very act of listening to one rather than to others we have already prejudged the case. If we did not bring to the examination of our instincts a knowledge of their comparative dignity we could never learn it from them. And that knowledge cannot itself be instinctive: the judge cannot be one of the parties judged; or, if he is, the decision is worthless and there is no ground for placing the preservation of the species above self-preservation or sexual appetite.

The idea that, without appealing to any court higher than the instincts themselves, we can yet find grounds for preferring one instinct above its fellows dies very hard. We grasp at useless words: we call it the ‘basic’, or ‘fundamental’, or ‘primal’, or ‘deepest’ instinct. It is of no avail. Either these words conceal a value judgment passed upon the instinct and therefore not derivable from it, or else they merely record its felt intensity, the frequency of its operation and its wide distribution. If the former, the whole attempt to base value upon instinct has been abandoned: if the latter, these observations about the quantitative aspects of a psychological event lead to no practical conclusion. It is the old dilemma. Either the premises already concealed an imperative or the conclusion remains merely in the indicative.

And Lewis is exactly right. We cannot get an ought from an is. And on the premise of a completely evolved human, including all neural networks and all that makes up the capacity of the mind, we cannot have any grounds for why any evolutionary standards should be used to judge other evolutionary standards when they are all themselves on trial in the process. And we have to remember that these evolutionary psychologists really and honestly do consider that whole systems of false beliefs, such as the world’s religions, are merely the result of an evolutionary process, and do not actually exist. This leaves them, though they don’t see it, with the truth that there really aren’t any more fundamental guiding standards above or deeper than any other, because they don’t even rise to the ground of being different from any other belief by comparison. But the matter gets worse when we really conceptualize what is at stake with our evolutionary psychologist’s framework of claiming all sensibilities to be from the same process that has produced all other living things. C. S. Lewis shed’s much needed light on the difficulty of emptying ourselves of the traditional concept of being designed and remolded into the image of evolution:

The process whereby man has come to know the universe is from one point of view extremely complicated; from another it is alarmingly simple. We can observe a single one-way progression. At the outset the universe appears packed with will, intelligence, life and positive qualities; every tree is a nymph and every planet a god. Man himself is akin to the gods. The advance of knowledge gradually empties this rich and genial universe: first of its gods, then of its colors, smells, sounds and tastes, finally of solidity itself as solidity was originally imagined. As these items are taken from the world, they are transferred to the subjective side of the account: classified as our sensations, thoughts, images or emotions. The Subject becomes gorged, inflated, at the expense of the Object. But the matter does not rest here. The same method which has emptied the world now proceeds to empty ourselves. The masters of the method soon announce that we were just as mistaken (and mistaken in much the same way) when we attributed “souls”, or “selves” or “minds” to human organisms, as when we attributed Dryads to the trees. Animism, apparently, begins at home. We, who have personified all other things, turn out to be ourselves mere personifications. Man is indeed akin to the gods: that is, he is no less phantasmal than they. Just as the Dryad is a “ghost”, an abbreviated symbol for all the facts we know about the tree foolishly mistaken for a mysterious entity over and above the facts, so the man’s “mind” or “consciousness” is an abbreviated symbol for certain verifiable facts about his behaviour: a symbol mistaken for a thing. And just as we have been broken of our bad habit of personifying trees, so we must now be broken of our bad habit of personifying men: a reform already effected in the political field. There never was a Subjective account into which we could transfer the items into which the Object had lost. There is no “consciousness” to contain, as images or private experiences, all the lost gods, colours, and concepts. Consciousness is “not the sort of noun that can be used that way”…

And thus we arrive at a result uncommonly like zero. While we were reducing the world to almost nothing we deceived ourselves with the fancy that all its lost qualities were being kept safe (if in a somewhat humbled condition) as “things in our own mind”. Apparently we had no mind of the sort required. The Subject is as empty as the Object. Almost nobody has been making linguistic mistakes about almost nothing. By and large, this is the only thing that has ever happened.

Now the trouble about this conclusion is not simply that it is unwelcome to our emotions. It is not unwelcome at all times or in all people. This philosophy, like every other, has its pleasures. And it will, I fancy, prove very congenial to government. The old “liberty-talk” was very much mixed up with the idea that , as inside the ruler, so inside the subject, there was a whole world, to him the centre of all worlds, capacious of endless suffering and delight. But now, of course, he has no “inside”, except the sort you can find by cutting him open.

The question is whether the first thinkers in modifying (and rightly modifying) them under the criticism, did not make some rash and unnecessary concession. It was certainly not there intention to commit us to the absurd consequence that have actually followed. This sort of error is of course very common in debate or even in solitary thought. We start with a view which contains a good deal of truth, though in a confused or exaggerated form. Objections are then suggested and we withdraw it. But hours later we discover that we have emptied the baby out with the bath water and that the original view must have contained certain truths for lack of which we are now tangled in absurdities. So here. In emptying out the Dryads and the gods (which, admittedly, “would not do” just as they stood) we appear to have thrown out the whole universe, ourselves included. We must go back and begin over again: this time with a better chance of success, for of course we can now use all particular truths and all improvements of method which our argument may have thrown up as by-products in its otherwise ruinous course.

This essay was first published as a Preface to D.E. Harding’s The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth: A New Diagram of Man in the Universe (London, 1952).

Not only have we emptied ourselves from any real standards of truth when our entire person is subject to a mindless process of evolution, but we cannot even say that there exist any standard between us and the non-sentient world given that evolution has produced both. The Subject is just as vacuous as the Object. Lewis was right, we must begin again in our thinking, otherwise we will remain tangled in these absurdities.

16 Replies to “Robert Wright’s Evolution of Compassion Revisited

  1. 1
    tragic mishap says:

    haha! I actually liked Wright’s talk mostly because of his discussion of game theory. Marxism rests on the assumption that economics is a zero-sum game, and all wealth should be distributed equally. Capitalism says that economics is not a zero-sum game and that economic relationships drive economies to greater and greater heights. The rising tide floats all boats.

    Of course, I agree with Lewis. Wright continually uses the “good news, bad news” motif throughout the lecture. One wonders how he is making those judgments.

  2. 2
    Frost122585 says:

    This is all total BS. I don’t think there is any real truth in all of this. First of all how do you explain all of the war and fighting it he world? IS this the result of mutations that came ofter the golden rule genes? No. And the idea of the offspring helping its parents is pure speculation. That is who is to say that the animals with the golden rule genes would also be as good at fighting and fending for themselves? Who is to say that the animals who would kill there own parents for food would to have an advantage in the total opposite self serving way? This is the classical example of Darwinian hand waving.

    And all this stuff about zero and non zero sum is worthlessly ambiguous. He is obviously trying to sound smart by talking about von Neumann game theory but he has no idea how it applies to his evolutionary selfish gene/golden rule nonsense- and fails to make that connection in any substantive way. Everywhere you look in history you see wars- both tribal and political. Today you have passive political warfare though class warfare- but this is not evidence oft he golden rule- it is evidence of self seeking.

    So he has a major problem with being able to distinguish whether a case is really one of the golden rule or total self seeking. His goal seems to be to obfuscate the difference. That is, he is arguing for moral relativity by saying that it is not objective religion or ethics that guide people to the golden rule but in fact all of this is the result of selfish behavior.

    I think he over simplifies the matter- ignores all of the counter evidence of people going to war and dieing when it does not benefit them- and he fails to face the fact that religious doctrines are one place where people can turn to guide themselves beyond their own natural inclinations. hence the golden rule is mostly not genetic- or human nature.

    Lastly he says all of this is from “this” perspective- proving the moral relativism at hand- and he ends with “no one said that doing God’s work would be easy”-

    Well God’s work is winning the spiritual war- so the golden rule has nothing to do with what religion is entirely about. That is religions tell you to stand up- like Jesus did in the temple against the money changers- against people who are doing wrong. So his definition of the blind golden rule does not apply to religion – nor human behavior as we know them.

  3. 3
    Frost122585 says:

    The other thing is that all the golden rule says is “treat others how you want to be treated.”

    This is in itself a relativistic rule. Not because morality is relativistic but because without more specific sophisticated framework the rule lacks meaning.

    Without a guiding set of notions it could mean anything. Some people like to be treated totally different than others. For example, lets say a person believes in an eye for an eye. He might be fine with the idea “if I was to kill your son I would want you to kill me for my evil deed because that is righteous” – which would be totally different from a person who would want to be forgiven if they comitted the sin of murder.

    So it is not even clear what he is talking about to begin with. Bottom line is that religion tells you what is objectively, universally or absolutely right. Now he can say genes created religion – that there is a gene for all behaviors- but he is bluffing because we DO NOT know how genes can produce this kind of advanced behavior and how much of it is experiential and environmentally unlocked- or designed or even random.

    So his speculation is in my view agenda driven- which is guided by his bias against the value of real, non sugar coated religion- and scientific rationality- which go way beyond genetic evolution.

  4. 4
    Graham says:

    Its a common (ID) gripe that if we evolved by natural processes, then we must be devoid of moral standards. But no one is claiming that life evolved in a vacuum. Life evolved in the real world, and our morals, logical processes etc have all been tested by reality.

    If a random change produced a species that ate their own offspring, or who had a poor grasp of reality, then they would die and take this mutation with them. Conversly, if a change produced a species that cared for their offspring, they would tend to prosper. This is just the basic tenet of evolution restated.

    Clive thinks there are no ‘standards’ for our compassion/ethics/etc to be judged against, but there are: survival. If we are compassionate to other members of our species, we have a better chance of survival.

    This could be extended to other species as well (altruism and all that) but thats just asking for trouble.

  5. 5
    Clive Hayden says:

    Clive thinks that there are no standards at all, not even logical ones, on the basis of evolution. Not even ones that will tell you that those who don’t eat their young survive as any more true than Vishnu created the universe. They come from the same source. This has to be firmly grasped in order for the following logical implications to be understood. And once it is, it is devastating to evolutionary psychology as an explanation for anything.

  6. 6
    Graham says:

    Clive, you may think that such standards cannot arise, but what is the basis for that conclusion ?

    The logic seems pretty simple: if you behave in a way that encourages survival, you survive, if you dont, you dont. The logic of this seems so obvious its hard to know how it could be refuted.

    The question of whether such favourable changes can occur is real, but not relevant at this point.

    To digress, what is wrong with Vishnu ?

  7. 7
    Graham says:

    I think I see the problem. You refer to standards as being ‘true’. Biblical morals are deemed ‘good’ or ‘true’ or whatever, but this is where the whole problem needs to be inverted. Standards that arise through an evolutionary process are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or anything at all. They are just behaviour that aids in survival. I presume we have attached ‘goodness’ or ‘trueness’ to them later. In other words, the behaviour came first, and the labels were added later.

    I get the feeling that this offends your theology.

  8. 8
    Clive Hayden says:

    Graham,

    They are just behaviour that aids in survival. I presume we have attached ‘goodness’ or ‘trueness’ to them later. In other words, the behaviour came first, and the labels were added later.

    I get the feeling that this offends your theology.

    It offends my logic.

  9. 9
    tragic mishap says:

    The point, Graham, is obvious. There can be no value judgments which carry any weight whatsoever. There can be no trust placed in reason or the workings of our minds, since it could always be unduly influenced by some ancient evolutionary development that no longer applies.

  10. 10
    Mung says:

    If a random change produced a species that ate their own offspring … then they would die and take this mutation with them.

    It does not necessarily follow that the mutation would die out at all. It would depend upon the ratio of eaten to offspring, wouldn’t it?

    So this is something that, while perhaps odd, could be accommodated within evolutionary theory.

    One might even be tempted to ask, why don’t we see something like this in nature?

  11. 11
    jitsak says:

    It does not necessarily follow that the mutation would die out at all. It would depend upon the ratio of eaten to offspring, wouldn’t it?

    A generous reading of Graham says that he meant a mutant eating all her offspring, unconditionally. He is obviously correct.

    One might even be tempted to ask, why don’t we see something like this in nature?

    Anyone who has ever bred mice knows that females will eat their offspring when under stress. Presumably it’s adaptive (or a clever design) to recycle one’s offspring if they are in mortal danger anyway. I’m not aware of any experimental tests of this just-so story though.

  12. 12
    Tim says:

    Graham @4: “If a random change produced a species . . . who had a poor grasp of reality, then they would die and take this mutation with them.

    Wow! Someone help me out here. Graham seems to be saying that a poor grasp of reality — oh say like grasping at the “reality” of a flying spaghetti monster, fairies, teapots orbiting the sun, a flat earth, or ahem, the reality of God, angels, souls, sin and forgiveness. . . — will die out and take their crummy mutations with them.

    His evidence seems indisputable; just look at all those flat-earthers who have died. Certainly there must have been some people who believed that teapots orbit the sun (otherwise, how could we have such an absurd idea?) and yet I see few, if any, people who believe that today — another confirmation of Graham’s theory.

    On the other hand, people who believe in the ideas of God, angels, souls, sin and forgiveness. . . seem to be thriving. From that, we apparently must conclude, per Graham, that those beliefs are part of a grasp of a reality that is real because those in our species who have such a “grasp on reality” are surviving just fine.

    Oh wait, apparently atheists are surviving too!
    So, according to Graham, evolution has just proven the existence of God and the inexistence of God.

    It’s nice to have everything explained.

    [heavy sarcasm]

  13. 13
    CannuckianYankee says:

    Graham,

    “Clive, you may think that such standards cannot arise, but what is the basis for that conclusion ?

    The logic seems pretty simple: if you behave in a way that encourages survival, you survive, if you dont, you dont.”

    Lunatics exist in the present and existed in the past, I suspect. Where is the survival gene that wiped out lunacy? The point is that Darwinism does not offer a basis for morality apart from your example, which is a question-begging “just-so” story at best.

    You call it a logic, but there really is no solid logic to such explanations, and that’s perhaps what makes it ‘simple.’

    If Darwinism offers a basis for morality, what about sacrifice as a moral ideal? Surely sacrifice for another is not a part of the survival instinct. It in fact jeopardizes survival and the propagation of offspring. Yet self-sacrifice is a common human trait.

    Later you state:

    “Standards that arise through an evolutionary process are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or anything at all. They are just behaviour that aids in survival. I presume we have attached ‘goodness’ or ‘trueness’ to them later. In other words, the behaviour came first, and the labels were added later.”

    The idea that evolution does not offer a “good” or a “bad,” is the whole point of this discussion. Morality is not simply what we do in order to survive. If that were so, we could allow all kinds of immoral acts in order to reach the ideal of survival. We could allow murder and revenge killing, rape, incest, etc…, simply because we could justify them on a survival basis. In fact, mankind is capable of immense immorality, yet we survive as a species. Therefore, morality does not appear to be connected to species survival. True, cultures which relish in immoral behavior do not survive long, but the species as a whole, which engages in immoral and corrupt acts survives.

    I suspect that morality is concerned with what is good and what is bad, not simply what is expedient. Therefore, by your statement, you support this point: Darwinian evolution does not offer a basis for morality.

    I believe Darwinists take morality for granted as having developed from our need to survive, while forgetting that we continue to survive despite immorality. Darwinists also believe that the world of humans could continue to act morally in the absence of believers in a higher power. I doubt that. It is faith present in the world, which fosters moral behavior in humans. Humans act morally due mostly to social pressure, which stems from a religiously influenced majority. Remove that majority, and humans will act according to what their instincts and desires dictate, rather than according to religiously influenced social pressure.

  14. 14
    Phinehas says:

    From a biological perspective, I am a failure as a human being. I have a fitness of zero, primarily because my compassion gene keeps screwing over my selfish gene.

    When you get down to the cold, hard scientific facts of the situation, I exist to further my genes. Any other “purpose” to my life is illusory, is it not? To be sure, over many generations, evolution has also given me feelings for my family, but these exist to assist in furthering my genes. In my particular case, however, those feelings end up being counter-productive to the purpose for which they were originally intended.

    You see, I found out a number of years ago that my wife has poor egg quality and that it is nearly impossible for here to conceive. If it were not for the sentimentality with which evolution has burdened me, this information might have prompted me to leave my wife and seek out a more fertile mate in order to propagate my genes.

    It gets worse. Compassion played a role in our adopting a young boy. His blond hair and boisterous chemistry play havok with my own compassion chemistry so that, even though I know that I am investing energy in propagating someone else’s genes instead of my own, I can’t seem to stop myself.

    So, now I have quite the conundrum. Though my compassion gene is dragging down my fitness, my intellectual gene has evolved to the point that I recognize that my compassion gene is illusory–or at least that it is not functioning in the way that it should. Given that my primary purpose is to reproduce my genes, shouldn’t I ignore this sentimentality and leave my wife and child? Or maybe I shouldn’t ignore it, because my compassion gene has become detrimental and should be culled from the gene pool as a result? On the other hand, that would also cull out the intellectual gene that allows me to see my sentimentality for what it is.

    Darwinian morality is just so confusing for me. Can someone give me a hand here?

  15. 15
    Phinehas says:

    Graham:

    Standards that arise through an evolutionary process are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or anything at all. They are just behaviour that aids in survival. I presume we have attached ‘goodness’ or ‘trueness’ to them later. In other words, the behaviour came first, and the labels were added later.

    I get the feeling that this offends your theology.

    Clive is not alone in being offended by the notion that all standards (unless you can name one that didn’t arrive via an evolutionary process) are neither ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or anything at all (emphasis mine, and a rather succinct summation of the OP, in my opinion). I’m betting that you would also end up being offended once that notion started getting applied in a more personal manner. I’m betting that you have a very strong sense of what should happen when you feel mistreated. Do you step back and remind yourself that all is fair in love, war, and random events creating processes that are not anything at all?

    Given what I’ve shared above from my personal life, and based on your world view, is there any non-illusory reason that I should stay with my wife and not abandon my son? And do you really live that way?

  16. 16
    Clive Hayden says:

    Phinehas,

    So, now I have quite the conundrum. Though my compassion gene is dragging down my fitness, my intellectual gene has evolved to the point that I recognize that my compassion gene is illusory–or at least that it is not functioning in the way that it should. Given that my primary purpose is to reproduce my genes, shouldn’t I ignore this sentimentality and leave my wife and child? Or maybe I shouldn’t ignore it, because my compassion gene has become detrimental and should be culled from the gene pool as a result? On the other hand, that would also cull out the intellectual gene that allows me to see my sentimentality for what it is. Darwinian morality is just so confusing for me. Can someone give me a hand here?

    Precisely. Very articulate in phrasing and exposing the problem for Darwinian morality, and any Darwinian standard for that matter, be they moral or logical problems.

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