Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Big History of Morality: The Pursuit of Happiness from Stromatolite Cooperation to the Global Morality of Sustainability

Lower Proterozoic Stromatolite Fossil from Bolivia

Stromatolites at Shark Bay, Western Australia

"Big history" is the term coined by David Christian for the history of everything in the universe from the Big Bang to the present, and including plausible speculations about the future of the universe.

Modern academic history has traditionally identified the beginning of history with the invention of writing about 6,000 years ago, because this began the written records that historians have needed to reconstruct history.  Consequently, such history has been the history of literate peoples, and everything prior to the invention of writing has been considered "prehistory."

David Christian and other proponents of big history--such as William McNeil, Fred Spier, Dan Smail, Cynthia Brown, and Craig Benjamin--have argued that this is an unreasonably narrow view of history that ignores the fact that modern evolutionary science can reconstruct the entire history of the universe through empirical evidence (such as fossil evidence on Earth and astronomical data from beyond the Earth) that does not depend on written records.  Moreover, there is a great intellectual benefit in big history in that it provides a grand interdisciplinary integration of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, which looks like what I have called "Darwinian liberal education."

Throughout history, human beings have constructed universal histories of the universe through religiously based creation stories (like that in the Bible or in Plato's Timaeus), which depend on religious beliefs in supernatural activity that cannot be confirmed with empirical evidence.  But now modern science can construct a secular universal history based on inferences from empirical evidence.  As suggested by some scientists like Eric Chaisson, some of the proponents of big history argue that the general theme of this universal history is the evolution of complexity made possible by the flow of energy through matter.

The first big history, in ancient Rome, was Lucretius's On the Nature of Things, a history of the universe based on an Epicurean science of evolutionary atomistic materialism.  Although Lucretius professed to believe that gods existed, they exercised no creative power over the universe, and they were indifferent to human affairs.  Later, in the first half of the 19th century, Alexander von Humboldt's Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe and Robert Chambers's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation provided modern scientific accounts of the natural evolution of the universe from the beginning to the present.  Humboldt never mentioned God or divine activity.  Chambers invoked God as the First Cause of nature, but his natural history of the universe did not require miraculous acts outside of the laws of nature.  Big history continues this tradition of writing, but proponents of big history can claim that the scientific knowledge accumulated over the past two centuries allows them to base their history on the best empirical science.

The religiously based universal histories provided a moral teaching as grounded in a divine cosmic order:  in learning how they were created by God and how they were commanded to obey His laws, human beings recognized a moral law for their lives derived from divine law.  By contrast, the scientifically based universal history as reconstructed by big historians does not seem to provide any moral teaching, because modern science must be value-free in explaining what is the case, but without explaining what we ought to do.  Thus, it seems that morality must be a matter of personal choice for each individual without any guidance from big history.

But what happens when many people in the modern world no longer find creation stories and religiously based morality credible, or when globalization brings ever more people into contact with others who do not share their religious world views?  So, for example, how do we resolve the conflicts that arise when radical Islamists declare holy war against the infidels, because they believe that they are fighting the Last Battle that will bring the end of history?

Among the proponents of big history, Fred Spier has begun to argue that big history must include the big history of morality, and that this might support a scientifically grounded view of morality.  Spier's writing on this include a few passages in his Big History and the Future of Humanity (2015a), his unpublished paper on "Morality in Big History" (2015b), and a published article on "Pursuing the Pursuit of Happiness: Delving into the Secret Minds of the American Founding Fathers" (Social Evolution & History, vol. 12, no. 2, September 2013, pp. 156-182). 

Although Spier and I disagree on some points, I am interested in his reasoning,  because it sounds a lot like what I have long argued for--a biological ethics rooted in human nature as shaped by evolutionary history.

In considering how morality could be derived from nature, Spier has looked to Paul-Henri Thiry Baron d'Holbach (1723-1789), who was a French atheist philosopher of German descent, who led a famous salon in Paris where many of the leaders of the Enlightenment met for discussions.  In his book Systeme de la nature (1770), he argued that an atheistic morality could be rooted in the natural pursuit of happiness, because people could recognize that living a virtuous life in cooperation with others was necessary for one's happiness.  Spier thinks there is some evidence that Thomas Jefferson's appeal to the "pursuit of happiness" as a natural right in the Declaration of Independence shows the influence of d'Holbach's writing.

If we define moral rules as the rules for the successful cooperation necessary for the pursuit of happiness, Spier argues, then we can see the big history of morality as beginning with the first forms of social cooperation among living beings.  The evolution of cooperation for improving survival and reproduction might have emerged more than 3.5 billion years ago, when single-celled microorganisms gained some advantage in the struggle for survival by hanging together.

The oldest fossil evidence of life is stromatolite fossils.  A stromatolite (literally, ‘layered rock’) is a solid structure created by single-celled microbes called cyanobacteria (blue-green algae). The photosynthesizing cyanobacteria form colonies and trap sediment with their sticky surface coatings. The trapped sediment reacts to calcium carbonate in the water to form limestone. 

Microbial mats can still be seen today in places like Shark's Bay in Western Australia.  Hanging together allows these microorganisms to stick to the rocks in shallow sea water without being washed away by the tides.  By hanging together, these microorganisms are cooperating with one another for their mutual benefit.  And while we might not see this as morality in the strict sense, Spier observes, we might see this as at least "incipient moral behavior" (2015b, 20).

Cooperation requires communication, so that organisms can coordinate their behavior.  Microorganisms, plants, and animals use chemical signals to do this.  Animals with brains and nervous systems can create mental images of their physical and social environments through which they can form social rules of cooperation.  Through language, human beings can create and communicate complex cultural rules of cooperation.  Like other social animals, human beings cannot survive and reproduce successfully without learning the rules of cooperation and competition developed within their social groups.  Ultimately, their motivation to do this is their desire for happiness.

Spier surmises that there must be some form of chemical reward for cooperation that supports feelings of happiness.  He notes that some scientists have reported that a neurotransmitter called hypocretin increases when people are happy and decreases when they are sad.  He wonders whether this chemical signal could be a biological reward for doing the right thing, and if it is very old, this could be the ancient biochemical mechanism for the pursuit of happiness, which might have appeared first among microorganisms (2015b, 21-22).

Spier's reference to the neuropeptide hypocretin is remarkable to me, because the other common name for this neuropeptide is orexin.  This word was coined in 1998 from the Greek word orexis, a Greek noun for "desire" or "appetite" that was coined by Aristotle from the Greek verb orego, which means "to reach out."  Desire, Aristotle thought, was the mind's "reaching out" for something in the world.  For Aristotle, in The Movement of Animals, desire is the general term for all kinds of longing or striving, including physical appetites, social emotions, and intellectual yearnings.  I have used the word "desire" in the same way as a general term for all kinds of psychic impulse or inclination.  With that sense in mind, I have defended a natural morality of informed desire: the good is the desirable, and reason judges how best to satisfy the desires in the most harmonious way over a whole life.  There are at least 20 desires of evolved human nature, and so we can judge our moral standards for how well they satisfy those desires.

Spier points in this direction when he refers to "standards of desired, or at least acceptable, behavior", "desirable standards of conduct," and moral standards judged as "the most desirable" (2015b, 8, 20, 29).

In their voluntary activity, animals move to satisfy their desires in the light of their information about opportunities and threats in their particular circumstances.  Like other animals, human beings move to satisfy their desires in the light of their information about the world  They have a natural range of desires that they share as members of the human species and that distinguish them from other animals.  The human pattern of desires includes appetitive desires such as hunger and sexual lust, social desires such as anger, love, and honor, and intellectual desires such as curiosity and wonder.

Human beings have uniquely human capacities for language and deliberation that allow them to gather and assess information about the past, the present, and the projected future, so that they can consciously formulate long-term plans of action based on their conceptions of happiness (a whole life well-lived).  Big history is part of this, because a scientific history of everything from the beginning of the universe could help human beings to plan for the future in the pursuit of happiness.

So, for example, Spier thinks big history can help us to see that the future happiness of humanity depends upon an environmentalist morality of sustainable development for the Earth.  If preserving the human species and human civilization depends upon the availability of matter and energy to support the complex order of human life, and if human beings are now nearing the exhaustion of the nonrenewable resources of matter and energy necessary for human life, then the most critical moral question today is whether human beings on planet Earth can learn to cooperate in reaching environmental sustainability based on renewable energy sources.

I am not persuaded, however, that Spier's environmentalist pessimism is plausible.  And I will explain why in a future post.


Anonymous said...

I'm a longtime reader of your blog, but I think that when you discuss morality, you make a couple of uncharacteristic foundational errors that I hope you will address.

You state your abbreviated natural morality of informed desire as “the good is the desirable, and reason judges how best to satisfy the desires in the most harmonious way over a whole life.”

The foundational error is in the very first clause that the good is desirable. This statement fails to sufficiently grapple with the fact that the sole reason anything is “desirable” is because the capacity to be motivated to obtain the “desirable” was beneficial for the survival and reproduction of individuals who had that capacity, despite the nutritional, cognitive, or other necessary costs, in the environment in which that desire evolved. Since the “desirable” exist only as proxies for survival and reproduction within a specific context, why is the good the desirable instead of simply survival and reproduction being the “good”?

There are many examples of innate desires, the fulfillment of which will result in reduced evolutionary fitness for individuals in the context of a prosperous industrial society: a desire to attain a high socially-sanctioned status may result in the delaying or rejection of childbirth; a desire to obtain the pleasurable feelings associated with being drunk without an ability to effectively digest alcohol may result in high rates of alcoholism or birth disorders; desire for sweet tasting food may result in bad teeth or disease.

Your qualifier that “reason be used to best satisfy those desires in the most harmonious way over a whole life” can only be used to address the evolutionary fitness costs of the latter two of the scenarios I presented, but not the first. This is because you use “harmonious” to refer to the resolution of conflicting desires within an individual and among individuals, but not the conflict between the fulfillment of desires and the evolutionary fitness of the individual in a new environment.

Any proposal to base morality, government, or some other individual or social regulating mechanism, on the basis that these rules best serve our innate evolved desires must address the fact that the fulfillment, or the attempt to fulfill, those innate desire, in the way that you advocate, may actually harm the survival and reproduction of the individual, the society, and possibly the species itself due to the differences between the contemporary environment and the environment under which evolution acted to create these desires. If these desires no longer serve their original purpose as proxies for survival and reproduction, why are we basing our society on the fulfillment of these desires? Do we follow the governance framework you have outlined even if it leads to our extinction? Or if it leads to the dominance of other groups of humans that hold a governance framework which we may strongly dislike but which is more successful for survival and reproduction in the current environment?

My suspicion is that you have thought about this dilemma before, but have realized that if the “good” is defined as survival and reproduction, then basically anything goes and almost anything can be justified. That conclusion is true and correct and is the reason why so much ink has been spilled justifying this or that thing as the “good,” and why all such justifications, I think, rest inevitably on a cloud of omissions and logical errors.

Larry Arnhart said...

I am planning to write a post on the behavioral ecology of the demographic transition, which might respond to some of your thinking here.