Re: poly: polymath digest for 07 Feb 98

From: d.brin <>
Date: Mon Feb 09 1998 - 00:52:54 PST

From: (d.brin)
Subject: Evolution of morality

The topic raised by Damien and Robin -- whether morality has any intrinsic
or practical/evolutionary basis -- is given a chapter in my new book. Very
briefly, there are several aspects worth considering.

* While I think many biologists have been rash to utterly reject group
selection, they are clearly right that individual selection is at least an
order of magnitude more important. This manifests in the way many animals
(e.g. peacocks) acquire physical traits that are not 'good' for the species
as a whole, but which benefit an individual male's reproductive success.

This same tendency manifests in societies.

What is good for a society? Avoidance of error. The one method for doing
this that has proved effective is criticism, diverse and ego-driven, with a
myriad 'T Cells" eagerly carping on any perceived failure mode, forcing the
proponents of a policy to defend it. This can only be achieved in an
environment of free speech.

What is good for individual leaders? Suppression of criticism! Even if it
leads to massive societal collapse! Witness Stalin, Saddam and nearly
every other suppressive tyrant.

The upshot? Basic human nature has encouraged leaders, through massive
reproductive success (via harems) to pass on and reinforce traits that
suppress the very social mechanisms that would lead to civilization
success! Hence the rarity of Periclean democracy, as opposed to that other
product of Athens, the malignant Platonism that is used to justify despots.

If group selection were more powerful, democracy might have come to
dominate by now. But group selection is weak. Only the overpowering
demonstration of success in American civilization has enabled the new meme
to gain a partial dominance in this age, and it is fought tooth and nail by
old-fashioned dominating hierarchs.
     Ironically, free speech has justifications that are entirely pragmatic
-- e.g. error avoidance. But free speech will only be defended with
PASSION if we use Platonist propaganda methods, calling it a fundamental
and religious principle. What an irony!

* We are also seeing a great struggle between two views re: the inherent
TOXICITY OF IDEAS. Nearly every other culture was dominated by the view
that ideas are dangerous and that children/subjects must be defended
against hazardous inputs. Only a minority held the opposite view... that
safe/mature minds can be achieved by innoculating children/citizens with
critical faculties that can then examine any alien notion on its own
merits. But now, for the first time, the latter point of view is dominant
in a culture's ethos and law.

Ironically, neither side has yet proved its point. Both can cite a myriad
anecdotes, showing examples of either memic-poisoning or surprising degrees
of conceptual strength. The jury is still out with this one... even though
members of the polymath list are certainly all believers in the 'maturity'

* Foreign tyrants have learned to fight back against free speech memes by
citing cultural sovereignty. There is an answer, however. We must push
human rights in foreign lands FOR OUR OWN SAFETY'S SAKE... because
tyrannies nearly always depend on a very narrow range of decision inputs,
leading to inevitable cascades of horrible error (like persuading
themselves they can take on the 'decadent' west in war.) These horrific
blunders won't be made if their decisions are subject to scrutiny by a free
and educated populace.

Hence, freedom for their peoples is a matter of fundamental protection for
our own.

* Having said that, are we guaranteed success, just because we are more
adaptable and better at error-detection? Does our 'T Cell' immune system
safeguard us against the forces that brought down other cultures?

Not necessarily. We are very new at these techniques, and America now
shows signs of suffering from the equivalent to an auto-immune disorder.
Centrifugal forces, necessary in order for T Cells to do their jobs, are no
longer countered by centripetal memes, binding people together with a sense
of shared community. Kevin Costner tried preaching a gentle, centripetal
patriotism in The Postman, and was severely punished for it by
solipsist/cynic critics. If our immune cells spend all their time
self-righteously attacking the body politic, never differentiating between
diseased and healthy tissue, it will doom our culture. The center cannot
hold. Things will fall apart.

It took metazoans half a billion years to figure out immune systems, and
some still fail. It would be surprising if America manages it without many
severe crises -- some of them triggered by indignant 'cells' who think
their self-loving rage is vastly more important than the civilization that
nurtured them.

Tim May, you listening out there? Ingratitude is like cancer. Like AIDS.
It could kill this wondrous experiment in liberty. If so, it may be
another 2,000 years before the Periclean experiment is tried again.

* Damien, I'd love to see those snippets/citations from Posner.

Best of luck, guys.
Received on Mon Feb 9 08:51:21 1998

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