Friday, May 23, 2008

The selfish gene visits the four-year-old who saved her sister

Here’s a recent story about a four-year-old girl who saved her infant sister’s life:
The next morning, park groundskeepers saw Lindsay stumbling out of the woods holding the baby. She collapsed. The children were bitten so badly by insects that sheriff's deputies thought they had been burned. In the hospital that night, a sheriff's spokeswoman told me, Lindsay refused to sleep until nurses brought her baby sister to cradle in her arms.

[ ... ]

The Baton Rouge Advocate reported that Lindsay came to the funeral with a white scarf hiding her neck wound. Erin Manning, a Fort Worth writer, observed on my blog that the scarf conceals a profound mystery: "We can't bear to look at the sacrificial cost of love — a wound so bravely borne because at some level, this child's love for her tiny sister outweighed her terror and her pain."
- Rod Dreher, "From horror, a child's loving gift", May 11, 2008

A key recent project of materialist psychology, usually under the banner of evolutionary psychology, is to demonstrate that the cause of the girl's behaviour is her selfish genes. Because her genes are related to the infant's genes, there is said to be a sort of genetic program that causes the girl to act to save her sister.

Sometimes other theories, taken from animal studies, are called upon. A friend sent me this Roundup news note he came across in Science:
The Evolution of Cooperation

The question of how natural selection can lead to cooperative behavior has intrigued biologists for decades. On one hand, evolution is based on fierce competition and should therefore reward only selfish behavior. Yet cooperation is common throughout the biological world, whether between genes or cells or within animal and human societies. In a Review article in the 8 Dec 2006 Science, M. A. Nowak discussed five possible mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation: kin selection, direct reciprocity, indirect reciprocity, network reciprocity, and group selection. And in a related Report, S. Bowles developed a model -- using genetic, climactic, archeological, ethnographic and experimental data -- to help explain the prevalence of altruistic behavior in human societies. According to his analysis, the ecological challenges facing humans during the late Pleistocene resulted in intense competition for resources, frequent group extinctions, and intergroup violence. Members of a group bearing genes for altruistic behavior paid a tax by limiting their reproductive opportunities in order to benefit from sharing food and information, thereby increasing the average fitness of the group, as well as their interrelatedness. Bands of altruistic humans would then act in concert to gain resources from other groups at a time when humans faced daily challenges to survival. An accompanying Perspective by R. Boyd considered how these views fit with other hypotheses about the evolutionary processes that spawned our uniquely cooperative societies.

My friend commented, "I never cease to be amazed by the rampant speculation that is so accepted in the soft sciences."

But the rampant speculation is easier to understand if you consider what underlies it. Recently, another friend asked me for essay help on evolutionary psychology, and I replied,
A driving force behind evolutionary psychology is an account of human behaviour that does not depend on the existence of the mind.

Evolutionary psychology tries to show that major human drives do NOT result from thoughts or judgements or preferences but are governed by the desire of selfish genes to spread themselves. So the mind does not cause thoughts, values, or judgements. A genetic or neural mechanism, triggered by accidental environment conditions causes the behaviour.

The curious thing about evolutionary psychology is that - despite the fact that the human genome has now been mapped - those who hold it do not usually identify actual genes. Instead, they attempt to show - as in the discussion of co-operation - how a given form of behaviour might have helped early human ancestors survive. We are expected to conclude that therefore the behaviour somehow originated and is passed on in their genes or brain structure. Otherwise, how can it be said to have evolved?

The problem is, of course, that a variety of opposing behaviours might help early human ancestors survive, just as a variety of opposing behaviours help people survive today. Many influences encourage us - and encouraged them - to choose one behaviour rather than another. The idea that behaviour is passed on in genes is speculation, especially when specific genes are not identified.

The following item, which I wrote for Salvo Winter 2008, expands on that point. I should really have called it "Evolutionary psychology and the reality of the mind" but I had to follow a pattern for that issue.

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