May 2, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Human Mind Outwits Darwinian Models

Evolutionists struggle to explain complex human behaviors in Darwinian terms.  Sure, corporate squabbles can seem like survival of the fittest, but humans also sacrifice for people they don’t even know and do other weird, un-Darwinian things.  In Darwinism, selfishness rules.  How does cooperative and altruistic behavior arise from selfish motives?  Here are some of the recent attempts to reconcile observations with a theory in which selfishness is key.

  1. Charity an artifact of selfishness:  Omar Eldakar and David Sloan Wilson tried to conjure up altruism out of selfishness in PNAS.1  Wilson, author of the Evolution for Everyone curriculum (12/21/2005), taught that every behavior, even infanticide, was explainable in evolutionary terms.  Here he takes on sacrificial giving.  “Selfishness is seldom considered a group-beneficial strategy, the two authors began.  “In the typical evolutionary formulation, altruism benefits the group, selfishness undermines altruism, and the purpose of the model is to identify mechanisms, such as kinship or reciprocity, that enable altruism to evolve.”
        Eldakar and Wilson don’t believe that appeals to punishment can explain cooperation.  Punishment costs the punisher as well as the punishee, and experimental games show that individuals quickly stop being generous in the presence of selfish cheaters.  Instead, they invented a new “selfish punisher model” that proposes “behaving selfishly in first-order interactions and altruistically in second-order interactions by punishing other selfish individuals.”    How does it work?  The selfish guy punishes other selfish guys, increasing the pool of cooperators.  The model was reported by Science Daily with the quizzical title, “Selfishness may be altruism’s unexpected ally.”
        This, they propose, causes selfishness to be a self-limiting strategy that sustains altruism in a society.  “This polymorphism can be regarded as a division of labor, or mutualism, in which the benefits obtained by first-order selfishness help to ‘pay’ for second-order altruism.”  Their model keeps selfishness on top where it belongs in the Darwinian ethic: “This behavior might seem hypocritical in moral terms, but it makes sense as an evolutionary strategy,” they said.  They’re really not interested in morality, though.  They just want to model a stable process in a population.  It doesn’t matter whether it is made up of wasps or White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
        So does this explain why grandma writes a big check to a charity in Africa?  The paper’s mathematics and charts might explain beehive behavior to some extent, and why the Mafia keeps its own cheaters in check, or why civilization needs police departments as “specialized punishers” of bad guys.  But these were only suggested applications of a theoretical model at the end of the paper.  They talked about how punishment could keep cheaters from taking over, but they didn’t say anything about how Darwinism would motivate sacrificial love for strangers.  At best, they visualized a stable society that would allow altruistic individuals to keep from getting stomped on.  How or why any individual would give sacrificially to total strangers was left as an exercise: “We hope that our model stimulates interest in the concept of selfish punishment in both humans and nonhuman species.”.
  2. Promised Land:  Jerusalem – the holy city, in the land of promise.  One is drawn to contemplate Moses’ commands to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself, confirmed by Jesus as the greatest commandments.  Today, Darwinian scholars in the land of Israel have other priorities in mind.  Science Daily described how three professors at Hebrew University played games with subjects to figure out the motivations for cooperation and competition.
        The article began, “Phrases such as ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘every man for himself’ may seem to accentuate the presence of political and social competition in American culture; however, there obviously are similar instances of inter- and intra-group conflict across almost all known organisms.  So what makes competition so prevalent for life and why does it sometimes seem to be preferred over cooperation?”  Don’t look for the S-I-N word here.
        The researchers were surprised that the human subjects preferred to cooperate and leave the competition alone when given a choice.  “It appears, therefore, that participants much preferred avoiding conflict when given the option to strengthen their own group instead,” the article ended.  “But this still leaves behind yet another question of group dynamics: why, if humans prefer cooperation when given that option, are there so many instances of competition shown in everyday life?”  Maybe some things can’t be reduced to formulas and Darwinian games.
  3. Mimi vs We Oui:  A Science Daily article had the arresting title, “Decision Making: Is It All ‘Me, Me, Me’?”  The answering is, surprisingly, no.  People don’t always act in their own self interest.  British researchers found that team spirit trumps selfishness even when it costs the individual.
        “Orthodox or classical game predicts that people will act for selfish reasons,” the article said.  This is being challenged by “team reasoning theory,” the idea that individual self-interest is not always foremost in the way people act.  Instead, people often act in the best interest of their team.  This runs counter to the Nash Equilibrium (recall the movie A Beautiful Mind) that based its formula on individual self-interest.
        The researchers were “delighted” that they found a contradiction with orthodox game theory.  “Theories of team reasoning were developed to explain why, in some circumstances, people seem to act not in their individual self-interest but in the interest of their families, companies, departments, or the religious, ethnic, or national groups with which they identify themselves.”  Apparently they did not try to broach this observation in strictly Darwinian terms.
  4. Others Esteem:  If a little selfishness is good for Darwin, more should be better.  That’s another faulty inference, reported Science Daily about the opinion of Michael Kernis, psychologist at University of Georgia.  High self-esteem can be fragile and counter-productive.  “People with fragile high self-esteem compensate for their self-doubts by engaging in exaggerated tendencies to defend, protect and enhance their feelings of self-worth,” he said.
        Psychologists are trending away from the self-esteem fad of the 90s (05/12/2003).  “It was once thought that more self-esteem necessarily is better self-esteem,” the article said.  “In recent years, however, high self-esteem per se has come under attack on several fronts, especially in areas such as aggressive behavior.  Also, individuals with high self-esteem sometimes become very unlikable when others or events threaten their egos.”
        Kernis offered a more complex view of self-esteem: “it is now thought that there are multiple forms of high self-esteem, only some of which consistently relate to positive psychological functioning.”  Maybe Darwin can still save face.  Whether it is high self-esteem, low self-esteem or healthy self-esteem, it is still self-esteem.
  5. Against just-so psychology:  “Evolutionary psychology has tempted many scientists to indulge in just-so stories….; asserting that our brains are poorly engineered is an equally risky business.”  So Sandra Aamodt wrote in her review of two psychology books for Nature on April 23.2  It’s not that she was about to junk Darwin.  She just was pointing out that the brain and mind are pretty complex things to put into evolutionary terms.  For example, summing up Adam Zeman’s book A Portrait of the Brain (Yale, 2008) and Gary Marcus’s book Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), she criticized reductionism:

    In the final chapter, Zeman grapples with consciousness.  He outlines how brains that are predisposed to tell stories and that attribute actions to agents rather than chance might lead us to believe in an immortal soul.  His own view is that this is “no more than a wonderful fiction”.  (Marcus makes the same point less gently.)  Zeman struggles with science’s failure to find an emotionally satisfying replacement story, conceding that such questions may be more in the realm of art than science.

    An aggressive, Darwinian science department has long sought to take over the arts and humanities (02/11/2008, 12/11/2005), reducing everything to selectionist terms.  What will happen if the Darwinians relinquish something as big as consciousness to the arts?  Aamodt left that crack in the dam unplugged.  And her claim that “Evolutionary psychology has tempted many scientists to indulge in just-so stories” might just tempt the philosophy professor to ask how far back the storytelling goes.

  6. Can’t Darwinize the Golden Rule:  Why do so many people follow the Golden Rule instead of the Law of the Jungle?  Prashanth Ak tried to address that conundrum in his book review of Donald Pfaff’s new book, The Neuroscience of Fair Play (Dana Press, 2008), in Science magazine this week.3  He began by summarizing the historical tug-of-war over reductionism:

    Naturalized ethics, the idea that principles of natural science bear on normative ethics, faces two longstanding objections.  The naturalistic fallacy cautions that good, in the moral sense, cannot be defined from natural properties.  Hume warned against deriving an ought (as in how people ought to act) from an is (how people actually act, for instance).  Most of those who seek to naturalize ethics are familiar with these arguments but maintain that scientific findings can have a profound impact on our understanding of morality and ethics.
        The question of whether ethical concepts have innate bases or are acquired has echoes of the nature-versus-nurture question and carries much the same ideological baggage.  Whether it is our natures or our cultures that make us who we are has been central to all sorts of intense debates, on topics including the ideal political system, effective means of teaching, and crime and punishment.  Discussions of the nature of morality exhibit similar polarity, with some boasting of their indifference to neuroscience and others embracing it wholeheartedly.

    In the book, Pfaff tried to make a case that since the Golden Rule is universal, there must be a neurological basis for it.  Remember “Wesley Autrey, who threw himself on top of a stranger in the New York City subway to save the person from being crushed by an oncoming train”?  How does Darwin explain that? (02/22/2004).  Ak summarized Pfaff’s hypothesis in academic gobbledygook:

    Pfaff hypothesizes that such altruism is due to brain mechanisms that override selfpreference and blur the boundaries between the self and the other through a “loss of social information.”  He conjectures that it depends in part on neurobiological mechanisms for fear, supplemented by neurohormonal bases of sexual and parental behaviors, and that departures from altruistic behavior are due to similar neurogenetic bases of antisocial behaviors.  Pfaff suggests that the capacity of a person to behave according to the golden rule depends on a balance–properly, an imbalance–among social behavioral mechanisms in which those producing prosocial actions outweigh those producing antisocial actions.

    Whether or not that was comprehensible, Ak was clearly not satisfied with it.  “Pfaff’s broad-brush treatment of altruism, however, is bound to bother quite a few readers,” he said, adding later: “considerably more sophisticated cognitive mechanisms than those posited in the book are required.”  Any unfinished business?  “the study of possible biological bases of morals.”

  7. Old folks:  Also in Science,4 Erik Myin reviewed a new book on folk psychology: Daniel Hutto’s Folk Psychological Narratives (MIT, 2008).  Myin seemed downright unsatisfied with traditional evolutionary stories about why humans act so – well, human:

    Traditional explanations of our folk psychological capacities split on whether the crucial mechanism for understanding others is a result of genuinely theorizing about their beliefs and desires (a theory of mind) or of simulating these.  Nevertheless, nearly all researchers in the tradition invoke complex “mindreading” machinery, operating behind the scenes.  Moreover, it is generally assumed that this cognitive machinery has a strong innate component.  The machinery must have been present in our evolutionary precursors, so a common argument goes, or else some of their well-established capacities–e.g., deception, social learning of tool use, social cooperation, the emergence of symbolic language–cannot be accounted for.
        In Folk Psychological Narratives, Dan Hutto presents an alternative conception of folk psychology as well as a thorough critique of its traditional treatment in the cognitive sciences.  Hutto, a philosopher of psychology and professor at the University of Hertfordshire, rejects the idea that our stance toward each other is genuinely “theoretical.

    Folk psychology – the attempt to explain one another’s actions in terms of their beliefs and reasons – has been viewed as an artifact of neuroscience.  We don’t really read each other’s minds to figure out what people believe and are about to do.  The assumption of psychologists, with their theory of mind, is that such reasonings are epiphenomena of what our neurons are doing.
        Hutto and his reviewer seem to be elevating the status of folk psychology as a genuinely explanatory tool.  We must explain one another in narrative terms instead of trying to develop a physical theory of mind.  Both still work from the premise that humans evolved from pre-human ancestors, but Hutto argues that human language was a prerequisite for folk psychology; it did not exist among tool-using hominids.  Maybe that sets humans genuinely apart from the animals—even to Darwinists like these.
        Regardless of one’s position on folk psychology, Myin pointed out that Darwinian psychology has not achieved explanatory nirvana.  There are still “fundamental debates that have raged in cognitive science through recent decades,” he said.


1.  Omar Tonsi Eldakar and David Sloan Wilson, “Selfishness as second-order altruism,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, published online on April 30, 2008, 10.1073/pnas.0712173105.
2.  Sandra Aamodt, “Biased brains, messy memories,” Nature 452, 938-939 (24 April 2008) | doi:10.1038/452938a.
3.  Prashanth Ak, “Neuroscience: On Deciding How to Do unto Others,” Science, 2 May 2008: Vol. 320. no. 5876, pp. 614-615, DOI: 10.1126/science.1157089.
4.  Erik Myin, “Cognitive Science: Rethinking Folk Psychology,” Science 2 May 2008: Vol. 320. no. 5876, p. 615, DOI: 10.1126/science.1157120.

Prashanth Ak did not answer the “naturalistic fallacy” (defining good by what is natural).  He merely bluffed that he knew about it and still had faith in reductionist science.  If we are only our brains, and those brains evolved ultimately from purposeless matter, then abandon all attempts to define morality, consciousness, or reason itself.
    The reductionist, physicalist, secularist wizards have had a long time to conjure up a mind out of matter.  Maybe if they continue to bump their heads against reality, it will sober up their Darwin-inebriated souls.
    Physicist John Archibald Wheeler passed away recently.  He seems to have been fond of the teaser, “What is matter?  Never mind.  What is mind?  No matter.”

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