Planet Earth

Against the Übermensch

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanAug 14, 2012 4:56 AM

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On some occasions I have disagreed with friends who were influenced by the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche as to the contingent role of Christianity in the introduction of a highly egalitarian moral ethos in the West. The same tendency toward valorization of spiritual equality, and an exaltation of self-sacrifice as opposed to selfishness, were elaborated in a variety of religious-ethical systems between the first Olympic Games and the rise of Islam. Nor do I think these religious-philosophical systems were particularly original. Rather, I suspect that they "hook" into deep rooted intuitions about the moral order of the universe that we already have as human beings. Fairness is at least as much felt as it is taught. I was reflecting upon this when considering narrative fiction, in particular works of adventure with a heroic protagonist. Though some characters may have flaws, we intuitively know what is the good. One of the fascinating aspects of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire is that the author seems to take joy in shattering the sanitized perceptions of medieval chivalry many have. And yet that heroic ideal persists. We know the archetype, and it's not some cultural creation. A hero is a hero is a hero. They defend the weak against the strong, because weakness and strength does not denote a particular moral rank order. Why? From an evolutionary perspective this is "the problem of altruism." If evolution maximizes individual fitness why do you help others? Kin selection, reciprocal altruism and group selection all purport to explain this phenomenon. The mathematical biologist Sergey Gavrilets has some answers, On the evolutionary origins of the egalitarian syndrome:

The evolutionary emergence of the egalitarian syndrome is one of the most intriguing unsolved puzzles related to the origins of modern humans. Standard explanations and models for cooperation and altruism—reciprocity, kin and group selection, and punishment—are not directly applicable to the emergence of egalitarian behavior in hierarchically organized groups that characterized the social life of our ancestors. Here I study an evolutionary model of group-living individuals competing for resources and reproductive success. In the model, the differences in fighting abilities lead to the emergence of hierarchies where stronger individuals take away resources from weaker individuals and, as a result, have higher reproductive success. First, I show that the logic of within-group competition implies under rather general conditions that each individual benefits if the transfer of the resource from a weaker group member to a stronger one is prevented. This effect is especially strong in small groups. Then I demonstrate that this effect can result in the evolution of a particular, genetically controlled psychology causing individuals to interfere in a bully–victim conflict on the side of the victim. A necessary condition is a high efficiency of coalitions in conflicts against the bullies. The egalitarian drive leads to a dramatic reduction in within-group inequality. Simultaneously it creates the conditions for the emergence of inequity aversion, empathy, compassion, and egalitarian moral values via the internalization of behavioral rules imposed by natural selection. It also promotes widespread cooperation via coalition formation.

I need to read, and perhaps replicate, the methods, before I say more. What I will offer though is that this type of research has obvious non-biological implications, in particular the human penchant for equality. But importantly this also has to be balanced against the fact that we're hierarchical creatures with a keen sense of our position on the pecking order. When it comes to human action, wheels within wheels.

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