Nature’s Values

Abuse Atheism Ethics Family Parenting Philosophy Politics Power Truth Violence Women World

PhotobucketOur revulsion at the cruelty of the Supreme Leaders henchmen is a powerful refutation of the postmodernist credo that anything goes. After the enlightenment discredited the authority of tradition and religion, the notion that reason or civilization could provide an ersatz God has also collapsed. The efforts of analytical philosophy could neither remove the ambiguity from language nor provide mathematics with a foundation.

While most people could not care less, much less understand, analytical philosophy and its implications for everyday life, even the most casual observers realize in the wake of the World Wars, the Holocaust, and the impotence of imperial powers that claims of western superiority have become unsustainable. Rather than rectifying liberal and nationalist abuses, Marxism has turned out to become rationalisms most murderous effort.

During the 20th century, the idols have been knocked of their pedestal. The absence of an ultimate authority, however, does not imply that there are no standards. Only the most partisan among us will support violence against women and children. That taboo is an implication of our mammal nature, perhaps the most consequential property of our species.

No matter where on the globe we reside, what our ecological and cultural situation may be, as mammals our offspring requires adult support. Libertarian myths of self-reliant individuals better apply to precocious species such as reptiles, whose offspring is self-reliant after hatching. Children are not born self-reliant. As mammals, humans are an altricious species, which means that our offspring requires parental care.

Compared to other species, the amount of care that human parents invest into their children is extraordinary. In hunter and gatherer societies, it takes at least twelve years for a boy to contribute fully to his upkeep. In developed countries, completing law or medical training may approach three decades.

As mothers have to nurse mammal offspring, women bear a substantial competitive burden. To some degree, the burden of the pregnant, nursing, and nurturing mother has to be offset by the transfer of resources and establishment of privileges. Even though societies rarely compensate mothers entirely for their essential contributions to child rearing, violence against women is more strictly regulated than violence against men, and it is universally accepted that women require wealth transfers.

The primate anthropologist Frans de Waal shows in Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes that alpha males will only be secure as long as they can protect women and children. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, another primate anthropologist, argues that the requirements of mothering are the foundation of human cooperation.

Our mammal nature has far reaching implications for ethics and political economy. Previously, social scientists and philosophers have assumed that war is the ultimate manifestation of human cooperation. Libertarians have asserted that the best state is limited government that provides only for national defense and guarantees property rights.

These claims are no longer sustainable. Human beings are neither born as individuals nor as fighters. We are born in a state of dependence, which requires substantial investments into our offspring, which would not be possible without transfers to the nurturers.

When the powerful attack women, they become a threat to the survival of the species. Thats why the and her sisters have destroyed the legitimacy of the Iranian government. While those who want to cling to power are willing to violate taboos, they reap condemnation around the globe.

Postmodernist, libertarian, and realist philosophers and social scientists ignore humanity’s mammal nature. But the fact that a baby needs to nursed and nurtured for decades shapes the human condition in clear and obvious ways. There are many different ways to support mothers and children. But rulers or cultures that abuse mothers and children are bound to fail because their behavior threatens to extinct the group under their control.

41 thoughts on “Nature’s Values

  1. I would strongly refute the idea that “anything goes” is a postmodernist credo. In my view, while postmodernism denies the existence of any absolute source of moral authority, it certainly does not deny or attempt to refute the effort of any individual or group to define and uphold moral standards. Postmodernism (if I may greatly oversimplify) is about recognizing that all claims to moral authority must be recognized strictly on their merits. Or in other words, it is authority that is dead–not morality.

  2. That’s probably better, Robert. The question then becomes how do you tell the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

    Darwinism’s strength is that it can generate answers to that question without having to invoke an ultimate authority. Instead, Darwinism can rely on relationships between the organism and its ecological environment.

  3. Darwinism, if by that you mean reproduction of the fittest, isn’t something I would base my morals on either. Using that principle, it’s too easy to justify actions that feel immoral. For example, it seems that killing all children with severe birth defects makes perfect sense in the context of maximizing fitness of the species, yet we feel that it’s an immoral action. I doubt that we can start from Darwinism and logically arrive at something that feels like a system of morality.

    Yet evolution has endowed us with the innate attitudes that develop into our sense of morality. It’s paradoxical that evolution, when we try to reason logically from it in the ethical domain, is contradicted by human nature which we received from evolution.

  4. It depends on what constitutes fitness, Jonathan. As mammals humans require cooperation. We increase our fitness not necessarily as individuals but also as cultures and societies.

    As for birth defects, some of those may be genetic bridges to valuable mutations. Imagine a species on a local maximum of fitness. To arrive at a neighboring superior maximum, you first have to traverse lower rates of fitness.

  5. Interesting thesis. I’m not sure “Postmodernist, libertarian, and realist philosophers and social scientists ignore humanitys mammal nature.” is true – there is a lot of diversity among them. “But rulers or cultures that abuse mothers and children are bound to fail because their behavior threatens to extinct the group under their control.” – I think it depends on the definition of “abuse” and to what extent of the abuse happens. Is there a culture where the rulers or society never abused or allowed the abuse of women?

    As far as human nature and morality, though, most people are good or try to be good, no matter what they’re religion or lack thereof. This article points out how the rich and powerful can use science today and may still do so, but they’ll probably wait until it’s a matter of preservation of human life, which as you say is part of the mammal instinct. Still, we have a real problem right now due to our human nature, & those babies you mention, with population growth (“Humans are 10,000 times more common than we should be, according to the rules of the animal kingdom”).

  6. Then let’s limit the discussion to birth defects that destine the child to infertility (e.g. males with Down Syndrome). What fitness does the human species gain—from a purely Darwinian perspective—from raising these children and in many cases supporting them throughout their life?

    Darwinism is a tricky foundation for morality. If this is our only standard, it is difficult to avoid eugenics.

  7. In a hunter and gatherer society, persons with Downs syndrome are probably able to hold their own. The more advanced your society, the more problematic Downs syndrome becomes. But those societies are also wealthier.

    As you know, there are societies that abandon the elderly as a matter of economic necessity. Societies that are more affluent can sustain not only the elderly but also disabled members of the group.

    One could probably argue that there is value in the taboo itself, i.e. society has an interest in protecting children with as few exceptions as possible. If that is correct then it would justify the dedication of resources to unproductive members.

    I also find it fascinating that many primitive societies attribute a holy status to mentally disabled persons and assign them niches in the division of labor such as medicine or holy men.

  8. Eugenics rests on the misunderstanding that the fitness of the individual is all that matters. However, the formation of collectives increase fitness much more dramatically than individual fitness.

    If you are one prey animal, the hunter will attack you 100% of the time. If you form a group with a second prey animal, the probability of attack has just decreased by 50%. If your group has ten members, your individual fitness has increased ten fold.

    No matter how much faster and stronger you become, you cannot obtain gains of this magnitude individually.

    Once you realize that gains that stem from cooperation are substantially more valuable than individual attributes, eugenics becomes a non-issue.

  9. If matters are cut and dried, why do solitary prey animals (e.g. squirrels) exist?

    In any case, what improves our fitness isn’t immediately apparent from Darwinism. We end up working backwards instead. For example, we notice that we raise Down Syndrome children and try to guess reasons why that may be better for society. We abhor eugenics and try to justify why it doesn’t really make sense within Darwinism.

    In other words, we’re playing the apologist’s game. We start with the conclusions (e.g. killing Down Syndrome babies is immoral) and try to justify them through unnatural twists of logic which aren’t backed up by empirical evidence. They’re just guesses. And we’re generally not smart enough to guess correctly in this case.

    (This is also a big criticism that I have for evolutionary psychology.)

    Anyway, I agree that people in power should beware of working against human nature, though this case is much more complex than that. Many women have been stoned to death in Iran without public outcry. What is happening in Iran is more about the context of her death, not the simple fact that a woman was killed by people in power.

  10. It’s true there’s an interesting paradox here. On the one hand, our sense of what is right and what is wrong come from our human minds and are the product of the natural process of evolution. Yet (as Jonathan points out) that doesn’t mean that everything that is natural is also automatically ethical.

    I’m not sure whether this is really a paradox or merely confusing. One set of rules/laws (natural selection) produced another set of rules/laws (basic human ethics), but that doesn’t mean the two sets of rules are the same or that they would lead to the same actions.

    Our (evolved) set of human ethics, behaviors, etc. may increase our “fitness” (hence survival) in some circumstances and decrease it in others.

  11. Nice article, Hellmut. I’ve been talking a bit about the values that can be derived from nature on my own blog:

    http://byzantium.wordpress.com/2009/06/26/searching-for-pagan-values/

    I am also sensitive to the issue that Jonathan brings up: we have to be careful about being apologists, i.e. deciding on the answers a priori and then constructing justifications for them however we can.

    Anyway, I think ti is important to use nature as one source for values, but not the only source. So what if nature tells us to cull our weak children–it is something to consider, but if all of our other moral sources tell us not to, we don’t have to automatically accept it.

    I do think though that it is extremely important to consider the sources from whence we derive our values. As much as we might like to flatter ourselves into thinking that we construct our own morality, I have a hard time imagining that could actually happen. Instead, if we do not take affirmative control of our own morality and try to honestly consider the sources and origins outside of ourselves for our guiding moral principles, then we wind up puppets on strings, accepting the default sources (society, politics, culture, TV).

  12. I appreciate you pushing back, Jonathan. Two things, the point is that human beings are not solitary predators. When individuals act like solitary predators, they are putting themselves beyond society. If we can, we put such individuals into jail.

    The point is that we may no longer be able to determine what is universally good and evil. But we can determine what is good for a species with particular properties.

    Second, it is true that we begin with observation. The observed facts exist independently of our wishes. The apologist, on the other hand, begins with a wish.

    That seems to be a big difference, doesn’t it?

    For example, it is a fact that the overwhelming number of parents want to nurture their children even if they are severely disabled. That is a phenomenon that requires explanation.

    Whether I prefer to raise or euthanize Downs children is really immaterial.

    Likewise, it is an observable fact that most people revile from violence against women. Only the most partisan hacks who need to suppress women in the pursuit of their self-interest support violence against women.

  13. Our (evolved) set of human ethics, behaviors, etc. may increase our fitness (hence survival) in some circumstances and decrease it in others.

    Of course, there are inefficient cultures. More precisely, every culture is inefficient in some ways. But any species behavior needs to be at least effective. Otherwise, the species will go extinct.

    My argument is that there are minimum requirements of how to treat our offspring for our children and our species to survive. Beyond that there’s a lot of room for deviation and diversity.

    Those minimum requirements have far reaching ethical requirements.

  14. Thanks for the link, Kullervo. I will read your essay carefully.

    Let me put it a little differently. If our ethics are based on the observation of nature then we are more likely to admit that we might be wrong.

    Acknowledging uncertainty alone will improve the quality of our ethical practices by a quantum leap. For one thing, it obligates us to engage anyone who claims to observe and analyze human nature better than us.

    Epistemological humility is powerful.

  15. You get the same epistemological humility by acknowledging that you draw on values from a number of distinct, and often competing sources, which means you have to constantly weigh and evaluate and balance moral principles that conflict with each other.

    It’s an honest and mature approach to morality.

  16. I agree with robert #1 – postmodernism isn’t saying that anything goes. It’s an attempt to determine why we know what we know, and what we have free will to do.

    Some postmodernists would argue (and I’m greatly over-simplifying here) that we don’t have free will at all. We’re all the products of our culture and biology, etc. It doesn’t give support to totalitarian regimes any more than it would support parlimentary democracies….(from my perspective) – more than anything, it rejects the notion of “progress”, that northern European people (and their descendants) are the most enlightened people on earth in this century.

    I would also disagree that what happened (or is happening in Iran) has to do with violence against women.

    What about violence in general? A rejection of violence against non violent protestors? I don’t think you will find many people who disagree with that claim – no matter which part of the world you are in.

    I know this is a diversion from the topic of survival of the fittest – but I think it’s also a valid point. What about communities found in nature that may allow all sorts of behaviors that we don’t agree with? Physical violence against men, women and children? Non- consenual s_ex?

    There may be some behaviors (in nature) that we agree with, and others we don’t.

    I’m not sure we can draw on one source for moral and ethical guidance for our beliefs. I think a constant inventory and questioning is important – the intake of new information based on changing circumstances and re-evaluating.

  17. There may be some behaviors (in nature) that we agree with, and others we dont.

    Im not sure we can draw on one source for moral and ethical guidance for our beliefs. I think a constant inventory and questioning is important the intake of new information based on changing circumstances and re-evaluating.

    Here’s the problem though: it looks like you’ve decided a priori that your values include nonviolence, and rejecting nature as a source for values because it does not support a value you have already decided to have.

    That just means your values must not come from nature, because you’re getting that value from somewhere else.

    There’s a huge difference between deriving values from a number of sources and balancing them against each other on the one hand, and on the other hand looking around to multiple sources to justify the values you already have. The latter makes no sense, because you’re only confusing yourself about where your values come from.

  18. The point is that we may no longer be able to determine what is universally good and evil. But we can determine what is good for a species with particular properties.

    Eugenics was an effort to determine what is good for the human species supported by Teddy Roosevelt, the Democratic Party, Alexander Graham Bell, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, etc. They all thought they understood what would be best for the human species. If the best minds of that day can come to such logical but immoral conclusions, I fear to go down that same path by saying what is moral based on Darwinism.

    Second, it is true that we begin with observation. The observed facts exist independently of our wishes. The apologist, on the other hand, begins with a wish.

    That seems to be a big difference, doesnt it?

    My complaint against evolutionary psychology is that it begins with the conclusion—all human traits can be explained by how they improve evolutionary fitness—without attempting to test the hypothesis.

    For example, the hypothesis that our abhorrence of violence against women and children has evolved because otherwise we would reduce our fertility and die out as a species. This could be true, but we have no way of testing it that I can think of. It seems possible, but we have no way to see how probably true it is.

    The connection I see with apologetics is that both weave fabrics of plausibility without offering an honest test to see how probably true it is. They just offer likely-sounding stories. The conclusion is made, then the arguments are worked backward to fit the observations.

    So Book of Mormon apologists talk about how it could be about a very small family that wouldn’t show up in DNA surveys, so it is still possible that the Book of Mormon is true. It could be accurate, so there’s no reason to abandon your foregone conclusions.

    So I admit that our abhorrence for violence against women is the product of evolution, but I don’t see any way to test whether it exists because it directly boosts our fitness or if it’s just a quirky byproduct of an imperfect process. Is it like mammary glands or like male nipples? I don’t know.

  19. I agree with you, Jonathan, that evolutionary biology is often more like interpreting a picture than conducting a controlled experiment.

    I am actually making a very limited claim:
    Human beings are mammals. That establishes parameters. Every society has to nurture children. Another implication is that those of us who nurture children, especially mothers, have to get resource transfers.

    That in turn has implications for the organization of power.

    Within those parameters, there are any number of possibilities that can be effective. How you choose among them is subject to all sort of extraneous considerations.

    I am not talking about a comprehensive set of behavioral rules that apply in all circumstances. But if you do ignore the fact that humans are mammals, you will get yourself and those who depend on you into trouble.

  20. aerin, this is not an argument about volition but about necessity. At the bare minimum, what’s necessary for the survival of the species? What conditions have evolved to meet that necessity? What does that tell us about the human condition?

    On a different note, I agree with you that non-violence enjoys a privileged position in human nature. Like dogs, we have evolved to reduce aggression.

    That taboo, however, is observably weaker than the violence taboo against women.

  21. I’m not sure I can accept even that limited claim, unless the claim is that male mammals don’t go out of their way to do violence to mothers or nurturers. There are many male mammals who will do violence to mothers, though those are mostly solitary mammals.

    I’m not clear what you mean by resource transfers, so maybe I’m misunderstanding the claim, but Parenting for Primates left me with the impression that primates have a greatly varied attitude toward motherhood. Orangutan males, if I remember correctly, don’t contribute much more than semen to parenting. So their resource transfer is trivial.

    What I can agree with is that in our modern human culture we have come to generally abhor violence against women and children. I’m not sure why we’ve come to that point or exactly how long it’s been that way, but here we are.

  22. Parenting for Primates left me with the impression that primates have a greatly varied attitude toward motherhood. Orangutan males, if I remember correctly, dont contribute much more than semen to parenting. So their resource transfer is trivial.

    I read Parenting for Primates too, and I agree with this assessment. Another central point from Parenting for Primates was the role of infanticide, specifically the fact that newly-dominant males tend to kill all of the offspring of their predecessor, which is a big problem (not to mention very upsetting) for the females who have an enormous investment in their offspring. Apparently this is standard operating procedure for most of the higher primates (including great apes), and it explains quite a lot of the females’ behavior towards the males (eg. loyalty and support for the current dominant male).

    Again the book deals more with behavioral interpretation (evolutionary psychology style) than with experimental evidence, but the author makes some very compelling points.

  23. Apparently this is standard operating procedure for most of the higher primates (including great apes), and it explains quite a lot of the females behavior towards the males (eg. loyalty and support for the current dominant male).

    QED The alpha male will remain in power as long as he can protect the females because the females will support him.

  24. Hellmut, while the alpha males are fighting to determine who is the uber-alpha, the females run off with the cute boy in the back that they really like. This fact brought to you via dna typing. So, no. The females and the alpha male are playing different games entirely.

  25. Can we please avoid using the term ‘Darwinism’ when discussing theories that have progressed a long way since Darwin?

    And in response to the eugenics comments, the eugenics movement was not supported by the majority of biologists and was sort of hijacked by the popular press. I recently read some books by Haldane (prominent early 20th century biologist), who argued that proponents of eugenics were doing it all wrong- if you wanted the poor to have fewer children, universal education should produce that result, and abolishing inherited property would get the rich to think about having more instead of trying to leave a vast estate for one or two. He himself was not in favor of eugenics and saw no reason to suppose that (as in the popular view) rich people were more ‘fit.’

    Evolutionary theory suggests that traits that enhance fitness should change with the environment and with the times, and the best way to ensure survival of somebody is to promote diversity (the major tactic for conserving endangered species). Sorry for the tangent; I’m a grad student in ecology and evolution and can be a stickler sometimes 😛

  26. On the main topic, the fact that evolution shaped human values that seemingly contradict some predictions of evolutionary theory should tell us that there’s a lot we still have to learn. All the papers I’ve read lately imply that biology is much more complex than our current ability to predict. Therefore, I think we need to be extremely cautious when using science to guide policy that is contradicted by the claims of other disciplines. This especially applies to social policy, where strong opinions abound and it can be difficult to tell how much of the science is influenced by those opinions.

  27. QED The alpha male will remain in power as long as he can protect the females because the females will support him.

    Not really. Eventually the alpha male is going to weaken to the point where other males will be able to beat him. However, the loyalty and support of the females is a significant factor in the alpha male maintaining power even as he’s starting to decline compared to others around him.

    Then there are further strategies adopted by both sexes. Some times young female primates will have secret trysts with a young up-and-comer who looks likely to take over (and thus she supports him and spares her babies when he wins). Similarly, in some types of baboons, the alpha male will tolerate an unrelated male “son-in-law” hanging around the fringes of his harem because the alpha maintains his position long enough to have daughters reach maturity that he won’t mate with himself. He forces the son-in-law to the fringes of the harem (since he’s a threat, being essentially next in line), but will actually assist and join forces with the alpha male when the troop is threatened by another troop.

    Anyway, this has little to do with human mating strategy and ethics since human males generally don’t capture human females to keep as mates (killing their children), except in wartime and in the Bible.

  28. I recently read some books by Haldane (prominent early 20th century biologist), who argued that proponents of eugenics were doing it all wrong- if you wanted the poor to have fewer children, universal education should produce that result, and abolishing inherited property would get the rich to think about having more instead of trying to leave a vast estate for one or two. He himself was not in favor of eugenics and saw no reason to suppose that (as in the popular view) rich people were more fit.

    That sounds interesting — what were the books?

  29. That sounds interesting what were the books?

    I read two- Possible Worlds was the better and I forgot the name of the other. Both were collections of essays. I also highly recommend Mother Nature by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (mentioned in the op). It talks a lot about the sociobiology of motherhood, strategies that differ between men and women, and children’s strategies in light of evolution.

  30. leisurelyviking — Thanks for the link, it’s a great article. I agree with the overall point (that the findings of evolutionary psychology are often highly questionable scientifically when they entail starting from the conclusions and making untestable guesses, as Jonathan has said above). I’ve had this problem with evolutionary psychology ever since I read The Moral Animal fifteen years ago.

    It’s interesting how the author of the article uses cross-cultural studies to show the adaptability of human nature:

    And it’s why the evo psych tenet that men have an inherited mental module that causes them to prefer young, beautiful women while women have one that causes them to prefer older, wealthy men also falls apart. As 21st-century Western women achieve professional success and gain financial independence, their mate preference changes, scientists led by Fhionna Moore at Scotland’s University of St Andrews reported in 2006 in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour. The more financially independent a woman is, the more likely she is to choose a partner based on looks than bank balancekind of like (some) men. (Yes, growing sexual equality in the economic realm means that women, too, are free to choose partners based on how hot they are, as the cougar phenomenon suggests.) Although that finding undercuts evo psych, it supports the “it depends” school of behavioral ecology, which holds that natural selection chose general intelligence and flexibility, not mental modules preprogrammed with preferences and behaviors. “Evolutionary psychology ridicules the notion that the brain could have evolved to be an all-purpose fitness-maximizing mechanism,” says Hill. “But that’s exactly what we keep finding.”

    This is very similar to the point I was making in my Finding Love 101 post: It’s ridiculous to see beauty as irrelevant in romantic love, however it’s only one element in a family of desirable traits that people are attracted to in a partner.

    Also the article goes on to talk about step-parent studies, discussing a topic related to what I was saying above about male primates killing unrelated children — and directs some scientific scrutiny towards the question of how much we can (and can’t) extrapolate about human behavior.

    It’s a rich enough subject that it may warrant a new top-level post. Are you up for writing a guest-post? 😉

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