Monday, 8 August 2016

Thoughts on: Humans, Selfishness and Primatology

Humans are a nasty breed, or so we are told. Our philosophical framework from Hobbes to Freidman takes our self-interest for granted; it is the foundation of our punitive legal system (Hobbes) and our individualistic economic system (Adam Smith, and Freidman again). This worldview is ostensibly backed up by biological science: evolution emerges from the struggle of an individual to overcome. Nature is the ultimate form of competition therefore it naturally follows that we are inclined to pursue the ethics of a cut-throat.

Such a case, or thereabouts, is argued by Dario Maestripieri in Games Primates Play where much of primate and, by extension, human behaviour is explained in self interested terms. Co-operation is acknowledged but in a purely Machiavellian sense and moral sentiments, such as shame or guilt, are attributed to an internalisation of the "moralistic aggression" shown by one's peers (p.127).

Maestripieri is evidently a very accomplished primatologist, but I think he's wrong here. While I have neither the time, space or academic speciality to lay out a full empirical critique of his worldview, I would suggest that the kind of research produced by ethologists examining altruism, like that of Franz de Waal, throw doubt on the idea that our moral sentiments are taught, rather than innate. Furthermore, the argument that our moral impulses are just a series of calculated ploys struggles to explain our propensity for empathetic feelings. If "the moral impulse" is merely a strategic cloak then why would it come with an ability to feel another's pain? Strategically it makes sense to understand that someone is hurt but why feel pity for someone, or empathise with their plight, if you are supposed to be a cold-hearted egoist?

The answer to this question most likely lies in the fact that the emotions behind altruism probably evolved much earlier than our high-level capacity to manipulate them in others. Of course, while this evolutionary process was driven by self-interest, it strikes me as trivial to argue that altruism is therefore just an elaborate con. It is true that co-operation gives us an evolutionary advantage, as individuals and as a species, but that's not particularly interesting.

Humans and animals do things which they have an interest in doing; but when we say that humans are selfish we tend to mean something more than "humans want the best for themselves". Specifically we tend to mean that humans are selfish at the expense of others, and that this acknowledgement should temper our broader economic and political expectations for the human race. However, to say that humans are selfish in the sense that they pursue their own ends is fairly inconsequential: it's almost tautologically true and has no bearing on how any given individual's ends overlap with those of their peers. This trivial aspect of our selfishness tells us little about the terms on which we are to cohabitate - which is, after all, the important takeaway of any attempt to dissect the biological history of human motivation.

Maestripieri is not alone: there are plenty who point to nature's self-interested substrate in order to make broader points about human society. In the process, the human and wider primate capacity for co-operation is often explained away as further reinforcement of the selfish monkey hypothesis. This is largely possible due to ambiguous definitions of self-interest and selfishness that prop up a lack of consensus on what it would take to falsify the claim that "X are  selfish". A chimpanzee castrating a rival is obviously selfish; as is a pair of macaques co-operating to bring down a rival, but what of capuchins co-operating to gather food or rhesus monkeys who collectivise childcare? These acts all have a selfish basis and they may be but small islands in a sea of brutality, yet I fear it is misleading to pretend that capuchin co-operation and chimpanzee castration have similar motivations.

Unless we move past the more trivial definitions of selfishness, we will struggle to separate acts of altruism from those of aggression. The naive assumption that the biological egoism which underpins our genetic history can provide a monoglot description of human behaviour must be resisted for a more holistic account of our social nature.

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