Friday, January 12, 2007

Emotions - How Are They Related to Survival of The Fittest?

5. Emotions such as love, hate, empathy, selflessness, patriotism, even the contemplation of beauty don't seem to fit into survival patterns without a real stretch. In other words, most honest evaluators would not think that sacrificial love is a product of evolution.

Bernardo's Response to #5. I don't think the evolutionary explanations for these emotions are "a real stretch". A behavior that makes it more likely for the group to survive (even if this means the sacrifice of an individual) makes it more likely that the group will pass on the gene (or the custom) for that behavior. So we evolved compassion for those in our group and hostility towards those in other groups. As for things like the contemplation of beauty or even the invention of gods, those are probably consequences of evolved traits that came about for some benefit other than the ones we experience. Our ability to detect and generalize patterns probably evolved to help us survive in the wild, but it also causes us to experience pleasure when we encounter certain kinds of patterns. Our ability to detect intentionality, our strong psychological tendency to believe what our parents tell us, and other such characteristics, may have helped us to survive in the wild, but today they make religious ideas much more believable than those ideas reasonably should be. It's like the moth who evolved to navigate by flying at a constant angle relative to the incoming rays of light (i.e. by keeping the light source at a certain angle relative to the moth's body): It works really well when the light source is really far away and the rays are parallel (sun), but when the light source is fairly nearby and the rays all emanate from it (lamp), the moth spirals into the light source, sometimes to its death.

Randy's response: Like I said, these ideas seem far-fetched. Not impossible. Merely less likely than that they were built into our being. I'd be more inclined to buy that the ideas of morality, beauty, etc., are similar to the "rules" of the universe.

Why are squirrels cute, and rats not? Why are monarch butterflies considered beautiful, while moths are not? Why not quartz as the prized stone instead of diamonds?

7 comments:

Jeffrey said...

Merely asserting an idea is "far-fetched" doesn't lead to any kind of productive argument. Why is it far-fetched? What sort of test might you do to verify your hypothesis or your opponent's? If you don't attempt to answer these kinds of questions, you're not arguing, you're just asserting.

Your questions are, to my mind, rather inane. I know lots of people who don't find squirrels cute (and after having trapped 6 in my attic, I agree). There are lots of moths that many would consider beautiful, such as Conchylodes nolckenialis and Sphaeromachia cubana. And quartz is prized, in the form of amethyst. Diamonds are prized mostly because of the marketing efforts of DeBeers, not because they are particularly interesting gemstones.

An aside: I recommend Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained as a thought-provoking naturalistic analysis of religion.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Animals display love and hate quite easily. Are you therefore saying that God gave them a lesser soul?

Diamonds are rarer than quartz, squirrels rarely bite sleeping babies, and many moths are beautiful (try Luna moths, for example).

bernardo said...

"Like I said, these ideas seem far-fetched. Not impossible. Merely less likely than that they were built into our being".

My ideas sound far-fetched to you. Your ideas sound far-fetched to me (and needlessly complicated and with next-to-zero real explanatory power). Which one of us is right?

"I'd be more inclined to buy that the ideas of morality, beauty, etc., are similar to the "rules" of the universe".

Morality, maybe. Beauty, heck no.

An ideal morality could probably be found (by beings more enlightened than us - hopefully, by future humans - which is happening slowly) by using utilitarian principles and a knowledge of psychology, of why people suffer, of what people need and want, of how people are motivated, of how to make people aware of (and compassionate for) others.

Beauty comes from the way our brains evolved. You cannot possibly believe that aliens would have a similar taste in art, music, and landscapes as we would. Besides, almost any physical thing is beautiful if you know how to appreciate it.

Our brains evolved so that we would want to protect and care for beings with certain characteristics, those characteristics all being found in human children. So if you think squirrels are cuter than rats, then your brain probably sees squirrels as more human-child-like than rats. That's one theory, anyways. It might not be right, but I figure the truth is along those lines.

Animals that have simple shapes and unusual colors (some butterflies, some fish, some birds) or animals that move "gracefully", i.e. with low accelerations (some butterflies, some primates, deer, many marine animals) are beautiful, probably because we appreciate that they are a rare sight and/or because we can understand their shape and their movements without much thinking. In other words, I believe that beauty is something that appears very simple and elementary to the parts of our brain that try to understand the world around us. Again, that's just one theory, one aspect of it, but to me it's much more interesting than "oh, "what is beautiful" is just a fundamental aspect of the universe".

And never underestimate the power of marketing and the media (a.k.a. "memetic engineering") to make you think something (or some kind of person) is beautiful or valuable.

Anonymous said...

Rats are cute.
Some moths are beautiful, some butterflies are not.
Diamond is harder and rarer.

next...

Anonymous said...

Randy,

I find your blog to be quite interesting reading, though I find we disagree on several points. Still, I wonder if you would be willing to write a post for a website I'm on called BraveHumans. Our goals are similar to yours, but expand beyond just the theism/atheism debate. We are looking for contributers from all points of view, and currently our writers lean toward the secular. My next post will argue against intelligent design, and I love to have a contributed post to counter it.

Thanks, Brian

(Sorry about doing this through a comment, but I couldn't find any other way to contact you.)

Russet Shadows said...

Arguing that survival of the group is benefitted even by the sacrifice of the individual is utterly illogical from the perspective of the survival of the genes of any particular carrier. Genes themselves have no innate intelligence. They know nothing of others outside the host; the host's will to survive can be thought of as the desire to pass on his or her traits; death ends the ability to do that. So, from an evolutionary vantage point, those traits slowly die out, because the individuals that carry them die out. Thus, you can have no group-benefitting traits that do not also benefit the individual.

That logic makes a rather typical leap of faith from the survival of the individual to the survival of groups by relying upon the same mechanism to assure both. It is clearly self-contradictory, for no groups survive without individuals surviving first.

"It's like the moth that..." This is another rather typical "just so" story. We have no evidence that the moth was some way prior; all we see and all we know is that the moth is like that now. Confusing the mechanism by which the moth works with an explanation of origins is also rather typical of muddled Scientism thought.

bernardo said...

"Arguing that survival of the group is benefitted even by the sacrifice of the individual is utterly illogical..."

No it's not. It's utilitarian! =]

"Genes themselves have no innate intelligence. They know nothing of others outside the host."

Yes, we all know that. How is that relevant?

"the host's will to survive can be thought of as the desire to pass on his or her traits; death ends the ability to do that."

Ah, but it does not. If his death (or other sacrifice) prolongs the survival of his relatives, the genes go on. So, just as his will to survive is naturally selected for, his will to care for his relatives is also naturally selected.

Genes are carried not only by individuals, but also by families. Any behavior that helps to preserve a family line will probably end up being selected for, since the family shares a lot of genes. You do admit that an individual can be seen as a survival machine for his genes (even when "an individual" is really a collection of tissues, which are collections of cells, working together rather than competing to the death), so why is it so hard to see a family as a survival machine for their genes?

"We have no evidence that the moth was some way prior; all we see and all we know is that the moth is like that now."

I suppose you're right. It's just a "story" that illustrates a certain mechanism. Even if the story is not true, the mechanism is viable, and it happens to be a mechanism that can explain (to some degree) how we came to be, how inanimate goo turned into complex self-aware beings over billions of years.