Astronaut vs. Cowboy Ethics

Comparing “astronaut” to “cowboy” ethics can show that Locke's limits on liberty need to be revised. We once could see that pitting self-interest against collective self-preservation wasn’t rational. Me-opic and logically unworkable ideas that economics sometimes encourage have made that harder to see. 

 


“Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” So says Garrett Hardin reassessing his misnamed “tragedy of the commons” parable. He’s right, and since certain kinds of “commons” are unavoidable, his logic means we are too free. Revised logical limits of liberty are needed.

1. Hardin’s scenario described incentives for herders to overgraze a commons (public pasture). Pursuing their narrow self-only-interest, they ruin the shared resource. Hardin later said his “weightiest mistake” was not noting that the fault lies in the “unmanaged” freedom.

2. Humans are the freest, least genetically constrained species (see praxotype). But rule-free freedom produces unproductive chaos. Our linguistic and ethical rule-processors evolved to coordinate and constrain our freedoms, productively.

3. The Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — easily cures Hardin’s “tragedy.” But somehow its symmetric logic is losing sway.

4. Locke defined commonly accepted limits on liberty in 1690: “Reason ... teaches all Mankind ... no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.” But by 1968, Hardin believed self-maximization was “rational,” even when collectively ruinous.

5. We know we are not free to harm any other person’s interests. So why would harming the interests of all others (the commons) be OK? “The commons” are commoner than many believe (e.g., our unfence-able microbial commons; markets are commons-like resources).

6. Unlike the Golden Rule or Locke’s limits, Hardin’s herder logic is too me-opic and asymmetric. It “works” only if others don’t do it. It might make twisted short-term sense, but it can’t last. Contagious behaviors bind our common fate to what we allow ourselves, and others to do.

7. Tragedy once was more than a bad ending. It meant being at the mercy of a situation where it was impossible to avoid disaster. Hardin’s hard-of-thinking herders hardly fit the bill. Just don’t overgraze — and organize to ensure no one else does. A trivially solvable “tragedy” isn’t worthy of the name.

8. Avoiding foreseeable doom is rational. Pitting self-interest against collective self-preservation isn’t. We once could see this. Economic cowboy ethics risks ignoring it.

9. Hardin called economics “a minor specialty” within ecology, and compared “cowboy” to “spaceship” ethics. Ecology uses spaceship-ethics: Everything is limited and valuable. Economics often encourages cowboy ethics; huge, free herds suggest it’s OK to shoot buffalo just to eat the tongue = near-extinction. Economics and ethics must now work better.

10. Locke’s liberty limits must be redrawn. Rule systems that permit — or promote — damaging what their followers depend on, don’t survive. Greed easily becomes systemically tragic (e.g., Prisoners Dilemmas).

11. We need to better grasp our own needs. And that others, and their needs, are inescapable.

“Reason teaches ... all ... who will but consult it.”

12. Know your needs. Don’t damage what supplies them. Don’t let others either. Or you’re doomed.

 

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.