May 27, 2009

Hard-Wired Morality

This looks interesting.

University of Colorado, Boulder ecologist, Marc Beckoff, and philosopher, Jessica Pierce, have written a new book (Wild Justice
) that examines morality as an adaptive strategy for helping aggressive and/or competitive species to live together in groups. Morality, in the form of empathy, cooperation and reciprocity, provides what Beckoff calls, the "social glue," for group living.

The authors cite evidence from around the world and across a variety of species, from mice to elephants, that support the claim that animals have an innate sense of fairness and empathy. For instance, experiments with rats have shown that they will refuse to obtain food if their actions will protect other rats from being harmed. As well, in play, dominate wolves will self-handicap and allow lower ranked wolves to bite them. Additionally, neurological evidence is presented that shows how some species have structures in their brains that are similar to those "empathy" areas in human brains.

This is a very interesting topic, and I just might have to put this book on my summer reading list. I agree that what we call morality today probably started out as an adaptive strategy for group living, because social networks were so important for survival across species. And as such, evidence for this "social glue" should be abundant in nature.

Such evidence for a hard-wired morality could have strong implications for us humans. For one, morality is often seen as a philosophical and/or religious concept. It sometimes seems like scientists have no business talking about moral issues. But this book could show that one doesn't need religion to explain while we feel empathy for others, have urges to be honest, and want to protect others from harm. Such feelings could be . . . dare I say it . . . instinctual. Yet I'm not sure whether I would agree that animals can tell the difference between right and wrong, not in the abstract sense that we mean those concepts. I really liked what Emory primatologist, Frans de Waal, said on the topic:

"I don't believe animals are moral in the sense we humans are – with well developed and reasoned sense of right and wrong – rather that human morality incorporates a set of psychological tendencies and capacities such as empathy, reciprocity, a desire for co-operation and harmony that are older than our species. Human morality was not formed from scratch, but grew out of our primate psychology. Primate psychology has ancient roots, and I agree that other animals show many of the same tendencies and have an intense sociality."
Really cool, exciting stuff. Guess I'll have to pick the book up sometime.

May 25, 2009

Bridging the gap between the Humanities and the Sciences

So it's been a couple weeks since my last post. You know how it goes, classes ending, submitting grades, finishing papers, etc. And let's not forget the importance of taking a much needed rest from work!

Well, not too much is going on now . . . besides teaching the lab sections for summer courses and working on summer research projects. Anyways, the other day I was browsing the Edge website and came across this page celebrating the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow's lecture on the "Two Cultures," that is the culture of the literary intellectual and the culture of the scientist. At the time, the two cultures were seen as divided camps of thinking. Those in the humanities were viewed as the true intellectuals (i.e., those in philosophy, literature/poetry, art, the social sciences, etc.). And the expectation was that scientists had very little to say about culture, the human experience, or human nature.

50 years later, Seed Magazine asked members of the "Third Culture" (i.e., those bridging the gap between the humanities and the sciences) whether the two cultures are still divided today. Visit the link and check out the videos. They're pretty good, and quite short (6-10 mins.). Overall, the answer seems to be that the two cultures are not as divided as once was and is more like a continuum from one pole to the other. Advancements made in the science of the mind have especially contributed to bridging this gap. It has helped changed how we think about those abstract concepts (e.g., human nature, religion, even beauty). As well, it is young scholars who are becoming more and more interested in collaboration among different fields of inquiry.

Below are the videos from Harvard psychologists, Steven Pinker and Marc Hauser. Enjoy!: