Healing the Moral Animal: Lessons from Evolution
A continuation of Clinical Sociobiology: Taking Charge of Our Genes
James Brody, Ph. D.
Stevens and Price (1996) open their text with a brief statement that highlights the new aspects of their presentation. They have a good idea.
There is a detailed, informed wealth handed to all of us by the Neodarwinians in the past 20 years -- information about mate selection, reciprocity, and child rearing. Incredibly useful stuff for clinical purposes -- pulled from ants and bees and described by one clinician as providing a lot of coat hooks for all the present mini-theories in psychology. This manual rests on a consideration of darwinian (but not Darwinian) processes that might help us understand many of the discomforts of our fellow humans.
However, our equipment for interpreting Darwinism can be misleading. We all have high resolution mental devices for spotting cruelty, danger, and cheating. Fear may compliment other mechanisms -- grooming, food exchange, bonding, and reciprocity -- that maintain alliances and extend the range of settings in which we might survive. Alliances help us transcend both our individual limits -- that arise from genetic and social variables, and those we have as a species -- an extended childhood, fur-less and claw-less, grinders not rippers, upright posture, and not specialized for speed or combat.
However, fear colors our perception of rules ... emphasizing the bad and ugly, excluding or beating up the good. Our emotional adaptations blind us in ways that allow Tennyson's "tooth and claw" image to be apt. Certainly, Darwin and his troop were more into violence than sex, combat rather than sharing. The focus was not because those things are more important in nature, they are simply more important to us. We wouldn't be here if we didn't worry about such things.
I ignored "gaia" models because some of that group can be pretty insulting about Neodarwinians; however, I also moved away from the Darwinian layer because doing so was more inclusive. It helped me to understand the equality that exists between altruism and competition through all of our setting, not just between humans and not just between other living forms. The move also helped me understand morality, succorance, altruism in a way that balanced my adaptive biases about fear. The move breaks the media preoccupation, "If it bleeds, it leads" but, ironically, led to similarities with gaia thinking.
The human brain instantiates* principles that oppose operation of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. We can make changes in moments, hours, or within a lifetime and transmit them culturally without giving eons to genetic trial and error. Cultural changes are reversible, genetic ones often are not. Genetic changes mirror growth of a tree branch ... they don't shrink back into the trunk if they reach an area with no sunlight. They die and the trunk generates another branch at another site. In contrast, my brain allows me -- within the limits of its psychological adaptations -- to learn a different number system without reversing my age to 1st grade. I can learn Chinese without becoming Chinese.
Psychological adaptations are a required intermediary between our genes and our culture. They save us a lot of time by pre-selecting the kinds of information we seek and by pre-organizing many of our responses. We have PAs for child rearing, mating, hunting, gathering, and a host of other things. PAs can be understood as an instrumental response, functionally equivalent to a lever press, by genes and reinforced by environment. We will probably discover that lever presses and PAs exhibit similar functional properties -- both can be shaped, differentiated, extinguished, and reinforced on different schedules that lead to different response topographies and rates. (Can we imagine that a PA reinforced on a ratio schedule would lead to its more frequent expression across generations and perhaps blend into the conditions and phenomena of r-Selection? Variable interval schedules evolve cognitions and motor sequences consistent with K-Selection?)
In this view, genes, emotions, morals, and common sense (a.k.a., psychological adaptations, cognitive modules, talents and liabilities) are ways to regulate exchanges between units with similar and differing interests. The "rules" are also instantiated in words and labels -- symbolic ways to set boundaries for classification, cooperation, and differentiation. "Mine," "marriage," "Us/Them," national identities, graffiti, and surnames -- all property boundaries and functional equivalents to cell walls wherein cooperation and altruism are more likely and across which selfishness and spite sometimes prevail. Cross the boundary and entropy, bacteria, fungi, death, war, and journal reviewers operate more freely. Thus, sociobiology is still around and we will all learn more about Complexity Theory. Treating humans as a special case may be counterproductive and there may be considerable merit to a "clinical sociobiology."