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Human Ideals

Does human nature display the influence of the same instinctive forces affecting other social animals? It is clear that it does. We desire space of our own, and get angry and defensive when it is intruded. We want (according to our preference) sexual adventures or a lifelong partner. We contribute to society in order to earn money to exchange for food and goods. Our motives draw in part from these instinctive pressures, but they are far from being the only influence upon us.

Over the millennia, humanity has expanded and supplanted the basic set of moral capabilities found in our animal relatives. Justice expands the notion of fairness, honesty extends trust into the realm of language and generosity builds upon reciprocity. Moderation and prudence use imagined ideals to hold instincts in check. We have been able to do so because unlike other animals (as far as we know) humans can form ideals concerning how activities ought to take place. These ideal notions also significantly affect our motivations. It is because we can imagine different ways of doing things that we are capable of forming moral judgements at all: imagining ideal cases allows us to form a concept of what is good.

Imagination also allows us to form negative ideals concerning the wrong way to behave, and in the most extreme cases we judge certain actions evil. To kill someone for any reason but self-defence is usually considered murder, which is deemed evil. It is because we hold common ideals in respect of how we could or should behave that we have ethics, and this in part rests on abstract language skills that utilise imagination. Other animals use language, but they only name immediate things – prairie dogs have a word for hawk, dog, deer and antelope, and even adjectives for colour, size and speed; they do not have words for 'right' or for 'good'.

Part 9 of 23 in the Pentenary series.

Evil Animals?

When a lion kills an antelope, is this evil? We do not typically talk of non-human animal behaviour in this way, because we view it as natural that predators will kill and eat their prey. This suggests at first sight that evil must be unnatural in some way – yet we also recognise a natural capacity for evil in humanity. How do we reconcile these views?

The image of the predatory lion gives us a misleading impression of the natural world, that it is always "red with tooth and claw", as Tennyson wrote. But in fact, while a lion must eat, it rarely kills otherwise. The zebra and the antelope will graze around a sleeping lion, becoming wary of it only when it has begun to hunt. Stags may clash in a tournament for mates, but exist peacefully at other times. A bear may be aggressive in defending its cubs, but it does not seek to injure or kill, only to drive off intruders. Aggression among the non-human animals aims at securing space to live, hunting aims at food and tournaments aim at sex. But all these aims are also pursued without aggression – bird colonies share space with only minor squabbles, herbivores outnumber carnivores by orders of magnitude, and elaborate displays are a less violent form of competition for mates. Hobbes' idea that the state of nature is a "war of all against all" is a radical oversimplification.

Morality does not begin with humanity. There is, as Marc Berkoff has observed, a kind of "wild justice" among social mammals such as wolves and elephants, and traits such as fairness, trust and reciprocity predate humanity. These behaviours are beneficial, and the genes specifying the chemicals supporting them (such as oxytocin) have prospered. The gene-centric view shows how beneficial biological features such as these will tend to become more widespread; the popular name for this theory, "the selfish gene", can obscure the actual message from evolutionary history that advantages persist, and co-operation and symbiosis are huge advantages.

Part 8 of 23 in the Pentenary series.

Slaying the First Colossus

Following a line of argument I began in the Game Design as Make Believe serial, today's post on ihobo considers the quasi-emotions involved in Shadow of the Colossus:

When you sink your sword into the skull of the first colossus and end its life, do you feel a tinge of regret? Do you feel sadness, or perhaps empathy, for the great beast you have just felled? And whether or not you do, would you not agree that what you feel for overcoming this foe is intensified by the struggle you faced to climb it, that your satisfaction in attaining victory is enhanced by the trials that preceded its defeat? And if so, you must concede that the triumph you experience is not merely that which you can assign to the task you mastered, but also to the way it was represented.

You can read the complete argument over at ihobo!

Living Together

What instincts are required for morality? The same instincts that provide a framework for collective interaction are those which facilitate moral behaviour. The social life of animals reveals striking similarities, even among comparatively unrelated species, and as already noted there is an inescapable communal aspect to morality that cannot be ignored. However, it is easy to be distracted by the perfect efficiency of the social insects when thinking about the communal living arrangements of mammals and birds: insect life is dominated by rigid instincts with a strong genetic basis. It is unreasonable to attempt, as E.O. Wilson does, to extend this paradigm to creatures with vastly more adaptable instincts.

The Austrian ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, noted the surprising role of aggressive instincts in binding social animals together. One of the basic structural features that all such species display is a prevalence of peacemaking behaviours. The possibility of violent conflict is frequently thwarted by the use of friendly gestures that pacify and placate aggressive urges. In fact, it seems that animals which are incapable of attacking their own kind never find the occasion to be friends. The territorial instincts of aggression (which can be tied to testosterone – both in men and women) seems to be a necessary precondition for friendship in animals of all kinds.

Lorenz's protégé, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, noted that this was only part of the story, however. Aggression can strengthen the bond between animals, such as when the leader of a pack of chimpanzees drives away a predator and strengthens the unity of the pack in the process, but the bond must first exist before it can be strengthened. Eibl-Eibesfeldt noted that only those species that care for their offspring in an intimate and personal fashion display such bonds at all. Caring for the young is perhaps the only context in which such a connection could be forged, since the role of parent requires an extended and reliable state of affection. The parental instinct (which can be tied to the chemical oxytocin) seems to be the foundation of society among mammals and birds.

This reveals an interesting and unexpected influence of gender in the story of how life came to rediscover social living after becoming far too complex to be merely programmed to get along (like an ant colony and or the co-operating polyps in a Portuguese Man O'War). Oestrogen, the female sex hormone, is essential to the effect of oxytocin in encouraging bonds to form – such as the parental bond, or the pair bond between animals who mate for life. Like testosterone, oestrogen is present in both men and women to differing degrees – and the instincts these chemicals support are vital to social behaviour. Thus the sex hormones also underpin the instincts holding society together. The family is truly the microcosm for society, even among non-human animals; social life is an alliance of the sexes.

Part 7 of 23 in the Pentenary series.

Anatomy of Instinct

How do our natural instincts shape our motives? This issue is complicated by disagreements over how the term 'instinct' should be used. Scientists working in the field of animal behaviour, known as ethology, wildly disagree about their terminology and underlying assumptions. While much impressive work is published, the field is still something of a muddle, and not helped by overzealous proposals such as sociobiology which oversimplify to the point of error. We need to identify instinctive influences without forgetting individuality.

There is a consistent suite of neural and chemical features that influence the behaviour of many animals, however, including mammals such as humans. For instance, the brain region known as the amygdala, and the chemicals epinephrine (i.e. adrenalin) and norepinephrine are the key biological underpinnings of the experiences of fear and anger – part of what is termed the fight-or-flight response. Similarly, there are brain regions (the orbito-frontal cortex and the nucleus acumbens) and a chemical (dopamine) involved in learning, pleasure and addiction. An animal's nature – including human nature - depends to a great degree on these physiological elements, which have a genetic basis.

Yet what an animal actually does in any situation, while influenced by these internal forces (nature), is also greatly affected by its prior experience and circumstances (nurture). A dog has powerful natural instincts to chase after something receding from them, but they do not use this solely to hunt prey. In fact, a domestic dog often feels this instinct most powerfully in the urge to chase a tennis ball. The language used to discuss biology today frequently makes general claims of the form "evolution designed dogs to hunt prey", but this overstates the matter. Millions of years of natural selection refined the hunting instincts of ancestral dogs, but those same instincts can be used in many different ways – including chasing tennis balls and chewing up shoes.

Evolutionary history can help explain how certain instincts might have come to be, but it cannot tell us much about actual instances. Natural selection is the ultimate statistical abstraction, so far removed from the everyday life of individual animals that it can tell us very little (but not nothing) about how they actually live. We still learn about animal behaviour by watching how creatures live in their natural environment. Evolutionary theory, at best, helps put those observations into a historical context, allowing for informed guesses as to how certain instincts may have come about. It's an important part of the story of life, but it cannot substitute for individual stories.

Part 6 of 23 in the Pentenary series.

The Problem with Updates

A bit of a rant on ihobo today, in the form of my less-than-unbiased perspective on automatic software updates:

Nowadays, the role of the patch as an optional intervention has been extensively replaced with automatic updating – software simply installs its own patches, sometimes with the approval of the user, often under its own auspices. This, I presume, is supposed to have made matters better for all concerned... yet I am at a loss to see where the benefit to me is coming from... While security updates for Windows are certainly a necessity given the number of malicious hackers always looking to take vengeance on the monopolistic media monolith, I am astonished at the number of other software suppliers who use up the resources of my computer and internet bandwidth to robotically check for updates – irrespective of any utility this process may hold for me.

The Nature of Motive

If science cannot provide a foundation to moral judgement, is there anything it can offer to our understanding of ethics? One way that the latest scientific research can be brought to bear on questions of natural evil is by exploring the biological foundations of human nature. Since the capacity for evil is part of that nature, exploring the way the brain and the nervous system underpins our behaviour will sharpen our perspective of the issue.

The instincts which shape our motives rest on biochemistry which is programmed for in DNA, but our genetics is no more in control of what we do than an architect's drawing is in control of what happens in a building. Just as the design of a building will channel its potential uses, so our genetic blueprint provides the raw material for instincts. But for any animal more complicated than an insect, those instincts are flexible and adaptable, capable of supporting a great variety of motivations. If they were not, culture would be impossible.

Part of the problem in this regard rest on a wildly outdated belief that all scientific description must rise to the perfect accuracy of clockwork mechanism. The world of creatures is not the world of machines. While very simple organisms like bacteria or insects can have rigid instincts and behave in a programmatic manner in response to chemical signals with genetic roots, from fish and amphibians onwards through the history of life there is an increasing role of experience and learning. The nature vs. nurture debate ended in the recognition that both were important, but this has been a bitter pill to swallow for those hoping for biology to reduce into simple terms.

Part 5 of 23 in the Pentenary series.

Moral Ideas

Can moral concepts be meaningful? This seems to be a particularly acute problem because (as the Enlightenment philosopher Hume and others have contended) there is no connection between facts and values, no way to reason from an "is" to an "ought". But this sceptical panic obscures the fact that we all make moral judgements all the time without any such difficulties at all, and we actually have just as much difficulty establishing certain facts as we do explaining values.

Moral notions like 'right' and 'wrong', 'good' and 'evil', 'lying' and 'murder', are clearly meaningful to us since we readily understand how these words are used in language. There are some ambiguous edges, to be sure, but it is important to recognise that these issues are problems with language, not problems with ethics. We can apply purely descriptive terms like 'game', 'table' and 'rain' most of the time despite them being equally unclear in their borderline cases. A little fuzziness at the edges transpires to be something all language suffers from.

This difficulty comes in part from early twentieth century philosophers becoming muddled about ethics while being overly enthusiastic about science. The very idea that there is a problem reasoning from facts to values presumes that factual observations take precedence – granting pride of place to scientific reasoning. This error is widespread today. But moral reasoning has very little to do with science. As Julius Kovesi observed: the process of evaluation in moral judgements is a parallel to the process of assessment with descriptive judgements, but they are not dependent upon one another at all.

Part 4 of 23 in the Pentenary series.

Optimal Game Demos

Over on ihobo today, some discussion of game demos. Here's an extract:

A game demo has a very specific purpose. From the point of view of the developer, it is to encourage players to purchase the game. From the point of view of an honest player, it is to help evaluate the game to see if it is worth purchasing. These distinct purposes should have a substantial common ground that offers the basis for a concept for an optimal videogame demo. But what is the nature of an optimal demo?