Monday, March 23, 2009

Cockfights and psychopathic chickens

The biologist David Sloan Wilson, author of Darwin's Cathedral among some other popular books, has an interesting and somewhat controversial view on human evolution. He promotes the idea that evolution works on a group scale, and not merely on the scale of each individual organism. As social creatures, group survival may depend on traits that would work against individual survival had that individual been less inclined to seek out a social group to be part of. Dr. Wilson is an entertaining and persuasive speaker, and while his presentation is full of interesting little anecdotes and thought experiments whose outcomes are self-evident, he does manage to make you think about things from a different and sometimes unusual perspective.

Take this thought experiment: two people are stuck on a desert island with no resources, no shelter, no food, no protection from predators, and… no movie theaters or shuls even. One of those people is what we would consider the very embodiment of evil: selfish; cruel; malicious; lacking self-control; and an Aroini to boot. The other is the polar opposite: kind; considerate; caring; selfless; and a disciple of mother Theresa. You leave them for a couple of weeks and then come back to see the result of your sociological experiment. Who would you expect to have survived all the hardships, and who do you think served as a tasty bit of shark food? Right.

Now consider the same experiment, but split between two islands with no means of communication between them. On one island we have a community of evil bastards as above, and on the other we have a community of kind and considerate non-bastards. This time, you leave them there for a generation or two. Which community is more likely to survive and prosper, and which community is likely to quickly collapse with most members serving as food or firewood, with the few survivors remaining in a sorry pre-historic state to boot? Right again. What does this tell us about the forces that drive human evolution and the evolutionary forces continuously shaping the human view of morality?

Now take the psychopathic-chicken experiment. Chickens on an egg-laying farm live in groups -- nine chickens to a crate. In one version of the experiment, researchers selected the most productive chicken from each crate and put nine of those together in a new crate. They then did the same with the offspring of these super-producers, and again with the offspring of those. After six generations, they had a crate of...... 3 super-chickens -- the rest had been murdered by their crate-mates -- and those that were left were continuously fighting and at each other's throats, so much so that their egg-production dropped to a minimum. They had bred a failed chicken society.

How did that happen? Well, it turns out that successful individuals in a community depend on having better access to resources and on the cooperation of other members in the community. They're also good at getting an outsized share of the limited resources available. After a couple of generations, as competition grew fierce and the best producers by necessity grew even fiercer, they had bred a group of psychopathic chickens, worried only about their own needs and quickly killing off anyone in their way. As a result, the society collapsed.

The same experiment was done again, but with a different twist. Instead of selecting for the best individual producers, they selected for the crate which had the best production. After a few generations they had bred a community that was living in excellent harmony (at least as far as chickens are concerned) and producing on average 130% better then the other crates. The selection process chose for the community which was best at sharing the resources in a way that makes most use of it, and the results reflected that efficient organization and produced a successful chicken society.

And so, Wilson argues, instead of the idea of evolution being one that promotes selfishness, fascism and immorality as some detractors argue, it can be argued that the idea of evolution should promote harmony, charity, kindness and even...... religion, with religion being a tremendous force for group cohesion and hence group survival.

This is an interesting argument, but it rubs me the wrong way. I find it a very dangerous thing to argue that since kindness helps along evolution, kindness should therefore be promoted as a value. Evolution is not a moral value; it is simply a statement of fact. Evolution states that those who are good at surviving and reproducing actually survive and reproduce (somewhat self-evident, once you give it some thought); it does NOT say that those (and only those) good at surviving and reproducing SHOULD survive and reproduce. Evolution has nothing to say on how things should be and what behaviors we should value.

We quickly run into huge moral conundrums if we try looking at it in any other way. For example, we have ignored the fact that from an evolutionary perspective, while it is true that moral societies are more likely to survive and reproduce, evil individuals living in those moral societies are even LIKELIER to survive and reproduce. They're still evil assholes, however.

I took up this issue with Wilson, and while I don't think I was as clear as I could be (I had a glass or two of wine at that point) he did agree with me. What he's saying, in short, is that since we do value what we call morality in any case, we might as well use evolutionary thinking to promote that morality. For example, he says that in one of his lectures, when he told the chicken story, one of the faculty members in the university came up to him and said "I have names for these chickens!" When you promote only the best researchers and the individuals with the most voluminous publishing portfolios and put them on the same faculty, they will inevitably behave like the psychopathic chickens. He strongly advocates you always promote the best groups of researchers, people who have shown a propensity and ability to work together efficiently and who will produce good research as a group. And the same goes for all other kinds of community policies.

To this I can only add: Don't be a chicken!