Moral Math And Team Logic

The math and logic of teams sometimes (perhaps often) opposes maximizing self-benefit.


Morality has a certain math-like and logical rightness. Old language and loose thinking-tools hide that morals are vital social rules, and that some objectively work better. We’re born with tunable and extendable social-rule processors, just like our language-rule processors.

Much confusion comes from using a basically religious, mainly Christian, framework. A useful essay by the talented scientist Paul Bloom provides examples. Ignoring his main argument (“intellectually disgraceful” intelligent design) let’s consider some of the conventional, but unhelpfully oversimplified, language and thinking-tools used.

Bloom says Jefferson nailed morality, as being “as much a part of man as his leg.” Bloom presents evidence that babies aren’t “pint-sized psychopaths.” They’re born with social-rule processors and starter-rules for distinguishing “kind and cruel actions,”  preferring fairness (equal shares) and justice (kindness rewarded, badness punished). They’re also selfish (only dislike inequality if it’s disadvantageous) and won’t sacrifice for strangers. So “transcendent moral kindness” isn’t innate, it’s an add-on, like vocabulary. (Darwin called language “half-art and half-instinct.”)

Bloom notes that selfless acts “for the greater good,” can’t be “direct products of natural selection.” But long-term self-interest and “the greater good” are tightly braided in species that survive in teams. If having no team can mean no survival, logic (and evolution eventually) mandates supporting that greater good. Ignoring complex interdependencies leads to Dawkins’ Errors.

Though Bloom refers to “amoral forces” of biology, Darwin believed that “the Golden Rule” would inevitably evolve in any intelligent social species. Selfishness Darwin said  tarnished our “most noble faculty,” our social-rule processors. Hardly “Darwinian.”

The Christian social-rule recipe exalts selflessness, but others don’t. Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?” Hillel integrated rather than opposed self-interest with other-orientedness. Selves and others have complex relationships, that aren’t well served by a simplistic binary. Self-denial can be maladaptive—as can excess selfishness in social species.

Bloom confuses his gods, and history, in saying, “For most of human history, it was easy enough to believe in a loving and all-powerful God.” The Old Testament God is (like other gods) described as vengeful, capricious, and punitive. As game theory reminds us, turning the other cheek is exploitable, and less productive than eye-for-an-eye punishment, if followed by forgiveness (“Golden Punishment Rule.”)

While noting that much of our behaviour is “non-Darwinian” (influenced by beliefs, habits, desires, and choices; see praxotype), Bloom repeats a common error about paleo-adaptive traits becoming troublesome. Appetites evolved in scarcity aren’t irresistible; as Steven Pinker notes, self-control has long been adaptive.

Saying “morality… doesn’t have much to do with the physical world” can mislead. Its relationship is like that of math or logic. And an evolutionary social-rule math and logic applies: social-species groups with more productive social-rules do better. Conversely, nature tends to eliminate those whose rules allow damage to what they depend. The math and logic of teams sometimes (perhaps often) opposes maximizing self-benefit. We’d all benefit if that idea was widely shared.

 

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

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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.