Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"What Darwin Never Knew": A PBS Program on Evo Devo

The celebration this year of the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of Species has stirred debate over Darwin's legacy. His supporters praise him as a scientist who formulated one of the greatest ideas ever conceived--the theory of evolution. But some people have complained that this exaggerates his importance and ignores the fact that Darwin was largely ignorant of how evolution works, and that subsequent research was required to explain evolutionary mechanisms and overcome Darwin's ignorance. Moreover, Darwin's critics--proponents of creationism and intelligent design theory--have argued that scientific research over the past century has actually refuted Darwin's ideas.

A good contribution to this debate is the PBS television network broadcast last night (December 29) of a two-hour documentary on "What Darwin Never Knew." This is one of the best television documentaries on evolutionary science that I have ever seen. You can view the entire program online at the PBS website, which includes links to related material.

As the title of the documentary indicates, it concedes that Darwin really was remarkably ignorant of exactly how the evolution of species works, particularly at the genetic level. But the documentary also shows how the latest research in evolutionary science works within the basic ideas set forth by Darwin, even as it fills in all the details that Darwin did not know. And thus it denies the claims of the intelligent design creationists that science has refuted Darwin's theory of evolution.

Of course, a two-hour popular science documentary on such a vast area of research has to be simplified and selective. This documentary concentrates on the research in "Evo Devo"--evolutionary developmental biology--particularly as presented in some books by Sean Carroll, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The question is how to explain the remarkable diversity of animal life forms, and particularly, how to explain the diversity of animal species from ancestral species. We might assume that the diverse forms of animal bodies must arise from radically different genes. So, for example, we might think that the wing of a fly and the arm of a human being require radically different genes. In fact, however, the "tool kit genes" for building animal bodies are remarkably similar across all animals. This became apparent when the human genome project showed that human beings have only about 22,000 genes, which is about the same number as other animals.

The differences between animal species come not from differences in their "tool kit genes" but differences in their "genetic switches," which are devices in DNA that tell tool kit genes when, where, and how to act. The gene controlling the formation of a fly's wing is the same as the gene controlling the formation of a human arm. The difference arises during embryonic development as regulatory genes turn the other genes on and off at different times and places in the body.

The beauty of this explanation is that it allows us to explain the origin of new species. Small changes in the timing and pace of these genetic switches can lead to the evolutionary development of new species. So, for example, a fish with fins can evolve into a fish with primitive legs for crawling onto land, when small changes in the genetic switches move from creating fins to creating legs.

This same evolutionary mechanism can explain what makes us uniquely human, with our human capacities for thinking, feeling, and acting. Our human uniqueness depends on the uniqueness of our brains in their size and complexity. The evolution of those brains from smaller and simpler primate brains could arise from evolutionary changes in the genetic regulation of the development of primate brains and nervous systems.

This provides an account of the genetic mechanisms of brain evolution behind what I have called "the emergent evolution of the soul in the brain." The highest human mental capacities--like those for science, religion, and art--arise from human brains that have emerged from primate brain evolution as those brains have passed through ever higher levels of size and organization.

A report on some of the recent research on differences in gene regulatory networks in the brains of chimps and humans can be found here.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Darwinian Ethics and the Moral History of 20th Century Barbarism

As I have indicated in a previous post, I agree with E. O. Wilson that the debate over the origins of ethics is ultimately between transcendentalists and empiricists, and that Darwinian science supports the empiricists. The transcendentalists believe that moral standards arise outside the human mind in some cosmic moral order of God, Nature, or Reason. The empiricists believe that moral standards arise as products of the human mind as shaped by moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments.

In many posts, particularly over the last six months, I have responded to the warning of the transcendentalists (from Plato to Kant to the later Nietzsche) that denying a cosmic moral law--the "death of God"--makes morality impossible and thus brings a collapse into nihilism. This warning might seem to have been confirmed by the moral history of the twentieth century. As I have suggested in a previous post, Jonathan Glover's book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century is an indispensable study of the immoral brutality of the 20th century and an attempt to defend an empiricist view of morality against the transcendentalist claim that such brutality is the inevitable consequence of denying cosmic moral law.

Proponents of Darwinian ethics like Marc Hauser and have shown how scientific research using game theory and artificial moral dilemmas (like the "trolley problem") can support the moral psychology of Darwinian ethics. But such attempts to design laboratory models of moral choice are too contrived and artificial in their abstraction to capture the concrete complexity of real people making real choices in the real world. The ultimate test of Darwinian ethics is to see whether it can account for the real moral psychology of human experience. And for that, we need Darwinian moral history. Glover's book is a big step in that direction, because it provides an empirical moral history, although he does not see how this confirms Darwinian moral psychology.

Glover writes his history as a response to "Nietzsche's challenge"--if we reject the "idea of a moral law external to us," does that mean the collapse of morality in the face of nihilism and the rule of the stronger (11)? Glover's answer to this challenge is "ethics humanized": "If there is no external moral law, morality needs to be humanized: to be rooted in human needs and human values" (405-406). The question then is whether such a purely empirical ethics of human design can be sustained against the brutal history of the 20th century--from Stalin to Hitler to Mao to Pol Pot to Slobodan Milosevic. I agree with Glover's answer, but I think his answer would be stronger if it were framed in the context of Darwinian ethics.

Glover shows how the history of the 20th century illustrates the three great sources of cruelty: war, tribalism, and Belief. He uses "Belief" with a capital B to designate transcendent beliefs--religious or quasi-religious--that are taken as articles of faith beyond question. For Glover, the cruelty of modern war is manifested in trench warfare and the British naval blockade of Germany in World War I, in the area bombing of Germany and Japan and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, and in the atrocities of the Vietnam War. The cruelty of tribalism is manifested in the tribal conflicts in Rwanda and in the conflicts between Serbians, Croatians, and Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia after the death of Tito. The cruelty of Belief is manifested in the regimes shaped by the utopian ideologies of Marxism (Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot) and Nazism.

Glover also recognizes that the cruelty of war, tribalism, and ideological belief systems usually depends on the work of ambitious politicians who use war, tribalism, and utopian ideology as instruments for their Machiavellian power-seeking (123-28, 132). This points to the need for institutional structures of countervailing power so that ambition counteracts ambition.

War and tribalism show that there is a "moral gap" in the moral restraints on cruelty, because "outside the boundaries of a single community, both self-interest and the moral resources have serious limitations" (28). Although Glover is reluctant to embrace a sociobiological explanation of the innate propensity to group conflict, he does actually accept the idea that human moral psychology has been shaped by evolutionary group selection that favors group conflict (41, 140-44). And yet he thinks that such group conflict can at least be moderated by extending our moral emotions of sympathy and by recognizing the long-term advantages in cultivating cooperation between groups and nations.

Glover thinks that the final solution to the cruelty of military and tribal conflict would be a "proper world police force" to act as a global Leviathan to enforce an international rule of law (149). But Glover never explains how this could be done without risking global tyranny. In at least one passage, he recognizes the problem: "The Hobbesian trap of mutual fear suggests the Hobbesian solution. To police the global village, we could create Leviathan. We could all agree to submit to the power of the strongest. In the world after the Cold War, the emerging approximation to Pax Americana is a bit like this. But the Hobbesian solution has always been a second best. There is no justice in an inequality of power based on mere strength. The power may be used altruistically and wisely. It may also be used selfishly and at whim. And there are dangers in giving anyone total power" (225).

A Darwinian view of evolved human nature would suggest that military and tribal conflicts are inevitable, although we can look for ways to foster cooperative solutions to our conflicts. Such a view would warn against any utopian vision of perpetual peace through an international Leviathan as a recipe for tyranny.

Of course, the critics of Darwinian ethics like to tell the story of how Social Darwinism shaped Nazism to confirm their claim that Darwinism necessarily subverts healthy morality and promotes the immoral cruelty of "survival of the fittest." Glover tells that story. But he also shows that the story of Nazi Social Darwinism is not the whole story of Nazism, because it fails to explain the transcendental appeal of Nazism as a utopian ideology of communitarian morality that gave meaning and purpose to the lives of those who embraced it.

I will elaborate this last point in my next post.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Robert George's Kantian Catholic Conservatism

The New York Times has published a long article on Robert George and his influence with American conservative Catholics and the Republican Party. George is a prominent professor of politics at Princeton University, who is best known as a proponent of John Finnis's "new natural law." Politically, he is best known as a staunch advocate of conservative Catholicism in American politics and a devoted supporter of George Bush's policies.

From my reading of George's writings, this article is remarkably accurate in surveying George's thought. As the article indicates, George is especially devoted to the claim that "reason alone" proves that abortion, embryonic stem cell research, heterosexual sodomy, and homosexual sex are immoral. Reason alone teaches us that marriage is self-evidently good only when it becomes a "one-flesh union" through vaginal intercourse. When a married heterosexual couple engage in any sexual activity other than vaginal intercourse, this is sodomy, and "reason alone" tells us that this is immoral.

George distinguishes between those moral judgments that are self-evident from those that are not. The evil of abortion is self-evident. But the evil of capital punishment is not. So, George concludes, Catholics can reasonably disagree with the Church on the second issue but not the first. He says this despite the fact that the Church has condemned both abortion and capital punishment as part of the "culture of death."

George's appeal to "reason alone" puts him in opposition not only to my conception of Darwinian natural right, but also to traditional natural law thought and many traditions of Christian theology.

According to George, the great debate in moral philosophy is between Aristotle and Hume. Aristotle stands at the head of the tradition of thought that says that there is an objective moral order that is grasped by the authority of reason alone, which must then rule over the passions. This Aristotelian tradition includes Thomas Aquinas and natural law thought. David Hume stands at the head of the opposing tradition that says that reason alone cannot rule, because the passions must motivate human action. According to George, the appeal to pure reason as a source of moral guidance does not require any appeal to the facts of human nature and history, because moral truth rests on principles that are grasped by pure logic as self-evidently true with no regard for nature or history.

I disagree with this on many points. I agree with Hume that morality requires a combination of reason and passion. Passion or emotion provides the motivational direction for moral experience, although reason can elicit or direct emotion based on judgments about the circumstances of action. Pure reason alone cannot move us to action. Both our reason and our emotions reflect the facts of our human nature and history, and therefore moral experience depends on the nature and history of human life.

I also disagree with George in his claim that his reliance on pure reason is Aristotelian. After all, Aristotle is clear in declaring that "thought by itself moves nothing." Human morality requires a combination of reason and desire in practical experience. This is clear in Aristotle's On the Movement of Animals. I see that same combination of reason and desire in Aquinas, who roots natural law in the "natural inclinations" of human beings.

Far from belonging to the philosophical tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas, George actually belongs to the rationalist tradition of Immanuel Kant, who insisted that morality rested on pure imperatives of logic with no reference to human nature or human desires.

If morality is rooted in human nature, then Darwinian science can clarify our moral psychology by explaining how our moral experience is grounded in the biological reality of the human mind and body as directed to moral goods. So, for example, we cannot judge sexual morality without some understanding of our nature as sexual animals with natural desires for sexual identity, sexual mating, parental care, and familial bonding.

By contrast, George insists that knowing the "human goods" is a matter of self-evident reasoning that is totally abstracted from any knowledge of human nature. I find that incomprehensible. How can we know what is good for human beings without considering what human beings are like? In fact, George admits that this reliance on pure reason alone is the one point where he is uncertain. "This is a serious issue, and if I am wrong, this is where I am wrong." "I just hope I am right." But if his position really is self-evidently true, why should he have any doubt at all?

As the article indicates, George's Kantian Catholicism clashes not only with my Darwinian ethics, but also with traditional natural law and many lines of Christian theology. Traditional natural law--like that elaborated by Aquinas--recognizes the importance of human reason, but it also recognizes that natural law must be founded in the natural inclinations of the human animal. As Aquinas said, "natural right is that which nature has taught all animals." By contrast, George's Kantian natural law is natural law without nature.

George's Kantian Catholicism is also opposed to the theology of original sin, particularly as understood by many Protestant Christians. George's Kantian rationalism assumes that human reason can grasp the fundamental principles of morality by pure logic alone. But many Christians would say that because of original sin, human reason is defective as a moral guide, and that's why we need Revelation to teach us what is right and wrong.

Even someone like Carson Holloway, who has been a fellow at George's James Madison Program at Princeton, would have to disagree with George's Kantian rationalism, because Holloway would say that our moral knowledge requires religious belief.

We might dismiss all of this as just another philosophical debate with no practical effects on real life. But as this article makes clear, George has become the leader of a powerful political movement uniting conservative Catholics and Evangelical Christians working to control the future of the Republican Party and American politics generally.

Some of my posts on "Darwinian natural law" can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Prudence or Transcendence?--A Reply to Carson Holloway

Carson Holloway is a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He earned his Ph.D. at Northern Illinois University, where I had the great pleasure of being one of his teachers. As often happens with good students, he challenged his teachers; and in particular, he has made disagreeing with me a big part of his career. His book The Right Darwin? is a critique of my Darwinian Natural Right. He has edited a book criticizing my article "Statesmanship as Magnanimity: Classical, Christian, and Modern." And he has written a critical response to Darwinian Conservatism as a contributor to Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question.

Now he has written two articles on Darwinian political thought for the Witherspoon Institute, which can be found here and here. In criticizing the political interpretations of Darwinism, he compares the Darwinian Left as represented by John Dewey and Peter Singer and the Darwinian Right as represented by William Graham Sumner and me.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, Dewey delivered a lecture on "The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy." Holloway takes this lecture as the best statement of Dewey's Darwinian thought. According to Dewey in this lecture, Darwin exerted his greatest influence by refuting Aristotelian teleology. Aristotle believed that nature conformed to a rational design such that each thing served some purpose in the order of the universe, but Darwin showed that species evolved through the struggle for existence without any preordained plan or purpose. Therefore, Dewey argues, if we accept Darwinian biology, we have to reject Aristotelian political thought as it rests on an unscientific view of nature.

Holloway seems to accept Dewey's claim that Darwin necessarily denied all forms of teleology. I don't agree. On the centennial anniversary of Darwin's Origin, John Herman Randall delivered a lecture on "The Changing Impact of Darwin on Philosophy." Contrary to Dewey, Randall concluded that, as a result of Darwin's influence, "nature is once more for us, as for the Greeks, full of implicit ends and ideals." Randall argued, "When Darwin led men to take biology seriously once more, they had to reintroduce these functional concepts that physicists had forgotten--means and ends, function, teleology, and time." Obviously, there is confusion among Darwin's interpreters as to whether evolutionary biology denies Aristotelian teleology (as Dewey says) or confirms it (as Randall says).

I have argued that to clear up this confusion, we need to see that while Darwin denied cosmic teleology, he affirmed immanent teleology. The natural evolution of living beings does not conform to any cosmic design. But that natural evolution does produce species that show an internal teleology in being directed to ends or goals. For example, a mammalian species is naturally adapted for parental care, so that mothers caring for their offspring can be explained teleologically as goal-directed behavior. Such species-specific, immanent teleology is the only kind of teleology that Aristotle saw in the living world, and modern biology confirms such Aristotelian teleology.

Holloway is not satisfied with such immanent teleology, however, because he is a metaphysical conservative who believes that the moral order of the universe requires what he has called "religiously-informed cosmic teleology." Although this is not explicitly stated in these two Witherspoon Institute articles, it's clearly stated in Holloway's other writings.

Although Holloway agrees with me that Darwinian science might go far in explaining the range of natural human desires, he argues that this cannot explain human morality, because moral choice requires a ranking of desires--preferring some as good and rejecting others as bad--which requires normative principles that go beyond empirical science.

I have argued that a full Darwinian account of morality requires understanding the complex interaction between natural moral sentiments, customary moral traditions, and individual moral judgments. So, for example, to understand the moral order of property in human life, we need to explain not only the natural propensities to property, but also the customary traditions of property claims and the formal laws of property rights. Resolving conflicts over property or conflicts between the desire for property and other desires requires prudence or practical judgment in deciding what is best for particular individuals or particular societies in particular circumstances. Natural human desires or propensities constrain but do not specify how property is to be defined or arranged in specific cases. I elaborate this point in my chapter on property in Darwinian Conservatism.

This appeal to human prudence is not enough for Holloway, because he believes that morality is impossible without some appeal to a transhuman, cosmic principle of goodness grounded in the divine. In his contribution to the Disputed Question book, he insists that a Darwinian morality of human nature cannot provide any ranking of our natural desires that allows us to choose the good over the bad. "Our ability to distinguish between the good and the bad in human nature depends on some principle that somehow transcends human nature itself. It is this higher source of principle that the older version of natural law could supply and that Darwinian conservatism cannot" (l67).

What is this "principle that somehow transcends human nature"? Holloway is not clear about this. But as far as I can tell, it's the Biblical principle of universal love based on the equal dignity of all human beings as created by God in His image. As I have indicated in my various responses to Holloway, I don't think he has gone far enough in explaining exactly what this principle means, how it is derived from the Bible, why he expects all human beings to live by it, and how it would guide our particular moral decisions.

Does universal love require an absolutely indiscriminate humanitarianism--so that we would love all human beings equally without any partiality at all for those close to us? Would this require absolute pacifism as an expression of the "love your enemies" teaching? Would this require the abolition of private property and private families? Are the Christian socialists and pacifists correct in their interpretation of universal love?

Or would Holloway concede that these positions would go against human nature? But how could he make this concession without falling back into the Darwinian naturalism that he wants to reject?

My elaboration of some of these points in other posts can be found here, here, here., and here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Do Human Rights Require Religious Beliefs?

What difference would it make if we accepted what Bernard Williams has called "Nietzsche's thought"--"there is, not only no God, but no metaphysical order of any kind"?

One consequence, Nietzsche suggested, is that we could no longer believe that human beings were created by God in His Image and thus endowed with equal dignity. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote: "The masses blink and say: 'We are all equal.--Man is but man, before God--we are all equal.' Before God! But now this God has died." The modern morality of human equality is secularized Christian morality that cannot be continued after the death of God.

Does this mean, then, that we could no longer hold it to be self-evident that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights? In the second half of the 20th century, the morality of human rights emerged as the first global morality. But if that morality depends on the religious idea of the sacredness of human life, how can we hold onto that morality if we reject its religious foundation?

Some atheists will respond that even without religious foundations, we can appeal to principles of nature or reason as the ground for the true and the good. But if Nietzsche is right, the death of God means not just the death of the Biblical God but the death of all metaphysical order, and thus the death of the whole Platonic tradition of philosophy as the highest human good. If there is no metaphysical order, then there would seem to be no metaphysical foundation for either the moral life or the philosophic life.

These are the questions raised by Michael J. Perry in his book Toward a Theory of Human Rights (2007), which restates the arguments of an earlier book The Idea of Human Rights (1998). Perry argues that the idea of human rights makes sense if we believe that all human beings have equal dignity because of the sacredness of human life as created by God. But if we deny this religious belief and accept the modern secular idea that the universe has no ultimate meaning--that human life was not created to fulfill any cosmic purpose--then we have no good reason to believe in human rights, and the only standards of conduct and thought are those created arbitrarily by human will. So Perry asks: "For one who believes that the universe is utterly bereft of transcendent meaning, why--in virtue of what--is it the case that every human being has inherent dignity?"(17). If we have no answer to that question, Perry insists, then we have no answer to those human beings who assert that they have the right to exploit and abuse other human beings because what we call right is really just the rule of the stronger.

The various responses to Perry's argument--attempts to provide a purely secular justification for human rights--are surveyed in Ari Kohen's In Defense of Human Rights: A Non-religious Grounding in a Pluralistic World (2007). Kohen's book is of special interest to me because he tries to show that a Darwinian evolutionary view of human nature can support the idea of human rights. Of course, this goes against the common view--taken by Perry--that evolutionary science subverts any belief in human rights, or any stable morality, by denying that there is any objective moral order in the universe.

To show how the idea of equal human rights based on equal human dignity arises from Christianity, Perry imagines a religious believer named Sarah who follows the commandment of Jesus to "love one another . . . just as I have loved you" (John 13:34). She sees this teaching elaborating in many more scriptural passages, for example: "We are well aware that we have passed over from death to life because we love our brothers. Whosoever does not love, remains in death" (1 John 3:14). She sees the fundamental teaching of Jesus as universal love, which includes loving your enemies (Matthew 5:44). Consequently, "Sarah loves even those who have violated her, who have failed to respect her inherent dignity" (10).

Sarah interprets this teaching of universal love as supporting an egalitarian humanitarianism expressed as universal human rights. We serve God by serving our fellow human beings as children of God. We give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, and care to the sick. In loving one another equally, we love God (153). If we do this, we will be rewarded with eternal life at the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46).

Perry concedes that religious belief is not necessary for being good, because obviously many people with no religious belief are good, and many religious believers are not good. Perry insists, however, that religious belief is necessary if we are to show morality to be "rationally justifiable" as founded on some cosmic ground, on some conception of the universe as meaningful. For the universe to be meaningful, it must satisfy our "deepest yearnings for "ultimate relationships, ultimate belonging" (16). In other words, not only must the universe be orderly, but also that order must be the work of a divinely omnipotent person who cares for us and thus provides for our dignified existence.

Against Perry's claim that the morality of human rights depends on a religious belief in the sacredness of human life, Ronald Dworkin has asserted that "there is a secular as well as a religious interpretation of the idea that human life is sacred," because although sacredness is associated with the religious idea of holiness, the sacredness of human life can be held as a "secular but deep philosophical belief." But Perry rejects this by arguing that Dworkin's "secular sacredness" assumes a universal human consensus on valuing human life, which doesn't exist, because obviously some human beings don't treat other human beings as having supreme value (21). Moreover, even if most of us value human life, that doesn't give it the sacred value that comes from God. It is not enough that other human beings have "value to me," because this will not give them the sacredness that comes from their having "value to God" (19). We need to see the value of human life as conforming to some cosmic standard. If value is to be something more than mere human preference, we need to believe "that the world has a normative order" (28).

To argue that we highly value human life, Perry insists, is not the same as saying that human life really has intrinsic value as measured by an external, unchanging, cosmic standard of meaning--so that the sacredness of human life is grounded in a cosmic order in which human beings are elevated above all other creatures. Here, again, Perry agrees with Nietzsche, who writes: "Naivete: as if morality could survive when the God who sanctions it is missing! The 'beyond' absolutely necessary if faith in morality is to be maintained" (23).

The failure to provide a cosmic standard of value is also why Perry rejects the positions of Martha Nussbaum and Richard Rorty, who say that human rights rest upon human sympathy and solidarity. Nussbaum and Rorty believe that the lives of human beings have value in so far as we care for them. The idea of human rights is promoted by extending our moral sentiments to embrace ever wider circles of humanity.

Perry objects to this sentimental morality that although normal human beings--those who are not psychopaths--do care for some other human beings, particularly those of their family or tribe, it is not true that normal human beings care for all other human beings equally and impartially (22).

This same objection applies to evolutionary accounts of morality as rooted in human sociality and moral sentiments. Evolutionary science produces "a cosmic process bereft of ultimate meaning," because "far from being created 'in the image of God,' human beings are merely the unplanned, unintended yield of random mutation and natural selection" (24). An evolved human nature supports "social nature" but not universal love. Perry explains: "Few would deny that the social nature of human beings is such that a person who is part of a network of loving family and friends is better off in consequence thereof than one who is not. But this is a far cry from claiming that the evolved nature of human beings is such that being a person who 'loves one another just as I have loved you' (in the radical sense of 'one another') is the most deeply satisfying way of which human beings are capable" (25).

There are, however, some serious weaknesses in Perry's reasoning. First of all, Perry admits that "the plausibility of religious faith" is "a question well beyond the scope of this book" (161). But how can a religious metaphysics make morality "rationally justifiable" if the "plausibility of religious faith" is itself not "rationally justifiable"?

Even if we set aside that problem, he hasn't made a good case for his claim that religious belief necessarily supports a morality of universal love or egalitarian humanitarianism. He admits that in practice, much of the history of religion is a history of brutality. But he would say that this comes from the failure of believers to live up to the true teaching of their religion.

What is that true religious teaching? Perry looks to the Bible. Although he implies that other religious traditions also teach universal love, he restricts himself to biblical religion. Even here, however, he restricts himself to the New Testament. The Old Testament would be a problem for him, because it teaches that God has a "chosen people," who commit bloody atrocities against their enemies in waging holy wars commanded by God.

The New Testament seems more supportive of the universal love ethic that Perry favors. But even here, Perry has to be careful to pass over in silence the New Testament teachings contrary to universal love. Sarah quotes 1 John 3:14--"we love our brothers." But she does not cite the verse in this same chapter of the biblical text that distinguishes "the children of God" from "the children of the devil." This comes in the context of the warning against the "Antichrist" and those who follow him. These letters of John are followed by the last book of the New Testament--Revelation--which prophesizes a bloody apocalyptic war between the believers and the unbelievers.

Only once does Perry quote the New Testament teaching about the Last Judgment (153). When he does this, he does not comment on the in-group/out-group psychology of this teaching. Jesus says that God will separate the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be given eternal life, while the goats will go away to eternal punishment (Matthew 25:31-46). Doesn't this look more like Christian tribalism than universal love?

Sarah interprets the "love your enemies" teaching to mean that she should love even those who violate her and thus deny her inherent dignity. Does this mean that the morality of human rights as based on universal love prohibits any punishment or coercion of those who violate human rights? If so, this contradicts Perry's claim that we must "coerce others, and perhaps even, at the limit, kill others, in the name of protecting the inherent dignity of human beings" (28). If universal love means absolute pacifism, then it cannot support the use of coercion or violence to enforce human rights. But, as President Obama reminded us recently in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, such Christian pacifism would not have stopped Hitler's armies.

Another fundamental problem with Perry's argument is that it has no support in any of the major documents of human rights beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unlike the American Declaration of Independence, which invokes "Nature's God" and the divine creation of humanity, and unlike the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which appeals to the "sacred rights of man" and the "auspices of the Supreme Being," the Universal Declaration never refers to God and never uses the word "sacred." In fact, the drafters of the Universal Declaration debated proposals to include language about divine creation, and they rejected such language. So, clearly, they believed that the "inherent dignity" of humanity could stand on its own without any reliance on the "sacred." Moreover, in speaking about how "barbarous acts . . . have outraged the conscience of mankind," the Universal Declaration seemed to invoke the sort of moral sentiments of sympathy and concern identified by people like Nussbaum and Rorty as the basis for human rights.

As I have indicated in another post, the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights (ratified by the UN in 1998) declares that "the human genome underlies the fundamental unity of all members of the human family, as well as the recognition of their inherent dignity and diversity," and it identifies this human genome as a product of natural evolution. So here it is clearly indicated that the inherent dignity of humanity arises not from divine creation but from natural genetic evolution.

One product of human evolution is sympathy and the moral emotions of approval and disapproval. We can try to ground our morality in metaphysical principles--God, Nature, or Reason; and we can argue, as Nietzsche and Perry do, that without such metaphysical foundations, morality is unjustified. But it's hard for me to see how such purely metaphysical principles could sustain morality--including the morality of human rights--without the motivational power of moral emotions.

The behavior of human rights activists confirms this. Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch elicit support for their human rights campaigns through a rhetoric of emotional persuasion. They tell stories or show us pictures of human cruelty to particular human victims. The more disturbing and vivid the stories and the pictures of cruelty, the more likely we are to feel some identification and thus sympathy with the victims. We then feel outrage against the perpetrators of such cruelty, and we want them to be stopped and perhaps punished.

William Schulz is the former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA. In his book In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All, he dismisses appeals to God or Nature or Reason as insufficient to sustain the morality of human rights. Instead, he agrees with Richard Rorty in relying on David Hume's insight that morality depends on sympathy and the moral emotions that incline us to care for our fellow human beings.

Drawing from his own experience as a human rights campaigner, Schulz tells some stories of the cruelty against which he has fought--like the story of the Salvadoran soldiers who practiced "dewombing"--"a pregnant woman was killed, her fetus ripped from her womb and tossed into the air, to be caught by the soldiers on bayonets." He writes:

"Whenever I hear stories like this, I am, as I think most people would be, both heart stricken for the victims and repulsed by the cruelty. Why do I have those reactions?

"I am stricken at heart because I have the imagination to know at least in proximate form what the experience, the pain, must have felt like. I am stricken at heart because at some level I identify with the victims; I know what it is to bleed" (23).

He goes on to say:

"Robert Frost once observed that poems begin with a lump in the throat, and I think human rights do too. . . . far better than by appeals to God or Nature, is to point to the capacity to identify with others, the capacity for human empathy or solidarity. This is a capacity of such richness and complexity that something like it, at least concerning mothers and children, is required for the propagation of the species. Children in our own culture as young as one have been known to evidence it, and some ethologists even believe it can be identified in animals. It is a phenomenon so widespread, if not universal, that we can hardly imagine a society without it" (24).

But notice the implications of this. This view of morality as rooted in the moral emotions of evolved human nature does not appeal to any metaphysical "beyond" for cosmic support. Those like Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, and Perry would say that without such a metaphysical foundation, morality is impossible. Those analytic philosophers today who look to pure logic to prove the principles of moral obligation as inherent in the logical order of things continue in this Platonic tradition. Against this tradition of metaphysical morality, the appeal to moral emotions assumes a Humean tradition of empirical morality.

In his appendix on "moral sentiment" in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume wrote:

"Thus the distinct boundaries and offices of reason and of taste are easily ascertained. The former conveys the knowledge of truth and falsehood: The latter gives the sentiment of beauty and deformity, vice and virtue. The one discovers objects, as they really stand in nature, without addition or diminution: The other has a productive faculty, and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises, in a manner, a new creation. Reason, being cool and disengaged, is no motive to action, and directs only the impulse received from appetite or inclination, by showing us the means of attaining happiness or avoiding misery: Taste, as it give pleasure or pain, and thereby constitutes happiness or misery, becomes a motive to action, and is the first spring or impulse to desire and volition. From circumstances and relations, known or supposed, the former leads us to the discovery of the concealed and unknown: After all circumstances and relations are laid before us, the latter makes us feel from the whole a new sentiment of blame or approbation. The standard of the one, being founded on the nature of things, is eternal and inflexible, even by the will of the Supreme Being: The standard of the other, arising from the internal frame and constitution of animals, is ultimately derived from that Supreme Will, which bestowed on each being its peculiar nature, and arranged the several classes and orders of existence."

In debates over human rights and morality generally, we need reason to gather the information relevant to our moral choices. Often, the most contentious issues concern rational disagreements over the facts of the case--factual issues as to who did what to whom and why. But once reason has judged the facts, we need the internal moral sentiments to decide whether we approve or disapprove of what we see. Reason can look to "the nature of things." But sentiment draws its standard from "the internal frame and constitution of animals." Because we are the kind of animal that we are, we paint our world with the colors of our moral emotions. Darwin adopted this Humean view of the moral sentiments, while explaining how the "internal frame and constitution of animals" could have evolved naturally.

Consider my previous posts on female circumcision in Africa as an illustration of how the morality of human rights works. As far as I know, the women in Senegal who decided to abolish female circumcision for their daughters didn't reach this decision because they were converted to some religous belief in the equal sacredness of human beings as created in God's Image. They reached this decision through some understanding of the consequences of female circumcision, feelings of concern for the welfare of their daughters, and some practical judgment about how they might organize their reform to ensure that their daughters could get married without being circumcized.

There is a foundation for human dignity, but it's not a transcendent or transhuman foundation--God, Nature, or Reason--but the empirical foundation of evolved human nature as the source of sympathy and the moral sense. We see this in practical arguments over human rights when the proponents of human rights employ not metaphysical reasoning about cosmic principles but rhetorical persuasion to evoke moral emotions. The history of the expansion of human rights is therefore to be understood as what Hume called "a progress of sentiments" as human beings have been persuaded to extend their sympathetic concern to ever wider circles of humanity.

And yet such rhetorical persuasion does not always work. It does not work with those abnormal human beings--like psychopaths--who lack the moral emotions of sympathy, guilt, and shame. Nor does it work when people are so caught up in their fanatical moral commitments that they cannot recognize those outside their moral community as full human beings who evoke moral concern. Such situations create tragic moral conflicts that are settled not by persuasion but by force.

As I have suggested in other posts, the American Civil War is a dramatic illustration of such a tragic moral conflict. The dispute over slavery could not be settled by metaphysical appeals to God, Nature, or Reason. The Bible did not resolve the debate, because it was invoked by both sides in the debate. As Lincoln observed in his Second Inaugural, both sides read the same Bible and prayed to the same God, and each invoked His aid against the other.

In such tragic conflicts, universal love does not work. Instead, we settle the disagreement by force of arms. That's why human rights ultimately rest upon the right to revolution. If human rights are not protected, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, then human beings have recourse, as a last resort, to "rebellion against tyranny and oppression."

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Evolutionary Biology of Empathy

The English word empathy was coined at the beginning of the 20th century as a translation of the German word Einfuhlung, which literally means "feeling into." Although many psychologists have distinguished empathy and sympathy, they seem in fact to be basically similar (Jahoda 2005).

Beginning in the 18th century, sympathy became an important philosophical concept for the moral psychology of Hume and Smith. For Smith, sympathy was understood broadly as "fellow feeling"--the capacity for sharing the emotions and thoughts of others--and it was the primary bond for social life and morality. Darwin adopted this Humean and Smithian moral psychology of sympathy, and he tried to explain its adaptive function in the evolutionary history of human beings as a primary ground for the "moral sense."

As studied by psychologists and biologists, empathy is a complex combination of many features (Decety and Jackson 2004; Decety and Ickes 2009). Empathy at its fullest includes feeling what another person is feeling, consciously understanding what another person is feeling, and responding to the needs of others.

The deepest and most primitive level of empathy is emotional contagion, the tendency to automatically resonate with other human beings by mimicking their facial expressions, vocal sounds, and bodily movements. This does not require any conscious awareness. Empathy begins with the synchronization of bodies, which has a bonding effect. Darwin saw this as a crucial manifestation of the natural sociality of humans and other animals in the expression of emotions (in his book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals).

Social activities like music, dancing, and marching in formation synchronize bodies in ways that create a convergence of emotions. That's why so many social ceremonies employ these kinds of activities to create social bonds.

The innate propensity to empathy is manifest in the natural inclination of human infants to imitation. Newborns cry in response to the distress cries of other newborns, but not to the recorded sound of their own cries. They resonate with the emotions of other human beings, while showing a self-awareness in distinguishing self and other.

The neural capacity for empathy surely arises from genetic traits that evolved in mammals to facilitate parental care of offspring, because parents need to understand and respond to the emotional needs of their offspring (Preston and de Waal 2002; de Waal 2009). In the evolution of ever more complex social life, this mammalian capacity for empathy was adapted for social feeling and social cognition that would allow individuals to synchronize their feelings and thoughts in cooperative activity. In primates, mirror neuron systems allow individuals to mentally simulate the subjective experience of others.

Through group selection, empathy evolved to promote in-group cooperation (de Waal 2009). Consequently, empathy is evoked by the proximity and familiarity that promotes identification. But while group identification enhances empathy within a group, it can also create hostility towards those outside the group. This can be seen in chimpanzees in the wild who sometimes engage in brutally violent warfare between territorial groups. In such warfare, as Jane Goodall observed, it seems that the victims have been "dechimpized," because they suffer from predatory violence usually displayed only against prey animals. This suggests the same kind of xenophobic suppression of identification that marks dehumanization in human warfare. More generally, human beings are more cooperative with those they recognize as in-group members than with those outside the group (de Waal 2009; Berreby 2005; Sturmer et al. 2005).

As a personality trait, empathy varies across individuals. On average, women seem to show more empathic propensities than men, a difference manifest even in infants.

The absence of empathy is evident in the psychopathic personality (Blair et al. 2005). Psychopathy is extremely rare. Although psychopathic tendencies might be as high as 1-3% of the human population, pure psychopathy is probably less than 1%, and in this small group, there are probably three times as many men as women. Psychopathy is a form of emotional disorder, which impedes the emotional learning of morality. Psychopaths are emotionally impaired in ways that make them less empathic to the suffering of others and less inclined to feel or understand moral emotions. The impaired emotional responsiveness and emotional learning in psychopaths seems to arise from the reduced responsiveness of neurons in the amygdala due to some genetic abnormality.


Berreby, David. 2005. Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind. Boston: Little, Brown.

Blair, James, Derek Mitchell, and Karina Blair. 2005. The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Decety, Jean, and William Ickes, eds. 2009. The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Decety, Jean, and Philip L. Jackson. 2004. "The Functional Architecture of Human Empathy." Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews 3:71-100.

Jahoda, Gustav. 2005. "Theodor Lipps and the Shift from 'Sympathy' to 'Empathy.'" Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 41:151-63.

Preston, Stephanie, and Frans de Waal. 2002. "Empathy: Its Ultimate and Proximate Bases." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25:1-72.

Sturmer, Stefan, Mark Snyder, and Allen M. Omoto. 2005. "Prosocial Emotions and Helping: The Moderating Role of Group Membership." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88:532-46.

de Waal, Frans. 2009. The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society. New York: Harmony Books.

Sympathy, Natural Sociality, and Mirror Neurons

In his Treatise of Human Nature (, David Hume stresses the importance of sympathy for social life. We

"observe the force of sympathy thro' the whole animal creation, and the easy communication of sentiments from one thinking being to another. In all creatures, that prey not upon others, and are not agitated with violent passions, there appears a remarkable desire of company, which associates them together, without any advantages they can ever propose to reap from their union. This is still more conspicuous in man, as being the creature of the universe, who has the most ardent desire of society, and is fitted for it by the most advantages. We can form no wish, which has not a reference to society. A perfect solitude is, perhaps, the greatest punishment we can suffer. Every pleasure languishes when enjoyed apart from company, and every pain becomes more cruel and intolerable. Whatever other passions we may be actuated by; pride, ambition, avarice, curiosity, revenge or lust; the soul or animating principle of them all is sympathy; nor would they have any force, were we to abstract entirely from the thoughts and sentiments of others. Let all the powers and elements of nature conspire to serve and obey one man: Let the sun rise and set at his command: The sea and rivers roll as he pleases, and the earth furnish spontaneously whatever may be useful or agreeable to him: He will still be miserable, till you give him some one person at least, with whom he may share his happiness, and whose esteem and friendship he may enjoy."

A few paragraphs later, Hume remarks that "the minds of men are mirrors to one another, not only because they reflect each others emotions, but also because those rays of passions, sentiments, and opinions may be often reverberated, and may decay away by insensible degrees."

In associating "sympathy" broadly understood as fellow-feeling with "friendship," Hume suggests that this corresponds to Aristotle's use of "friendship" (philia) as a broad term for all social bonds. Unlike Thomas Hobbes, therefore, Hume does not think that rationality alone (Hobbes' "laws of nature") can make society possible. Rather, society requires the natural animal tendency to the affective bonding of sympathy. (Hobbes's "natural lust" for the "government of small families" [Leviathan, chap. 13] is a confined version of Hume's sympathy.)

Adam Smith elaborated this Humean conception in using sympathy as the social glue for all social bonding and moral life. Charles Darwin then adopted this Humean and Smithian conception of sympathy in explaining the natural social instincts and moral sense. Darwin was impressed by Hume's insistence that sympathy was not uniquely human because it was found in other social animals. "'Tis evident, that sympathy, or the communication of passions, takes place among animals, no less than among men" (Treatise, 2.2.12).

Neuroscience is now showing how this sympathy by which the minds of social animals are "mirrors to one another" is rooted in "mirror neurons."

In the early 1990s, Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma in Italy reported that their neurophysiologial studies of monkeys had uncovered some neurons with remarkable properties. These neurons were activated not only when a monkey performed a certain action--like reaching to pick up a raisin--but also when the monkey observed another monkey or a human being performing the same action. These "mirror neurons" seemed to show how primates understand the intentional actions of others by simulating those actions within their own brains.

Three years ago, I wrote a post on mirror neurons. Since then, the research has progressed, particularly in the study of mirror neuron systems in human beings. Rizzolatti and his colleagues have written two good surveys of this research. The most elaborate survey is a book--Mirrors in the Brain (MIT Press, 2008). A very brief survey is in a book chapter for the 4th edition of The Cognitive Neurosciences (MIT Press, 2009), edited by Michael Gazzaniga.

This research on mirror neurons has stirred a lot of popular interest, because if there are mirror neurons in human beings as well as monkeys, this would show how our brain allows us to understand the actions and emotions of other individuals by sharing their experiences in our own minds. The director and playwright Peter Brook observed that mirror neurons would explain the experience of great actors who become as one with their spectators. That we can share the experiences of even fictional characters is a powerful manifestation of our sympathy.

As Rizzolatti indicates, prior to the discovery of mirror neurons, it was common for neurophysiologists to assume that the motor areas of the cerebral cortex were clearly separated from those areas devoted to perception and cognition, and that the motor areas merely executed the orders coming from perceptive and cognitive processes: we perceive what is happening within and around us, we decide by cognition how to respond to these circumstances, and then we command the motor areas of our brain to execute appropriate movements.

But with the understanding of mirror neuron systems, we have to change the traditional view of our mental processes. The sharp division between perception, cognition, and movement is too artificial, because how we perceive or understand our surroundings is embedded in action. We cannot fully understand the movements of other people through a purely sensory or pictorial representation of those movements. We need mirror neurons through which our brains match the movements we see in others to the movements we ourselves perform. We must translate thought and sensation into movement, so that we understand the movements of others by resonating with those movements in our own minds.

In the Platonic tradition of rationalist psychology, the highest activity of the mind is purely contemplative reasoning, which strives to execute its practical decisions by forcing the body to obey the orders of pure reason. By contrast, the existence of mirror neurons suggests the pragmatic constitution of human thought as embodied cognition, by which we understand our world not through passive contemplation but through active movement.

In the context of evolution, it makes sense for the brain to be an instrument for active, bodily engagement with the world, because its evolutionary purpose would be to organize movements to defend against threats and seek out opportunities. For social animals, the greatest threats and opportunities often come from other animals, and so the brains of social animals are adapted for understanding the thoughts and emotions of other animals so that they can navigate their way through social life to ensure their survival and well being. Mirror neurons help primates to do this.

Even without the activity of a neural mirror mechanism, we can probably understand the actions and emotions of others through a purely reflexive processing of sensory information. But this purely intellectual understanding would be a colorless perception with no emotional depth. This is probably how psychopaths understand the moral emotions of other people but without actually feeling those emotions themselves. The impaired social understanding of autistic people probably comes from deficits in their mirror neuron systems.

Although neuroscientists have not yet observed mirror neuron activity in human beings at the level of single neurons--because of the ethical limits on neural research with living human beings--there is research with human patients suffering selective neural damage and research through neuroimaging that confirms the existence of mirror neuron systems, which function in understanding both actions and emotions.

For example, the emotion of disgust is a response to the undesirable taste or smelling of food, and it's associated with distinctive movements around the mouth, the wrinkling of the nose, and feelings of nausea. This experience of disgust requires the activation of the insular cortex of the brain. Our insular cortex is also activated when we observe other people showing the facial expressions of disgust. So the same neural activity necessary for triggering the sensations and expressions of disgust in ourselves is necessary for perceiving this emotion in the faces of other people. It seems that to fully understand someone else's disgust, we need a mirror neuron system that allows us to simulate the experience of disgust in ourselves.

Similarly, Rizzolatti concludes, there is evidence for such mirror neuron processes for all of the primary human emotions--anger, sadness, surprise, enjoyment, contempt, disgust, shame, and fear--that are universal to the human species.

Rizzolatti infers that the emotional neuron system is a necessary condition for empathy (or what Hume, Smith, and Darwin would call "sympathy"). To empathize with others, we must share their emotions. But while this is necessary, it is not sufficient for active empathy expressed as caring for others. Understanding someone else's pain is not the same as feeling compassion for that person. After all, a sadist understands his victim's pain and enjoys it!

Rizzolatti writes: "Compassion depends on many factors other than the recognition of pain; just to name a few: who the other person is, what our relationship with him is, whether or not we are able to imagine ourselves in his position, whether we want to assume responsibility for his emotive state, wishes and expectations, and so on. If it is someone we know and love, the emotive mirroring caused by the sight of their plight may provoke our pity or compassion; if on the other hand, the person is an enemy or is doing something that constitutes a threat for us, of if we are declared sadists, then the situation changes radically. In all these cases, we understand the other's pain, but we do not necessarily experience empathy" (2008, 191).

So here we see the moral ambiguity of our capacity for empathy or sympathy as rooted in neural processes like mirror neurons. On the one hand, having evolved as social animals, we can extend our empathy to our fellow human beings because our minds are "mirrors to one another." On the other hand, having evolved a tribal sociality based on in-group/out-group distinctions, our empathy tends to favor those we identify as friends over those we identify as enemies.

This goes far to explain both the power and the weakness of a cosmopolitan morality of human rights.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

A Darwinian History of Human Rights and Empathy

Darwinian political history would be an important part of what I have called "Darwinian liberal education." Such a history would be what Dan Smail calls "deep history," which would include "neurohistory." Narrative human history always rests upon psychological assumptions by which we project ourselves into the minds of historical actors to try to understand how and why they felt, thought, and acted they way they did in the circumstances they faced. In political history, we assume that big changes in political regimes must have been associated with big changes in the psychological profile of the human beings living within those regimes.

Darwinian neuroscience should allow us to explain this as historical changes in the human brain. This is complicated, because as Wendell Berry has argued (against E. O. Wilson), we can't rely on a simple reductionistic formula: "mind = brain = machine." The correct formula is much more complex: "mind = brain + body + world + local dwelling place + community + history. 'History' here would mean not just documented events but the whole heritage of culture, language, memory, tools, and skills. Mind in this definition has become hard to locate in an organ, organism, or place. It has become an immaterial presence or possibility that is capable of being embodied and placed."

If I am right in my recent posts about the biological character and the genetic basis of human rights, then the cultural and political history of human rights should provide an illustration of Darwinian neurohistory. We should also see in this history of human rights whether a Darwinian moral psychology can respond to Nietzsche's challenge: Does the death of God--the death of all cosmic support for morality--mean the death of all morality?

In fact, we can see such a history in Lynn Hunt's Inventing Human Rights: A History (Norton, 2007). The crucial point for the history of human rights, she insists, is the claim of self-evidence, as in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . ." The self-evidence of human rights depends partially on reason, but more so on emotion, and especially the emotional experience of empathy. That human capacity for empathy is rooted in the neural structures of the human brain, but the extension of empathy to ever wider circles of humanity depends on cultural history working on the neural plasticity of the brain.

We can see, then, that Hunt follows a Darwinian moral psychology by stressing the primacy of moral emotions for moral motivation, a position elaborated by Edward Westermarck and Jonathan Haidt. She also relies on modern neuroscientific research on the neural bases of empathy. I have written many posts on the neuroscience of the moral instinct.

As I have in previous posts, Hunt indicates the problem with human rights as expressed by Jacques Maritain in 1948: "we agree about the rights on condition that no one asks us why" (20). Typically, philosophers protest that this is a scandalous situation, because we should be able to support our moral principles with logical proofs. But Hunt rightly sees that this misses the point that the morality of human rights--and perhaps all moral experience--depends more on emotion than on reason.

Writing in the middle of the 18th century, in the Encyclopedie, Denis Diderot wrote an article on "natural right" (droit naturel), explaining that "the use of this term is so familiar that there is almost no one who would not be convinced inside himself that the thing is obviously known to him. This interior feeling is common both to the philosopher and to the man who has not reflected at all" (26). A long chapter in Hunt's book is devoted to showing how early modern novels--particularly Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Julie--cultivated the "interior feeling" favorable to human rights. As Hunt indicates, Diderot seemed to agree with this in his eulogy of Richardson. "His characters are taken from ordinary society. . . the passions he depicts are those I feel in myself." Diderot goes on to write: "One feels oneself drawn to the good with an impetuosity one does not recognize. When faced with injustice, you experience a disgust that you do not know how to explain to yourself" (54-56). Thus, a novel can work its moral effect by drawing the reader into the narrative, feeling emotional resonance with the ordinary human characters of the novel, and thereby cultivating an experience of empathy that supports a humanitarian sentiment favorable to human rights.

The novels of Richardson and Rousseau were put on the papal Index of Forbidden Books, because religious leaders feared that novels were morally corrupting by appealing to human emotions contrary to the traditional Christian teaching that human emotions express a sinful nature that must be suppressed by Church discipline and legal punishment. As I have argued in some other posts, this illustrates the conflict between a metaphysical ethics of cosmic order or divine will and an empirical ethics of human nature or moral sentiment. As Hunt shows, the emergence of the modern idea of human rights shows this conflict in that proponents of human rights were ambivalent as to whether human rights depended on religious metaphysics--all human beings created in God's image--or whether human rights could be rooted in the purely secular experience of human moral emotions. According to Hunt, "the ground of all authority was shifting from a transcendental religious framework to an inner human one" (83). Scottish philosophers like David Hume and Adam Smith were contributing to that shift by their appeal to sympathy and the moral sentiments, which was later adopted by Charles Darwin and then elaborated by other proponents of Darwinian moral psychology.

One clear illustration of how empathy and the moral emotions sustained the movement to human rights is the condemnation of legal torture as a violation of human rights. Traditionally, torture was regarded as a proper means by which legal authorities could extract confessions or punish malefactors. But, then, in the 18th century, the unjustified suffering of the victims of torture was so vividly depicted by critics as a barbarous violation of human dignity, that there was a broad movement in Europe and North America to ban torture as "cruel and unusual punishment." Hunt writes: "Torture ended because the traditional framework of pain and personhood fell apart, to be replaced, bit by bit, by a new framework, in which individuals owned their bodies, had rights to their separateness and to bodily inviolability and recognized in other people the same passions, sentiments, and sympathies as themselves" (112).

In his Second Treatise, John Locke had justified the idea of natural rights with two kinds of principles--"divine workmanship" and "self-ownership." If human beings are created by God in His Image, then they have a divinely created worth that cannot be properly denied by those who would deprive them of their sacred rights. But if each human being is naturally inclined to take possession of himself in mind and body, and if each man can see that all other men assert the same self-possession, then this human experience of self-ownership could be a purely secular ground of human rights. The modern move towards understanding human rights as rooted in the secular human experience of empathy and moral emotions relies on Locke's secular principle of self-ownership without the religious principle of divine workmanship.

Even as Hunt stresses the primacy of emotion in this understanding of human rights, she also recognizes the role of reason. Human rights have a kind of "inner logic" or a "kind of conceivability or thinkability scale" (150). She illustrates this by showing how the French revolutionaries were driven by the logic of human rights to extend the circle of humanitarian concern. Declaring that all human beings are equal in their natural rights inevitably inclines us to expand that equal protection to new groups of human beings. So, for example, once the French revolutionary leaders had granted religious liberty to Protestant Christians, this made it easier to see the need for granting liberty to Jews.

Nevertheless, as Hunt shows, that logic of human rights was slowed in the 19th century by various ideological movements--nationalism, scientific racism, and Marxism--that were opposed to universal human rights. As Hunt indicates, and as I have noted in some other posts, the natural human disposition to empathy is constrained by a natural tribalism, so that we feel less concern for those we regard as strangers or enemies. The Volkish nationalism of Hitler and the Nazis was an extreme manifestation of this natural tribalism.

Eventually, however, the moral revulsion against the barbarous atrocities of the first half of the 20th century provoked a renewal of the human rights movement beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. We can continue to see the emotional psychology of human rights in the work of governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations (like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) that publicize those brutal practices around the world that elicit our moral repugnance in the service of human rights.

This emotional resonance of empathy expressed in the disgust with cruelty confirms, Hunt concludes, the natural grounding of human rights in human moral emotions. "The history of human rights shows that rights are best defended in the end by the feelings, convictions, and actions of multitudes of individuals, who demand responses that accord with their inner sense of outrage" (213). "The process had and has an undeniable circularity to it: you know the meaning of human rights because you feel distressed when they are violated. The truths of human rights might be paradoxical in this sense, but they are nonetheless still self-evident" (214).

This history of human rights shows, Hunt explains, the complex interaction of genetic nature, neural structures, and cultural history.

"Needless to say, empathy was not invented in the eighteenth century. The capacity for empathy is universal because it is rooted in the biology of the brain; it depends on a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine their inner experiences are like one's own. . . ."

"Normally, everyone learns empathy at an early age. Although biology provides an essential predisposition, each culture shapes the expression of empathy in its own particular fashion. Empathy only develops through social interaction; therefore, the forms of that interaction configure empathy in important ways. In the eighteenth century, readers of novels learned to extend their purview of empathy" (39).

Friday, December 04, 2009

Political Animals and the Social Intelligence Hypothesis

Aristotle saw a connection between social complexity and animal intelligence. He noted that the more intelligent animals tended to be those with the most intensive and prolonged parental care, because the complexity of the social interaction between parents and offspring requires high intelligence. Similarly, he identified the political animals--those who cooperate for some common work or function--as highly intelligent. Human beings are by nature more political than these other political animals, because of the uniquely human capacity for speech (logos). Human beings are the most political animals, it seems, because through speech human beings cooperate for common ends in ways that are more complex, more flexible, and more extensive than is possible for other political animals.

This Aristotelian idea of the connection between sociality and intelligence seems to resemble the "social intelligence hypothesis" that has become popular with many evolutionary theorists today. This hypothesis explains the evolution of complex cognition and enlarged brains as an adaptive response to the complexity of social life, so that we can explain the greater intelligence if primates, for example, as an evolutionary adaptation to the greater social complexity of primate life.

Although this idea is supported by a lot of evidence and reasoning, a few researchers are beginning to question its adequacy. I was recently reminded of this in reading a paper by one of my graduate students--Jennifer Soss--who argues that the social intelligence hypothesis cannot explain the differences between rhesus macaques and chimpanzees. Although chimps are superior to monkeys in cognitive abilities, and although chimp brains are larger and more complex than monkey brains, it's not clear that chimp social life and social cognition is more complex than that of monkeys. So there must be other factors to explain the evolution of higher intelligence in chimps.

A good survey of this argument is in an article by Kay Holekamp--"Questioning the Social Intelligence Hypothesis". Holekamp is a zoologist specializing in the study of spotted hyenas. She argues that social carnivores like spotted hyenas are remarkably similar in their social complexity to primates, although primates are clearly superior in some higher cognitive functions, which suggests that the adaptation of intelligence for social complexity can't be the whole story. She accepts the social intelligence hypothesis as well-supported. But her claim is that there must be other factors interacting with social complexity to explain the evolution of high intelligence.

Actually, Holekamp's argument takes us back to Aristotle. Because while he emphasized the importance of social complexity as connected to intelligence, he also stressed the importance of intelligence in allowing animals to better manipulate their nonsocial environment in devising tools and strategies for gathering food and protecting against predators.

Although we don't see any evolutionary account of the ultimate origins of intelligence in Aristotle's biological writings, we do so an understanding of how intelligence must be explained biologically as a natural adaptation to the lives of animals who need the cognitive tools for living in complex social and physical environments.