Apologies for not posting anything recently. I have something in the works at BigThink and a few more in the pipeline but it has been hard finding the time to blog recently. I hope to be back to it in a couple of weeks.
The question of “where morals come from” has exercised philosophers, theologians and many others for millennia. It has lately, like many other questions previously addressed only through armchair rumination, become addressable empirically, through the combined approaches of modern neuroscience, genetics, psychology, anthropology and many other disciplines. From these approaches a naturalistic framework is emerging to explain the biological origins of moral behaviour. From this perspective, morality is neither objective nor transcendent – it is the pragmatic and culture-dependent expression of a set of neural systems that have evolved to allow our navigation of complex human social systems.
“Braintrust”, by Patricia S. Churchland, surveys the findings from a range of disciplines to illustrate this framework. The main thesis of the book is grounded in the approach of evolutionary psychology …
we’ve been thinking about the genetics of intelligence from completely the
wrong angle? Intelligence (as
indexed by IQ or the general intelligence factor “g”) is clearly highly heritable in humans – people who are more genetically
similar are also more similar in this factor. (Genetic variance has been estimated as explaining ~75% of variance in g,
depending on age and other factors).
There must therefore be genetic variants in the population that affect
intelligence – so far, so good.
But the search for such variants has, at its heart, an implicit
assumption: that these variants affect intelligence in a fairly specific way – that
they will occur in genes “for intelligence”. An implication of that phrase is that mutations in those genes were positively
selected for at some stage in humanity’s descent from our common ancestor with
apes, on the basis of conferring
increased intelligence. This
seems a fairly reasonable leap to make – such genes must exist and, if variation
The reductionist perspective on biology is
that it all boils down to physics eventually. That anything that is happening
in a living organism can be fully accounted for by an explanation at the level
of matter in motion – atoms and molecules moving, exerting forces on each
other, bumping into each other, exchanging energy with each other. And, from
one vantage point, that is absolutely true – there’s no magic in there, no mystical
vital essence – it’s clearly all physical stuff controlled by physical laws. But that perspective does not provide a
sufficient explanation of life. While living things obey the laws of physics,
one cannot deduce either their existence or their behaviour from those laws
alone. There are some other factors at work – higher-order principles of design
and architecture of complex systems, especially ones that are either designed
or evolved to produce purposeful
behaviour. Living systems are for
something – ultimately, they are for replicating themselves, but the…