Monday, July 6, 2015

Would you still go into the lab if you knew life on Earth was going to end tomorrow?

One of the most stubborn tenets of a strict Darwinian view of the world is that we are inherently selfish.  Thus, everything we do is to enhance our fitness, to get as many of our genes into the next generation as we possibly can, by hook, by crook, by wile and deceit.  Even if we help relatives, we are doing it only because they share our genes and, therefore, it's good for us. If we help strangers, that, too, is rationalized by the notion of reciprocity--we do it only because they'll help us later.  It's a 'theory' that can rationalize anything that seems at odds with it, a theory that can't be falsified!

Given all this, the June 29 episode of the BBC Radio 4 program Analysis, a discussion with philosopher Steven Scheffler of the idea of the collective afterlife, is an interesting one.  Scheffler recently published a book called Death and the Afterlife, drawn from a series of lectures, in which he in no sense means that we will have any kind of life after we have died.  He is concerned instead with the life that continues on without us, after our deaths.  He proposes a number of thought experiments to help elucidate how we feel about just that.

The BBC program began with two questions for the audience -- "Do you believe that people and the earth will continue to exist after your own death?"  And the second, "If you knew that Earth would be destroyed 30 days after your death by a collision with a large asteroid, would that change how you live your life?"  Another perspective on the same sort of question is what the detective novelist P.D. James wrote about in her 1992 book, The Children of Men, about the end of fertility in the human race.  The disease didn't threaten living people, but did mean the end of the entire human race. Would knowing that no humans would follow you on Earth change how you live your life?

Artist's impression of impact from a major meteor; Wikipedia

Scheffler believes that the afterlife, knowing that generations of people will follow us, matters more to us than we suspect and that upon pondering the question of how knowing the Earth would be destroyed soon after we die might change the way we live, most of us will come to realize that we might very well lose any sense of purpose, despite the fact that it's not our own life that is threatened. And this would change the way we live.  This means, says Scheffler, that much of what we do we do not for ourselves or even our children or grandchildren, but for unknown people who will come after us, because there will be people who come after us, and not just those we love.

Most obviously, if what you do now is something that isn't going to make a difference now but might in the future, would you continue doing it?  Would it make sense to keep working on finding a cure for cancer or reversing climate change if you knew there would be no one left to benefit?  But there would be other effects, Scheffler believes.  We would stop making art, or music, or creating literature, or writing history or doing any kind of scientific research.  If the issue was the infertility scenario posited by PD James, she suggests people would stop having sex, even when, as in her book, governments keep urging people to try, just in case someone somewhere hasn't been affected.  Scheffler says that he himself is sure he would stop writing papers about political philosophy.

He says, too, that the sense of horror we have about the end of the human race is different from the relative complacency most of us feel about the fact that everyone living now will one day be dead.

Boston Review quotes from his book:
My argument has been that personal survival already does matter to us less than we tend to suppose, and that the survival of humanity matters to us more. In saying this, I am not underestimating our powerful impulses to personal survival or the deep terror that many people feel when contemplating their own deaths. Nor am I denying the importance of self-interested motivations in ordinary human behavior. My point is that despite the power of these attitudes, there is a very specific sense in which our own survival is less important to us than the survival of the human race. The prospect of the imminent disappearance of the race poses a far greater threat to our ability to treat other things as mattering to us and, in so doing, it poses a far greater threat to our continued ability to lead value-laden lives.
Well, think about this from a Darwinian perspective.  A strict Darwinian could certainly twist it to fit theory perfectly well -- caring about the welfare of those who survive is completely in keeping with the urge to perpetuate our genes while we can.  Or, perhaps, we don't really believe we're going to die, so our caring is really about the usual reasons.

But I was talking about this with a friend the other day who is on the board of a number of conservation organizations, and is very active himself in nature preservation.  He said, "I have no children, so I sometimes wonder why I care so much about conservation.  Clearly, it has nothing to do with me."

A Darwinian might argue that he's doing it for his sister's descendants, to whom he's related, or even that he's related to the whole human race, so of course he cares.  But if we're related to everyone, and anything we do perpetuates our own genes, because all humans share genes, this trivializes the whole idea of "survival of the fittest," the backbone of Darwinian determinism.  It makes the 'theory' so generic that it loses any specificity and hence becomes in that sense essentially vacuous.

I think that there are so many exceptions to the Darwinian view of life as inherently selfish and self-perpetuating by now that it's past time to stop believing that these are exceptions rather than the rule. Humans aren't mere automatons driven by our genes' need to replicate themselves. Abortion, suicide bombing, birth control and the decision to remain childless, infanticide, altruism, even much human genetic or medical lab work which is unlikely to yield results for ourselves or even our children or grandchildren, are all behaviors that make no sense in a Darwinian world of direct self-interest.  And they aren't rare.

Culture is a powerful force.  With culture, we can talk ourselves into all manner of behaviors that have nothing to do with enhancing our survival or fitness, nor that of our relatives, and in fact might do just the opposite.  We can imagine an afterlife in the 72 virgins (or raisins, depending on your translation of the Koran) sense rather than Scheffler's, we can imagine future happiness without children, we can feel good about bringing a drowning swimmer to shore without expecting he or she will do something for us in return.  Janes can avoid killing anything at all, for spiritual reasons.  We need not kludge the argument to make all this into selfishness.  Culture, what we learn and agree with others about, matters.

Why isn't anyone looking for the culture gene?


Jari Stengard said...

Dear Anne,

Is science anything but story telling? Sometimes we use formal language (math) but most of time we are forced to use semi formal language such as the Darwinian theoretists use, for instance. We try to sign a particular meaning to particular words like "fittest" and use those words in a particular manner to get impression that we are describing exactly the world outside of us. As you describe in your great essay, our succes is far from exact particularly because we all have our own interpretation of those semi formal language words.

The ideas and the stories of the people you are talking about are not very old and probaly fits only to modern westernized wealthy people. Or, do you think that an insividual in a devolping country who barely survives thinks other than her/his survival? Can you "explain" their behavior by emplying Darwin's theory?

In my life I have seen individuals who are close to their final destination (death) and many of them have dreams, a will to live and to do things. I am not convinced that we can "explain" their behaviour by emplying Darwin's theries!

Best to you and Ken
Hope you have been able to enjoy summer and life
Your Friend

Anne Buchanan said...


Lovely to hear from you! Your comment makes me think of Jorge Luis Borges' short (very short) story, "On Exactitude in Science" which I reprint in its entirety here.

…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
—Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

I myself wondered if Scheffler asked his questions of anyone outside the US or Europe, or as you suggest, of people who are barely surviving. These thought experiments, and musings about the 'afterlife' are certainly luxurious, first world games. But I suppose in that sense, so are evolutionary theory, cosmology, particle physics -- mind games, that make little difference to how we live our lives (unless we are evolutionary theorists of cosmologists!). Except, of course, that evolutionary theory was used to justify eugenics, the Holocaust, racism, and the general idea that the winners really should take all. So I might argue that it's makes more difference to more people to get evolutionary theory right than to determine which boson the Hadron collider actually found, or to find extraterrestrial life. But I am not a cosmologist or particle physicist so I'm sure there's a lot I don't understand about this!

We will be teaching in Finland again in August, but in Oulu this time. We are looking forward to seeing a new part of the country.

But it is July, Jari, when all of Finland closes down! Why are you reading blog posts?! ;)


Anonymous said...

Culture is an extension of consciousness, isn't it? Has anyone found the consciousness gene yet?

Needless to say, I see opportunity for a big GWAS study :)


Ken Weiss said...

Culture involves consciousness in humans, but we can't really say what any analogs in other species might be. Nobody yet understands 'consciousness' and some even hold to a Cartesian mind-body dualism. They acknowledge that minds are in physical wet-ware, but somehow seem to think that minds are separate phenomena nonetheless, in ways that escape me.

Clearly a 'gene', coding for RNA or a bit of protein, can contribute to the interactions that are consciousness but can't be in itself 'consciousness'. Here, perhaps, the more general problem of understanding 'emergence', the result of interactions, is as clear as it can be.

But of course everything including the moon's green cheese should be subject to a huge GWAS meta-analysis! That way, we'll have genetically precision based meditation.

Anne Buchanan said...

Precision based meditation sounds like an oxymoron.

David Evans said...

In your last paragraph, "Janes" should be "Jains" - though it took me a shamefully long time to work it out.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thank you, David. Speaking of shameful. Why isn't anyone looking for the misspeller gene?