November 26, 2014

This op-ed by one Razib Khan in Tuesday’s NY Times, on the evolution of domesticity in cats and humans, reminded me of a train of thought I’ve taken from time to time over the past few years, so now I feel like posting something on it.

It started for me in 2006 when another Times article introduced me to Dmitri Belyaev, a Soviet geneticist who boldly defended modern evolutionary theory in the age of Stalin and Lysenko, and went on to begin a long-range experiment with Siberian foxes and other wildlife. His goal was to establish and study the heritability of characteristics tending towards domestication, and his method was the classic method of animal breeders throughout time, such as those who inspired Darwin: collecting a batch of animals, selecting and separating out for breeding those with at least some trace of the trait desired – docility in this case, or (for the sake of contrast) aggression – and repeating the process for each generation so as to create in the end two distinct populations: one with the temperament of house pets, the other so aggressive it cannot be handled at all.

More recently, the work of Belyaev was referenced by Harry Turtledove, the Byzantine historian turned alternate-history writer, in a short story called It’s the End of the World As We Know It, And We Feel Fine (Analog, March, 2013). Turtledove describes a future in which humankind has finally dealt with the danger of totally destructive warfare by deliberately breeding all the aggression, nastiness and egotism out of itself. In this world almost everybody is compulsively nice; also rather plump, and with other physical markers that go with domestication (I don’t recall whether they have floppy ears as well). The reader may well sense (at least I did) a certain authorial dyspepsia, an attempt to communicate that there’s something’s wrong with this picture and that something essentially human has been lost, but the story is well-enough written to avoid excessive heavy-handedness; the future is presented fairly on its own terms.

(Just a day or two before I read “End of the World” I had been leafing through a book in the self-help and business management category, suggesting among other things that we can improve both our mood and our effectiveness by toning down the words we use to think of and describe situations; dialing back from “catastrophe” and “disaster” to maybe “misfortune, problem, unpleasantness.” So I was delighted to find that Turteldove’s characters call the near-total war that led to their Belyaevization “The Big Fracas.”)

But what I have been thinking on and off since 2006 is more along the lines of the Razib Khan op-ed – a kind of long-term natural Belyaevization, going back to the first human societies and intensifying as communities have grown larger and more complex. With each stage in our history, reproductive advantage has shifted away from the wilder and tougher among us, in favor of those who are best able to get along and follow the rules of their community. It can’t be helped; this is how we are, for better or for worse; probably for better, as the alternative would be for us not to have made it this far.

It is perfectly possible – as demonstrated with lactose tolerance – for significant differences in heritable traits to have developed among human populations within the relatively short span of human history. Maybe some of the alleged differences in personality and aptitude that have been taken (disparagingly) to correlate with primordial “races” might in fact really exist at some level, but only as a fairly recent development, depending on whether or not a given population has within the past couple of millennia gone through the Belyaev pressure-cooker of agriculture and urbanization.



June 22, 2011

Another day, another book that the reviews and press reports make me want to comment on even though I haven’t had time to read it (yet…)

Simon Baron Cohen, a cousin of the Borat Baron Cohen, is a psychologist known for his research on autism. Years ago I was impressed by an article I read by him – NY Times I think, an op-ed or else something in the Tuesday science section – in which he depicted the autism spectrum as an extreme development of that preference for systematic thinking over empathy which tends to distinguish men from women. An “extreme male mind.” As one of the many who would rather read a map than ask for directions, of course I found this quite interesting, and made a mental note of his name if only so as to recognize it whenever it popped up again.

Well, this week it’s been popping up quite a bit in connection with his new book The Science of Evil: On empathy and the origins of human cruelty. (Original U.K. title:  Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty.) Psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists and the like, he says, all lack the ability to empathize, to recognize and share the feelings of others – but unlike people on the autism spectrum, they also lack the somewhat compensatory ability to observe patterns and follow rules strictly, and so are a total menace to those around them. He calls them “Zero-Negatives.”

I’m not so sure. There’s something to it, no doubt, but I agree with the observation made already by several critics of the book, that the people who commit really sadistic acts don’t seem at all unaware that their victims are in pain. The whole point of it is that they enjoy seeing people in pain. – I do not use the word “evil” much, I am not a very moralistic sort of person, but if I had to define something that I considered quintessentially “evil” it would be malice – the unprovoked desire to hurt and destroy for the sheer pleasure of it. And where does that come from? The cluelessness of autism can’t explain it, it seems to be something else entirely…

– Baron Cohen himself, defining empathy in an earlier book The Essential Difference (which I also haven’t read but I found the quote on Wikipedia), distinguishes a cognitive and an affective component to empathy: “understanding the others [sic] feelings and the ability to take their perspective,” contrasted with an “appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotional state.” But even this can be broken down further: “understanding” and “taking their perspective” are two very different things…

I don’t consider myself particularly “empathetic” in the sense of actually sharing others’ pain, nor do I feel a need to. I can try to imagine how I would feel in another person’s situation, but I have no confidence that the result of the exercise is really what the other person is feeling; and all my life I’ve had people claiming to know what I was feeling when in fact they were quite mistaken, which has led me to believe very strongly that no one really knows what it feels like to be another person. But I can recognize others’ pain, even if I haven’t a clue what’s causing it, and I generally would like to end it if I can. Because I tend to like people, and I especially like being around happy non-suffering people. That’s just me.

I think Baron Cohen is correct in his claim that a “theory of mind” is essential to normal development – i.e. a recognition that inside the heads of all these other organisms that look more or less like ourselves, there is probably something going on which is analogous to what is going on inside our own heads. But it seems to me that a further step is needed to produce reliably good behavior, and that is a recognition – whether we get to it more by cognitive or by affective means – that we and those around us are at some level on the same side. Ideally, we extend this recognition to all humankind; in the more limited case, we get those perfectly good citizens who will readily commit atrocities against whomever they’ve been taught to regard as an “enemy” or “not fully human…”