Altruism is the foundation of sociability, the making of a humane, liberal society.
In the recent BBC radio program on altruism "In Our Time", all the contributions to the discussion were clear and helpful, though in the end none really offered a satisfactory explanation. Dawkins’ Darwinian account was a familiar presentation of William Hamilton’s kin selection approach with some cultural dressing, with the idea that somehow or other a ‘rule of thumb’ could be built into the structure of the brain. But how?
Perhaps there needs to be a new approach to the problem of altruism, and sociability, which takes account of remarkable progress in neuroscience. The discovery of mirror neurons, that is neurons which create a link between visual perception and motor planning, offers a neural explanation of empathy, a neural explanation of how it is we feel the pain of others, why we wince when someone is hurt, see others as intellectually and emotionally "other selves" (going far beyond a ‘theory of mind’). We can feel for them and can be moved to help them in their problems, problems which we can see and tackle in terms of ourselves. Altruism thus becomes a manifestation of the common, shared, neural organisation on which societies have been constructed.
The starting point for the new approach has to be the work of Rizzolatti, Gallese and their colleagues at the University of Parma, to which many others have since contributed. The best recent broad-ranging survey of the implications of the discovery of an increasingly extensive range of of mirror neurons must be the paper by Rizzolatti and Craighero "Mirror Neuron: a Neurological Approach to Empathy" which can be seen atwww.robotcub.org/misc/review2/06_Rizzolatti_Craighero.pdf
A new approach to altruism needs to be set in a wider sociobiological context taking account of the significance both of language and of altruism as foundations for society. See the discussion of therole of language (in The Great Mosaic Eye 2001 chapter I), the approach to the sociobiology of society in "Towards the antheap, the drugged society or?" (in Sociobiology and Politics 1998 ed. by V.S.E Falger et al., 203-214), "Religion and Science -- Sex and Society: Forms and processes of cohesion" (in In-Group/Out-Group Behaviour in Modern Societies 1999, ed. by Thienpoint and Cliquet, 239-258), "Evolution and Culture: the Missing Link" (in The Darwinian Heritage and Sociobiology 1999 ed. by van der Dennen, Smillie and Wilson, 67-81), "Objective Morality" (Journal of Social and Biological Structures 1991 14(4) 455-471), "Group Identity and Nation Identity" ( European Sociobiological Society, Moscow 1998), "Evolutionary Aspects of Love and Empathy" (Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 1992 15 4 353-370) and "The Evolutionary Significance of Human Life?"(in Robin Allott 2001 The Great Mosaic Eye: Language and Evolution, 183-206).
698. Comment #15051 by Robin Allott on December 28, 2006 at 2:02 pm [from Dawkins’ Website]
Dawkins is a Darwinian heretic!
Some remarks (condensed) from the Descent of Man and elsewhere. (It is now possible to survey the whole range of his views on the Cambridge website.
There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. The question is of course wholly distinct from that higher one, whether there exists a Creator and Ruler of the universe.
If we include under the term "religion " the belief in unseen or spiritual agencies, the case is wholly different; for this belief seems to be almost universal with the less civilised races.
The belief in spiritual agencies would easily pass into the belief in the existence of one or ore gods. The same high mental faculties which first led man to believe in unseen spiritual agencies, then … ultimately in monotheism.
The highest form of religion - the grand idea of God hating sin and loving righteousness - was unknown during primeval times. The ennobling belief in God is not universal with man, and the belief in active spiritual agencies naturally follows from his other mental powers.The belief in God has often been advanced as not only the greatest, but the most complete of all the distinctions between man and the lower animals. It is however impossible, as we have seen, to maintain that this belief is innate or instinctive in man.
Great lawgivers, the founders of beneficent religions, great philosophers and discoverers in science, aid the progress of mankind in a far higher degree by their works than by leaving a numerous progeny. The awakening of the nations of Europe from the dark ages is a still more perplexing problem. At this early period almost all the men of a gentle nature, those given to meditation or culture of the mind, had no refuge except in the bosom of the Church which demanded celibacy.
The other self-regarding virtues, which do not obviously, though they may really, affect the welfare of the tribe, have never been esteemed by savages, though now highly appreciated by civilised nations.
The greatest intemperance with savages is no reproach. Their utter licentiousness, not to mention unnatural crimes, is something astounding. The chief causes of the low morality of savages, as judged by our standard, … insufficient powers of reasoning, so that the bearing of many virtues, especially of the self-regarding virtues, on the general welfare of the tribe is not recognised. Savages, for instance, fail to trace the multiplied evils consequent on a want of temperance, chastity, &c. … the weak power of self-command; for this power has not been strengthened through long-continued, perhaps inherited, habit, instruction and religion.
The hatred of indecency, which appears to us so natural as to be thought innate, and which is so valuable an aid to chastity, is a modern virtue, appertaining exclusively to civilised life.
With civilised nations, as far as an advanced standard of morality, and an increased number of fairly well-endowed men are concerned, natural selection apparently effects but little; though the fundamental social instincts were originally thus gained. I have already said enough, whilst treating of the lower races, on the causes which lead to the advance of morality, namely, [inter alia] religious feelings.
It is apparently a truer and more cheerful view that progress has been much more general than retrogression; that man has risen, though by slow and interrupted steps, from a lowly condition to the highest standard as yet attained by him in knowledge, morals, and religion.
In regard to the moral qualities, some elimination of the worst dispositions is always in progress even in the most civilised nations. Malefactors are executed, or imprisoned for long periods, so that they cannot freely transmit their bad qualities. Melancholic and insane persons are confined, or commit suicide. Violent and quarrelsome men often come to a bloody end. Restless men who will not follow any steady occupation - and this relic of barbarism is a great check to civilisation - emigrate to newly-settled countries, where they prove useful pioneers. Intemperance is so highly destructive. . Profligate women bear few children, and profligate men rarely marry; both suffer from disease.
If the various checks specified, and perhaps others as yet unknown, do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has occurred too often in the history of the world. It is impossible not bitterly to regret, but whether wisely is another question, the rate at which man tends to increase ; for this leads in … in civilised nations to abject poverty, celibacy, and to the late marriages of the prudent.
Looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance. In this case the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be I severe, and virtue will be triumphant.
AGNOSTIC NOT ATHEIST
Mr. Darwin begs me to say that he receives so many letters, that he cannot answer them all. "He considers that the theory of Evolution is quite compatible with the belief in a God; but that you must remember that different persons have different definitions of what they mean by God."
I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide.
Whether the existence of a conscious God can be proved from the existence of the so-called laws of nature (i.e., fixed sequence of events) is a perplexing subject, on which I have often thought, but cannot see my way clearly. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.
Science has nothing to do with Christ, except in so far as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can be hardly denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories. The belief in a God who cares, is an immense safeguard for morality.
Dr. Aveling tried to show that the terms "Agnostic" and "Atheist" were practically equivalent. … My father's replies implied his preference for the unaggressive attitude of an Agnostic.
I see no impossibility to God. Neither do I think He requires us to make out His nature clearly to our understandings, indeed Christ has told us we cannot, and I am content to wait.
A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.
699. Comment #15064 by DavidJMH on December 28, 2006 at 3:56 pm
Robin Allott writes:
"I see no impossibility to "God". Neither do I think "He" requires us to make out "His" nature clearly to our understandings, indeed "Christ" has told us we cannot and I am content with that.
It is precisely this type of belief in unsubstantiated and unthinking dogma that RD and the whole athiest cause are trying to illuminate. Simply because you are content to believe without question does not a "God", "He", "Him", or "Christ" make.
701. Comment #15117 by Robin Allott on December 29, 2006 at 2:51 am
You may not have noticed.
These are not my views but those of Charles Darwin extracted from The Descent of Man, his letters,his autobiography and other writings.
I personally do not necessarily agree with them. I listed them mainly to show how far Richard Dawkins has deviated from or left behind Darwin's own views.
703. Comment #15419 by Robin Allott on December 31, 2006 at 6:37 am
Comment 698 set out Darwin's views on the relation of religion (he was an unaggressive agnostic), morality and evolution in the The Descent of Man and other writings.
DARWIN ON MORALITY (greatly condensed):
"The other self-regarding virtues, which do not obviously, though they may really, affect the welfare of the tribe, have never been esteemed by savages, though now highly appreciated by civilised nations. Savages fail to trace the multiplied evils consequent on a want of temperance, chastity, &c [and on] the weak power of self-command, for this power has not been strengthened through long-continued, perhaps inherited, habit, instruction and religion. The hatred of indecency, which appears to us so natural as to be thought innate, and which is so valuable an aid to chastity, is a modern virtue, appertaining exclusively to civilised life. With civilised nations, as far as an advanced standard of morality, and an increased number of fairly well-endowed men are concerned, natural selection apparently effects but little. I have already said enough on the causes which lead to the advance of morality, namely, … [amongst others] religious feelings. Progress has been much more general than retrogression; man has risen, though by slow and interrupted steps, from a lowly condition to the highest standard as yet attained by him in knowledge, morals, and religion. We may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance. In this case the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be I severe, and virtue will be triumphant." If his ghost could return, it would be interesting to hear Darwin's views on the present state of society and societies.
On the publication of The Origin of Species, scholars believed that for the first time a really scientific ethics could be erected. John Morley went so far as to say "the next great task of Science is to create a religion for humanity". Science can be seen as a system of increasing rationality, as a direct influence on morality via technology, as the means for exploring the physiological and neurological substructure of morality, and even as in itself a system of international moral values -- to wit, the scientific virtues of truth, patience, industry, clarity, prudence, open-mindedness, but Science is not enough. Gesturing to the Zeitgeist is not enough.
If we no can longer rely on ritualised religious formulations, but morality is still important, is there any alternative rational basis for a modern morality? An objective basis for morality can be found in an evolutionary account of its origin and development. Morality is a key factor in the success of human groups in competition or co-existence with each other.A group's moral code represents an increasingly rational pattern of behaviour derived from the collective experience of the group handed down from generation to generation. Group selection is a controversial idea for animal evolution but it is inescapable in accounting for human evolution under the influence of language and the accumulation of cultural patterns. Morality has an objective physiological and neurological basis in so far as it exists to moderate the expression of the array of genetically-derived emotional patterns. Emotions represent the combination of action tendencies (neural motor programs) with (physiologically-derived) affective concomitants. The relation between emotion, empathy and morality is important. Empathy (a special form of perception which we are now coming to understand neurologically) has a key role both in the formation and cohesion of human groups and in the observance within groups of a moral code. Ultimately observance of moral rules depends on recognition by each individual of an integrating purpose in his life. In so far as the moral code is directed towards achieving this integrating purpose, morality for the individual becomes rational and can be objective for the society.
(to be continued)