Thursday, July 19, 2007

Altruism and Tribalism

I have been thinking of David Sloan Wilson's argument against Dawkins, in which he stresses group selection and the regulatory role of religion in social conduct. I have already pointed out one of the flaws in it--a major flaw, in my opinion, which is that religion may be subverted and this regulatory role corrupted for personal gain. Wilson's excursion into viral reproduction seems rather beside the point--I fail to see what an overly reproductive virus has to do with human altruism. The closest behavioural equivalent to this case would seem to be our domestication of animals.

The issue of group selection is critical to his argument. Here I have to side with Dawkins; the unit of transmission is the gene, and the vehicle in which the resulting trait is tested and selected for is the individual. This, I think, is something that Dawkins got exactly right. You cannot pass along a trait you don't have, and those who don't reproduce do not pass on their traits. Group dynamics, however, may enhance the surviveability of members of that group. This does not make the group the unit of selection, but it does mean that the traits of members of the group are more likely to survive. It may well be that homo sapiens outcompeted neanderthals through their ability to form extended social networks and long range trade--if so, this is an example where practices between members of a group enhance the fitness of the individuals. Dawkins himself talks about this dynamic in the chapter of the Selfish Gene entitled Nice Guys Finish First. Individuals who work cooperatively will tend to appear in clusters linked by family ties. The mutual support afforded by this trait would give the members of this extended clan a considerable advantage over those who did not share it, and were not part of the clan.

Yet, to preserve this trait amongst the clan, the members of the clan would also likely evolve a desire to screen entrants to the clan through marriage and reproduction, so that the members of the clan would 'breed true', and offspring would also have the altruistic trait. Those who did not have this trait would be refused entry into the clan through marriage or sexual access. The tribe would come to identify itself with a code which stressed reciprocity and interdependence over individual gain. As a signal that one shares this code, certain expensive behaviours would be required which indicated that the individual holds certain values to take precedence over individual gain. These behaviours are not like the peacock's tail--an extravegance which advertises fitness sufficient to survive a significant handicap. Instead, they are behaviours which benefit others, but which work in tandem with matching traits in the tribe, allowing the potential suitor, should he join the tribe, to reap the benefits of tribal altruism. The handicap becomes an advantage.

Amongst the members of the tribe, those who wish to specialize in setting the code of the tribe must exhibit altruistic behaviour towards the tribe to an extraordinary degree. Their generosity and self-sacrifice must be exceptional. This is the root of our regard for heroes, those whose physical and economic generosity go beyond the call of duty. Amongst the Norsemen, kings were often called "ring givers", cementing loyalty and a reputation for generosity with extravagant gifts. The heroes of ancient legend were men who fought, and died, for the protection of the tribe. In many cultures, even families who are not wealthy may push their resources to the limit in lavish dinners and parties, and in public acts of philanthropy. This display of personal sacrifice for the common good establishes their reputation as a member in good standing, worthy to draw upon the generosity of others in time of need.

Ascetics make the most extravagant display of personal sacrifice, giving away all that they have, owning no property, and having no means of self-sustenance beyond the generosity of others. All of their energies are turned towards the tribal code. This ostentatious display of selflessness is no less than an attempt to raise altruism to a perfect art. In return for this severe handicap, the ascetic is granted an unparalleled reputation. His advice is sought by all, even by the wealthy and powerful. His sacrifice is a shiboleth, a stamp of authenticity and authority, for by its very nature no purely self-interested person would choose this path.

Amongst Catholics with large families, it was a tradition that the first son would take over the family fortune, and the second would enter the priesthood. The priest, of course, took a vow of poverty, and renounced all reproductive rights--apparently a losing strategy, from a reproductive point of view. But the contribution of one child to regulative class gained the family access to the common wealth, tied them closer to community, and buffered them from transitory misfortune. The other siblings stood to gain much from this association. It was the equivalent of attaining membership in a welfare state, from which one could draw in time of need. That, at least, was the unspoken intent. As I have already pointed out in my essay on Sanctity, this is not how it usually works out.

The dark side of altruism is the screening process--the desire of the tribe to deny access to freeloaders. Freeloaders have two means of gaining entry: direct admission, and genetic admission through offspring. Because of the much greater investment in offspring by females, the sexual conduct of women comes under much greater scrutiny. It is far easier to disown the offspring of an undesirable female of another tribe than it is to disown the offspring of the females of one's own tribe. The philanderings of a wayward son may be accepted, even joked about, but the illegitimate offspring of a female, by a male who demonstrates his lack of commitment to the tribe by refusing responsibility, is another matter. The double standard should be readily apparent. Birth control also makes these practices obsolete.

Entrance into the tribe is strictly guarded, by elaborate courtship rituals, parental and familial approval, and a long process of familiarization. Strangers must prove themselves. This is the root of resistance to immigration, in which foreigners are admitted to the common wealth of the nation, and resistance to the welfare state, where simple need is granted access without consideration of past contribution. The welfare state, and immigration, rely on a more optimistic view of human nature--that most people will contribute when they are in a position to. Given the thousands of years of tribal selection, this is a reasonable assumption. The welfare state also recognizes that in a fluidly mobile society with large population concentrations, people can be fall through the cracks. Individuals may be separated from their families and friends, and in large cities, you may know hardly any of the people you see.

Expulsion from the tribe can occur in cases where freeloading is observed amongst existing members of the tribe. Those who have previously demonstrated their commitment to the tribe are far more likely to be given aid in hard times than those who are chronically in need. The temporarily unfortunate are a better risk. And there are different types of poverty; the ascetic demands little and contributes much, while the genuinely incompetent or selfish are a net drain. In Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt bitterly recalls how the Catholic Church cast his family aside as lost causes. This was a direct contradiction to Christian ethics, but not to old instincts. It also proved to be a miscalculation; none of McCourt's family, other than his father, proved to be chronically incompetent, and they never returned to the church.

In all of this, we can see some of the rudiments of religion. One thing notably absent in this picture is God himself. God, or the gods, were invoked as a catch-all explanation to natural events; we not only have a predilection to seeing intentionality where none exists, we also regard intentional conscious beings as atomically simple. Our ability to deal with other conscious beings is so specialized and deeply ingrained that we mistake a human mind, the most complex natural phenomena that we know of, as a fundamental building block. But God as cause or intentional being does not require the moral aspect of religion, and the moral aspect of religion does not seem to require God. Cognitive errors inspire belief in the God of Creation, but not the God of Judgement.

But the character of God is an ideal shorthand for the code of the tribe. We are ideally suited for telling stories about people, and telling a story about a divine persona which embodies our ethical principles is the simplest, most efficient, and highest fidelity means of transmitting shared values. The God of Judgement becomes fused with the God of Creation. Loyalty to the god of the tribe is an indicator of loyalty to the tribe. The god favours the tribe, the tribe is united under the god, and the values of the tribe are expressed in the character of the divine personality. The God of Judgement is the God of the Tribe.

Uniting the two gave a ring of objective reality to the morals of the tribe. Their laws were written in stone. Absolute power, reality, and goodness were united in one subject. The contemplation of the deity bound the tribe together, in a way that abstract principles could not, particularly to an illiterate population.

This answers a question that has plagued me for a long time: why the religious obsession with sex? But if sex is the principle access point to membership to the tribe, permitting undesirable traits to enter the population, then this may be one of the oldest parts of religion, possibly predating religion itself. It also explains why domination of women is so common, and why female genital mutilation and even honour killing have appeared in multiple cultures--Islam is used to justify these practices, but they are not part of the religion itself, and even conservative Imams have no problem denouncing them. All of these practices guard entry points into the tribe by curbing female sexuality. But beyond their sheer barbarity, the exasperating thing about these practices is that they don't even serve their original purpose. Birth control would do that, yet sheer force of tradition maintains these primitive practices. Once again, our genes make fools of us.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


This evening I was sitting at the cafe reading, and at the table next to me were a couple of men talking about their faith. One was avidly quoting to the other certain passages from the Bible, in a way that suggested that they were trying to understand the rules laid down by God on how to live. Perhaps the only parallel to this mode of discussion in my own experience is in trying to figure out the rules of a game, mathematical methods, or how a body of code works. They were trying to arrive at the simplest way of getting right with God--this, for them, was the way to figure out how to live, by a simple process of rote performance.

During their conversation, it became obvious that they were struggling with the meaning of many of the words, as they were using the King James version; words, like asunder, which I understand and use rather commonly. They talked about prophecies in Revelations, and I overheard one saying to the other "Gee, I hope that doesn't happen here." The other answered, "No, that probably won't happen here in Ottawa." I should perhaps also point out that they seemed to be rather heavily medicated, slow in speech and movement.

It is perhaps one of the greatest disappointments to those, particularly on the left, who would like to believe in human perfectability and the blank slate, that there are many people who simply cannot grasp the complexity of modern life, and who may reach desperately for a simpler model of reality. Raw intelligence, unfortunately, is a fixed quantity that resists all efforts towards radical enhancement. Many other things can be learned, but even these are capped by innate intellectual ability. Diligence will overcome much, and without it even intelligence will come to nothing, but certain limits are set at birth. I resisted this idea for a long time--it seems so elitist, and so undemocratic.

Those who are saddled with such restrictions must take as a great blessing the idea that there is only one book that need be mastered to understand life in all its complexity. Many of us who have read thousands of books still feel that we've only seen the tip of the iceberg, and still encounter daily ideas which leave us wondering, "Why haven't I ever heard of this before?" The more you know, the more you realize you don't know. But what must it be like to not even understand the words, let alone the ideas? It must seem to them that if they can just understand this one book, they can get a handle on all of it.

That book, however, is flawed, compromised, often dealing with subject matter that is reached for but never grasped, written in a code that has been lost, by disparate voices that can never be truly reconciled. It is archaic, sometimes brutally primitive in its ethical advice, poetic rather than descriptive, rife with factual inaccuracies, and in all liklihood is largely opaque to anyone who has not also read thousands of other books which deal with its influences, historical setting and references, issues of translation, and corrections to its long litany of mistakes. It is first and foremost an invitation, indeed an imperative, to learn, rather than an excuse to remain ignorant; the first step on the journey, not the destination. Nor is there any reason to assume that the journey leads anywhere remotely like the starting point.

But the Bible is also, first and foremost, a book of mythology. To understand the trick, you need to see it done. You must also read Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Blake, and more recently, Frank Herbert, Neil Gaiman, Phillip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, J.R.R Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Ursula K. Le Guin, and other writers of fantasy and science fiction. You must understand that words may have power without being literally true, that to the ancients, the metaphorical mode of language was of greater importance than the merely descriptive. You must understand that a story can be just a story and still be true, but not in the way that a manual or a research report is true. And you must understand that there are other stories that are just as true, if not more so, and that inspiration did not end two thousand years ago.

And yet, this book sits alone, without warning, in hotel rooms all over the world, as if it were sufficient unto itself. Its very presence alone in a bedside table makes the most grandiose and misleading of claims: this is all you need.

Monday, July 16, 2007


Long ago while playing Dungeons and Dragons, my character was presented with a supposedly good cleric whom he suspected was evil. To test him, I asked him to lead a service in the temple of that god. The cleric did so without ill effect--but later, it turned out that he was evil, and not even a cleric. I pointed out to the friend running the game that the god in question would have struck down the pretender for doing what he did. He shrugged and said that there were plenty of real clerics who were quite evil, but led religious services all the time. What he didn't understand was that in the fantasy world of D&D, the gods were real--and that changed everything. I realized then that a fantasy world would be remarkably different from our own, even our own in ancient or medieval times--for in our own world, people merely believed that magic was real. Real magic and real gods, however, would radically alter the social, political, and economic reality in which humans lived. Clerics would be afforded sanctity--the certainty, in the eyes of others, that the cleric is everything he appears to be, because there is a divine authority watching over him constantly, advising him, and ready to unseat him should he violate the codes of conduct.

Understanding what some of these differences would be can help us to understand some of the unspoken premises that believers and the superstitious hold. If the gods are real, then they interfere in the affairs of men. That's what it means do be omnipotent--or even, for your old school pagan gods, very powerful--you notice events in the world and affect them. Even those that are not omnipotent will have their attention drawn to acts of worship. This means that those who lead this worship will be under the direct scrutiny of their god, and must be scrupulously faithful to the moral tenents of their faith. This is why Divine Right was such a useful ploy; the king can't be all bad, or God wouldn't let him rule, would he?

Now consider a large group of people operating upon this premise. Their leaders cannot be wrong, because God would not permit it. The assurance and peace of mind that this would provide cannot lightly be written off. If they are lucky enough to have a genuinely ethical clergy and competent, moral leaders, then they will enjoy the best of all possible situations; their world is in good hands, and they don't have to worry about it. If, on the other hand, they have a leader like Jim Baker, or a pedophile priest, or God help them (if you'll excuse the expression), Jim Jones, then they are sheep being led to the slaughter.

But still, what are the odds that the worst will happen?

Pretty good, actually. There is nothing so attractive to the truly villainous as a station in society which is above question. As Frank Herbert put it, it is not so much that power corrupts, but that power attracts the corruptable. And there is no power so attractive to the sociopathic as the veil of sanctity, an armor which deflects all accusations. The worst of humanity claim the highest of motivations. Bin Laden claims the sanction of Islam; Stalin began his career in a seminary and later invoked the secular faith of communism; Hitler and Goebbels invoked Christianity and public morality while embarking on a course that was nothing short of Satanic. Charlie Manson's followers thought he was Christ. L. Ron Hubbard, Sun Myung Moon, and a long list of cult leaders attest to the attraction of sanctity for those without conscience. Idolatry, again, arises and proves itself the corrupter of the religious impulse.

Sanctity lays at the very root of problems which occur when politics are mixed with religion. David Sloan Wilson, objecting to Dawkins characterization of religion, talks about the Jains. The impoverished ascetics go from household to household begging--but in households which do not adhere to the customs and ethics of Jainism, the ascetic will refuse the food--a strong rebuke and embarassment to the members of the household. This, Wilson argues, serves as a strong policing mechanism for the members of the community. But take note--the ascetics are dirt poor! This simple fact, this lack of political and economic power, makes the role of the ascetic completely unappealing to the sociopath, who is, after all, out for personal gain. The police are themselves policed by the extreme sacrifices demanded of them.

Contrast this with Christian and Islamic religious leaders. Bishops live in a palace, sit on a throne, wear a ring and robe of office, and are, in all respects, nobility--the last nobility left in many Western countries. Televangelists and the leaders of Mega-Churches control pools of wealth in the millions, are afforded expenses and large homes, and wield great political power. Imams pass laws and often control the government, and draw upon the wealth of the Mosque. All of these people are in a position which would make the unscrupulous drool.

Like the Jain ascetics, Jesus and his followers lived hand to mouth. So too did the Cathar ascetics. Indeed, Jesus' career was so disastrous to his own personal fortune that Christians felt compelled to put a happy ending on it. Yet we instinctively understand that where the lure of wealth and power is, we are likely to find people of questionable motives--or we would know this if we are not blinded by faith. Even if the ascetics get it wrong (and there is no guarantee that they don't), we understand that the mistake is an honest one. Wilson takes issue with Dawkins for dismissing all religion--and yet, the overwhelmingly predominant form of religion which is now rising in the West holds the impoverished in contempt and believes that God will shower you with wealth if you pay proper obeisance. In the Muslim world, religion is politics. Like so many of religion's defenders, Wilson has mistaken a small proportion of believers as a representative sample. But they aren't, and I suspect that they never were.