Sunday, July 14, 2019
Why would an animal programmed to survive and reproduce care so much about right and wrong?
In a recent post, I critiqued Richard Wrangham's theory of why humans are so much less violent than our cousins, the chimpanzees. In The Goodness Paradox, he also attempts to explain why we have a strong moral sense. It's strange for an animal designed to outcompete others through survival and greater reproductive success to care so much about abstract concepts of right and wrong.
He hypothesizes that human society changed fundamentally when men developed the language to coordinate control over other members of the group. While apes sometimes gang up and beat or kill a single, obnoxious ape, they don't plan it out ahead of time. Men gained a tremendous tool when they began to conspire as a group of five or six against one. They could discuss the idea, plan a surprise attack, and kill the offender with little danger to themselves. Sometimes the murder wasn't necessary: A rumor could be floated and the troublemaker might be convinced to change his ways.
Wrangham claims that men expanded their control to all members of the community so that everybody was were in fear of their ability to conduct a surprise attack against them. Over evolutionary time, humans were selected for their ability to please the men who had this power over them. Extremely selfish, exploitative people were weeded out. A person who treated everyone well was unlikely to displease elders, so prosociality became a more and more common trait. And while I didn't find Wrangham clear on this point, I think moral values gradually developed as a reflection of the prosocial personalities that were becoming common.
According to Wrangham, selection has been more successful at producing people oriented toward having a good reputation and appearing moral rather than creating humans of deep, genuine integrity and principle. After all, we are still programmed to care about our own reproductive interests.
I would return to my earlier criticism: In 2019, some groups seem to have much higher rates of prosociality than others. For example, a quick look at the Corruption Perceptions Index reveals that Denmark has very little public corruption compared to Somalia. How does Wrangham help us explain the enormous gulf between the two countries? He doesn't. He presents the image of all human groups across the globe being identical in terms of genes that contribute to cooperativeness. I suppose he would say that evolutionary biology tells the story up until the day before yesterday, but now it's irrelevant: It's all sociology now. Not credible.
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