Saturday, July 25, 2009

Plato vs Aristotle

Some of us believe in forms- others, in particulars

As I continue reading up on the Gnostic issues posted last week, I encountered an very fine book. Richard Smoley's "Forbidden Faith" describes how, of the many, many heresies the Catholic church has stamped out over the years, the Gnostic heresy was and remains the "arch-heresy" (or thought-crime, in modern parlance). This is because it attacks the church at its empty heart- the substitution of ritual, dogma, and authority for direct, personal, idiosyncratic experience, which wells up perennially in new movements, drawing again and again on the same fount of personal "gnosis" of divine (if disorganized) experience.

More to the point I am interested in here, Smoley also touches on Greek philosophy's influence on the Gnostics. While Aristotle tended to work from the particular to the general, (perhaps too enthusiastically!), Plato was a partisan of ideals, whether in physics, theology, or ethics. Plato was a strong influence on Christianity, and on the Gnostics in particular, and Smoley reviews the Platonic influence briefly:

"Plato explains reality in a way that could be described as *esoteric. This word does not refer to the difficulty or obscurity of his though. Originally it meant that many of his teachings were given only to relatively advanced pupils, people who were 'further in' the circle (the word comes from the Greek *esotero, which means 'further in'). But it points to another meaning as well: it indicates that these teachings are essentially about inner experience. Unlike modern thought, which views the invisible and internal dimensions of life and thought as purely subjective (and hence unreal), esotericism says these inner dimensions have a genuine reality and can be known and intelligently described. Plato even went so far as to flip conventional wisdom on its head and say that the world we see is itself unreal. The solid objects of ordinary reality are merely copies of imitations of ideal entities that he called 'forms' - abstract images that exist in the realm of thought. The forms alone are real, Plato said, because they are eternal and unchanging, unlike the ceaselessly shifting world here below."

To which I scoffed: "Spoken like a true philosopher!" Whereupon my wife retorted: "But he's right!"

And there we have it- one of the most basic divides in human nature- whether we take ideas and inner experiences as realer than real, or whether we deprecate them as fantasy- subject, at best, to empirical verification. It is a difference that tests the very capability of language to describe. It is a deep temperamental difference. It is a difference at the heart of theist vs atheist debates, with one virtually incapable of understanding the other because each experiences a different reality. It also touches on the Gnostic vs Orthodox divide, because while Orthodox dogma is based to some extent on the visions and inner experience of an originating prophet/messiah and sundry saints, ultimate authority rests elsewhere- in the body of the church and its very this-world hierarchy.

Who is right? What could be a trickier question? As I've noted elsewhere, our inner experience can be construed as the whole world and the origin of the universe, all being conjured on our behalf by the magic of consciousness. And not only that, but any progress we make or change we author, whether outside or inside, has its origins within, in inspiration and motivation- in the mysterious workings of creativity. It is the artists, mathematicians, theorists, and leaders who regard reality as less than interesting- as mundane.

Earth-bound as I am, however, I would offer another perspective- that of population genetics and evolution. Inner vs outer-oriented temperament seems to be one of those fascinating traits subject to balancing selection. Which is to say that there is no one optimal temperament for being human, but only an optimal society made up of many different types of people having many different temperaments, each selected for in small proportion. After a week of Apollo 11 reminiscence, we are reminded of the merging of many talents, from the visionary to the detail-oriented, that made such an adventure possible. And also the various strands in ourselves as onlookers that make us appreciate it, from the mystical to the scientific.

Incidental links..
  • I take back the aspersions I cast on the historicity of Jesus last week. Historians seem to give it general credence, so I will grant it high probability.
  • Krugman gets it on medical reform
  • Blue dogs hear unusual high-pitched sounds...
  • Plumbing the economic crisis.
  • Fie on blasphemy!

Saturday, July 18, 2009


Who were the Gnostics, where did they come from, and what did they think?

I happened to run across an small book published by the Theosophical press: "Jung and the Lost Gospels: Insights into the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library", by Stephan Hoeller. Unlikely as it sounds, it turned out to be excellent, providing extensive insight into pre-Christian and early Christian times as illuminated by those manuscripts. (See also a series of books by Freke and Gandy.) When first found, much of the Dead sea scroll material was taken under the wing of Catholic clergymen and suppressed for decades before publication. Why? The reasons become quite apparent when the connections between the two corpi, found only a year or two apart circa 1945 and 1946, are illuminated. Both are authentic expressions of heterodoxy, first vis-a-vis the Jewish power structure, then versus the nascent Christian powers, which the early church patriarchy had labored long and hard not only to refute, but to erase.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were written at least in part by Essenes, a Jewish mystic and healing sect of 150 BCE to 70 CE. They were motivated to go into exile (near the Dead Sea) by the usurpation (as they viewed it) of the priesthood by the Hasmonean (Maccabeean) dynasty, whose successful revolt against threatened paganism (of the Seleucids) had brought them to the throne in Jerusalem. The Essenes favored the more traditional priesthood, which fell to the tribe of Zadok and was separated from the throne, and cursed the Hasmonean "wicked priests".

Far from being a minor twig on the tree of Judaism, Essenes were a major dissenting group from the worldly (and religiously literalist/fundamentalist) Pharisees and Saducees. The Essenes were influential around the Eastern Mediterranean as healers and mystics (also called Therapeutae, and regarded as proto-gnostics), somewhat akin in reputation to the Egyptians who also were widely regarded to possess and transmit occult knowledge. It is apparent from this book and other studies of this time that the earliest Christian communities were very likely to have been direct descendents, by teaching if not by membership, of a wide-spread Essene community that had already templated essentially all the teachings either adopted and transmitted by Jesus or put into his mouth later on. Incidentally, the Essenes also prefigured the non-temple and non-sacrificial Judaism that was to become mainstream in the diaspora.

Their doctrines included sacramental meals, baptism, asceticism, pacifism, collectivism, antipathy to slavery, renunciation of animal sacrifice, belief in life after death, conviction of the fallen-ness of the current world, expectation of its immanent demise, and expectation of a savior, a "teacher of righteousness". Though the data is extremely sketchy, the book indicates that a teacher of righteousness was recognized circa 100 BCE, and was killed by the Jewish powers that be, prompting an outpouring of bitterness and apocalypticism, some of which is recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

This clarifies substantially the timeline of the period, both in terms of the origins of the teachings involved, and in growth of the early Christian community, whose organized and far-flung nature within years of the presumed mission and death of Jesus is otherwise difficult to understand. It also clarifies some of the so-called heresies of the early Christian period, most of which were continuations and developments of the Essene creeds that were related to or eventually became what we call Gnosticism, and which became, as all mystical creeds will, anathema to an organized, hierarchical, orthodox patriarchy.

Which brings us to the other set of writings, the Nag Hammadi library of books, apparently secreted by a sect of Christian mystics in response to a decree banning non-canonical manuscripts, describing their gnostic beliefs dating back to perhaps 80 CE and thereafter, with the books themselves dating to the 200's and 300's CE. Gnosticism was equally derived from the Essene tradition as was Christianity, and both off-shoots intertwined in their Jesus-based theology, though the Gnostics were not as hung up on the literalism of the Jesus story, focusing on and recasting the mythical aspects of a story that was, in all probability, mythical to start with.

As a classic Gnostic deity, Jesus came into the world (in Plato's terms symbolized by the cave) to give knowledge of humanity's true nature and origin (god within), and hope of a better life after death, as long as one shared in this knowledge (later reduced in orthodoxy to the dictum to believe in Jesus or go to hell). The knowlege of the man being in god and god being in man, in agreement with typical mystical experience, expresses a one-ness with the universe which is both salving for the individual and also benificent in spreading love of all and everything through the community and the world.

The key difference between Gnosticism and orthodoxy lay in the value of personal, interior experiences. The Gnostics didn't concern themselves so much with organization and hierarchy as with continuing revelation by personal experience, led by a succession of visionaries providing "gnosis", or direct spiritual knowledge. For an organized religion, revelation has to stop somewhere, or else nothing that went before (and no one) can be authoritative. (This is a problem that Protestantism has dealt with repeatedly as sect after sect cleaves off and redivides in the absence of final authority). Gnosticism, on the other hand, drew continuously from streams of mystical thought and personal experience, starting with the Essenes (and many prior esoteric traditions), then extensively from Egyptian esoteric traditions, through John the Baptist and the associated messianic movements, continuing right up to the recasting of gnostic ideas in the present day by Mormonism and Scientology.

A key developer of Gnosticism proper was Simon (Magus), who was a Jewish Samaritan whose tradition was closely allied to that of the Essenes, being heterodox with respect to the major Jewish sects. He was a disciple of John the Baptist, and appears in the book of acts. He was apparently the originator of the peculiar brew of mysticism that became what we recognize as classical Gnosticism, which had both an intense concern with interior mystical experience along with a florid mythical vision of what those experiences meant. These visions made humans unfortunate inheritors of a fallen world subject to the whims of evil gods. But also possessors of a spark of divinity unknown to those not initated in the Gnosis, which was carried from the highest godly levels by Sophia, the healing and promethian goddess (and the inspirer of philo-Sophia, or philosophy).

Simon was prone to take spiritual flights, much like Muhammed after him and Ezekiel before him. More importantly, he had a female partner, Helen, much as Jesus had Mary Magdalene, who embodied wisdom granted by the goddess Sophia to seekers who were sufficiently pure and ready to renounce earthy things (equivalent to Chokma, the late Essene goddess). Gnosticism was far more open to feminine spritual powers and participation than was orthodoxy. The Nag Hammadi library contains alternate versions of old testament scriptures, liturgies, Gnostic commentaries and myths, especially concerning the feminine principle, lives and sayings of both Jesus and some apostles, as well as other learned miscellany such as portions of Plato's Republic and Zoroastrian texts.

To summarize, the Jesus story is essentially a variant of pre-existing proto-gnostic myths and motifs shared by esoteric pagans and the Essenes, for which an actual person by the name of Jesus may or may not have given further impetus. Paul may have been a gnostic who had little to say about Jesus as an actual person. The later church, in the hands of Irenaeus, Tertullian, and other propagators, writers and forgers, came to insist that their story, unlike all the other stories, was really, really, really true, as a badge of differentiation among the many honestly mythical cults of late Roman times. The story got altered, hardened, and repeated in a quadruplicate set of tales, while scores of competing stories were erased and their adherents hounded out of the church. After which the church contracted an alliance with the Roman empire and commenced to convert the remainder of its inhabitants by force, followed by a long dark age.

Aside from the sad loss of honest spirituality in the wake of Christian literalism, one small irony of this story is that Gnostics have ever been in quest of man's true nature, which, by way of active imagination and spiritual seeking was believed to be partly divine, trapped in a realm of semi-darkness and semi-light, oppressed by an evil set of fallen angels, while receiving occasional messages of hope from the upper realms of total light where reside our ultimate progenitors. But the answer of our true nature has in the fullness of time duly arrived, courtesy of Charles Darwin. It may not be the exhalted answer of the Gnostic imagination, but if one cares about either the word "true" or the word "nature", the answer is in hand, in magnificent scope and detail.

"If the flesh has come to be because of the spirit, it is a wonder, but if the spirit has come to be because of the body, that is a wonder of wonders."
- Jesus, in the Gospel of Thomas

  • Outstanding podcast on Gnosticism (second half) and the historicity of Jesus (first half).
  • Interview with Stephan Hoeller, for those interested, quite lengthy.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Market medicine

There are two real market participants in the medical system- doctors and insurers. Who wins?

The New Yorker ran a deeply insightful piece by Atul Gawande on cost in the medical system. His conclusion was that cultural differences between areas of the country that show huge medical cost disparities (up to 3-fold between county-size areas) come down to how willing doctors are to fleece their patients, (financially speaking, of course).

In high-cost areas, doctors obey market incentives, ordering extra tests and procedures, buying ownership shares in hospitals and other facilities to which they then herd their patients, collecting kickbacks from drug companies and medical sub-contractors, and so forth. In low-cost areas, doctors are not so closely attuned to the modern medical market and have not caught on to how easy it is to make money by "practicing" a lot of medicine. Or they may be part of special systems like the Mayo clinic which has a dramatically different incentive system. Much of the pressure in high cost areas may arise unconsciously from an excess population of doctors, who then keep themselves in business the best way they know how.

Notable here is that the putative consumer is not really a market participant. As Obama recently told the AMA, "We (health care consumers) do what you tell us to do". Likewise, drug and device manufacturers show through their marketing who makes the choices, spending far more on swaying doctors (or telling patients to "ask their doctors") than on direct consumer marketing.

On the other side of the equation are insurers, who are trapped in a bizarre system of paying whatever doctors order, though slowly, reluctantly, and with a maximum of paperwork. Who wins? Obviously, the doctors win. Everyone wants the best care, and is willing to do what the doctors deem the best care, with "most" care often filling in for best if doctors are corrupt as well as lazy. Insurers can draw the line at useless treatments and outright fraud, but there is vast scope for plausible treatment up to that point, given the immense arsenal of modern medicine.

The implication for health care reform is that, if cost control and improved care are its goals, then doctor's (and insurer's) incentives need to be fundmentally changed. Creating new markets by which insurers get squeezed by customer/employer consortia, while also being further regulated to pay out all plausible claims and cover all claimants, will simply not address the problem. Reducing payment rates on a per-procedure basis, which is currently the typical method of cost containment, only motivates doctors to turn around faster- treat patients more rapidly, with less attention, and with more costly procedures. The problem is the piecework nature of medical reimbursement.

How can doctors be motivated to practice with patient outcome and cost as their true guides (in that order)? The article describes the success the Mayo clinic has had by paying doctors salaries and making promotions and raises dependent on teamwork and patient outcomes. This system is oriented towards teamwork and integrated care, counteracting the ever-increasing complexity of modern medicine. Teams are rewarded for their focus on patient well-being, and doctors can take the time needed to consult with each other and meet jointly with patients to coordinate care.

The amazing thing is that this system decreases overall cost, since doctors are not shooting at dart boards in hurried (and self-serving) attempts at diagnosis and treatment, but focus on each care situation with enough dilligence to make better diagnoses, thus achieving more efficient care. This dilligence includes reviews after the fact with colleagues, which is an essential part of medical school training, but then disappears for most doctors in practice today. Mistakes in diagnosis and treatment not only waste resources and time, but often complicate subsequent care and make the patient worse off, including, in some cases, killing them.

Switching to an integrated and re-incentivized system generally would not have much to do with who pays the bills- insurance could still be run by private insurers (constrained to pay on an HMO basis, perhaps) or a single payer system. The key part is to transform doctors from the atomized go-it-alone/treat-it-in-isolation private buccaneers of today into collaborative parts of an integrated system motivated to get each caregiving contact right rather than to make it pay.

Modern medicine, while amazing and definitively better than such alternatives as the old-fashioned shaman and "alternative medicine", still leaves very much to be desired. Understanding of many areas such as metabolic syndromes, mental illness, and cancer is still primitive, and treatments such as radiation, psychotropic drugs, and diet alterations are likewise a swamp of ignorance. Even when a great deal is known in an area of medical science, expecting individual practicing doctors to keep abreast of that knowledge is quite unrealistic.

Doctors are only human and face a medical literature of oceanic dimensions. Being in contact with colleagues for individual cases, while very helpful, will still not be enough. They will need computerized systems to assist with diagnosis and treatment, not only to put the medical literature at their fingertips, but also as expert systems that lead the diagnostic process to better outcomes, based on the constantly changing standards of care and advanced expertise.

Caveat Emptor Medicinae!

Incidental links:

Monday, July 6, 2009

For the love of God

Theologians abuse rhetoric and call it philosophy

As I have become familiar with the writing of one of Dawkins's so-called "fleas", Eric Reitan, (author of a book entitled "Is God a delusion?"), it has become increasingly apparent that, while professionally employed as a philosopher, his methods are more those of a rhetorician wedded to a theology that he defends despite all incoming argument. An apologist, in short (which should have been clear from the title of his blog, "The piety that lies between").

The foundation of Reitan's view is that the spiritual experience (experiencing the transcendent, as he typically puts it) strongly, or even necessarily, implies that there is a transcendent order that exists separately from us that we are somehow "tapping into", or sensing by the modality of prayer or meditation.

His judgements are usually couched in smooth equanimity, such as: "True humility involves, as I have argued, being open to the possibility of a transcendent reality touching and transforming us in ways that offer wisdom unattainable through our ordinary cognitive faculties."

Who wouldn't want to be "open"? Who wouldn't want to be "humble"? Who wouldn't want to be open to "wisdom", let alone "reality"? The problems, however, are many. First is whether there is any sign of a transcendent realm, and second, even if there is such a realm, whether and how we have access to it, perhaps demonstrated by radical and accurate knowledge. On the other side is the competing hypothesis that points out that brain states like meditation are exactly those prone to imagination and subjective transport, and whose complete dissociation from reality is well-known by novelists, artists, and daydreamers of all stripes.

The modern scientific enterprise has blazed trails into actual reality beyond the wildest dreams of ancient philosphers, mystics, and theologians. Only the Indian Hindus and Buddhists, in their infinite rigor, came close to the vast stretches of time involved in the past eons of earth and cosmos. Scales from the great to the infinitesimal have far outstripped and defied transcendentalist description. Whatever conceptions had previously been floated about origins were fanciful tales (twice-told, in the case of Genesis) plucked straight from the imaginations of ancient poets. If they were in touch with transcendence, it was evidently with transcendent feeling, not transcendent reality-touching.

So not only has the vast knowledge of our current scientific corpus not found a transcendent realm, but those supposedly benefiting the most from transcendent wisdom have ended up wildly off the mark, usually spending their newly-enlightened time authorizing patriarchal systems, damning unbelievers, or creating bizarre food prohibitions (not to mention convenient rules about how many extra wives they could have).

Very well, the absence of evidence does not constitute the absence of transcendence, right? Perhaps the realm properly defined as perpetually beyond the reach of skeptical observation yet exists, and we have a special portal to it through the process of day-dreaming. But brain science has nothing but bad news on this front too. Brains are chemical entities, and either take in sensations from the outside world or compute on those sensations internally. Known modes of sensation have been widened substantially by modern cognitive science and neurobiology (body postion sense, several types of touch sensation, etc.), but no transcendent sensory mode has emerged. Indeed, studies of meditators have shown brain areas activated that made eminent sense in terms of reduced outward sensation and focus on imaginative and bodily inner states.

Again, the fruits of access to the transcendent realm also belie its existence, since one would think that the source of such wisdom would grant knowledge of amazing things- the origins of existence, the ground of all being, and the face of god. Yet the various faith traditions have come up with vastly differing elaborations of all three, almost as if they were making it up as they went along based on vague and common feelings, rather than observing some common and transcendent reality through the portholes of prayer.

One has to conclude that a great deal of humility is indeed in order- humility about transcendent claims. While naturalists, scientists, philosophers and people of good will are open to new findings and ways of looking at the world, the particular one of transcendent transport has proven something of a dry hole philosophically speaking, however beneficial it has been for the arts and for practitioner's health and well-being. Philosophers who insist in the teeth of evidence that there is something "veridical" about what is in essence day-dreaming are not only centuries out of date, but doing a serious disservice to their putative profession.

But hey, it could be worse. One of Reitan's colleagues at Oklahoma State University spends his time counting the number of persons within the person of god. One wonders whether OSU would hire a "philosopher" of Islam, or a "philosopher" of Voodoo, just to spice things up. Still, to see someone of Eric Reitan's eloquence and evident dedication to philosophy take the football of reason so far downfield only to decide to stop at the 10 yard line and call it a win remains disturbing.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Altruism through genocide

Did human morals and altruism arise from intergroup warfare?

One of the long-standing problems of evolutionary biology is how to account for altruism as a trait of human nature when the Darwinian mechanism is relentlessly individualistic. To sacrifice one's self for non-relatives is abhorrent to a dyed-in-the-wool Darwinist, and even towards relatives, the calculus yields rather modest sacrifices, rapidly attenuating with distance.

In "The Selfish Gene", Dawkins (following Williams) even proclaims the individual to be an epiphenomenon- the temporary abode of genes which are the true (and semi-immortal) objects of selection, to whom their habitation is a feeding and replicating robot. (One could make the same point about individual nucleotides within genes, to take this analysis to a reductio ad absurdum.) In contrast, Stephen Gould wrote a miasmic defense of multi-level selection that incorporated individuals, groups, and even species and higher groupings as objects of natural selection. But he was slightly ahead of his time, for group selection has only now begun to come back into the evolutionary literature in earnest.

It is to group selection we must turn to investigate the origin of moral traits, since morals (such as altruism) concern how we treat others, and especially how we moderate our selfishness in the service of larger groups. This is not a new story in evolution, since cooperation happens among bacteria, (mutualist associations among methanogens and methane oxidizers come to mind, as do other mixed species biofilms), plants (lichens are a simple example, as are corals), and insects (ants, termites, etc.), among many, many others. Grouping and cooperation has been a winning strategy many times over in the history of life, including the critical innovation of the eukaryotic consortium over its bacterial ancestors.

Darwin himself suggested this rationale in human evolution, proposing selection of groups with "a greater number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid, and defend each other ... would spread and be victorious over other tribes." (Descent of man, quote taken from the paper being reviewed). The problem has always been figuring out in quantitative population genetics terms whether this made any sense, especially how a strategy of altruism could survive against cheating from within the group as well as from gene dilution from outside sources. There are strictly individualistic rationales for some level of cooperation among organisms, but they never rise to the level of the ultimate sacrifice, as exhibited by cells in our body committing suicide rather than turn cancerous, or soldiers offering their lives on the battlefield.

Population genetics revolves around the concept of "fitness", which quantitates differential reproductive success. In common parlance, fitness refers to traits that enhance survival (thicker fur, higher intelligence, disease resistance, etc.), but as used in evolutionary biology, fitness refers to the end effect of trait differences, expressed in the proportion of the individual's genes in the next generation, divided by the proportion in the current generation. Neutrality would be a value of 1, and comparisons are usually expressed as differential fitness, between alleles of a gene, or between whole genomes. The author mentions that a fitness differential (or cost) of -0.03 would drive its occurrence from 90% of the population to 10% in 150 generations, illustrating how small differentials can have large effects over time.

The paper at issue, by Samuel Bowles ("Did warfare among ancestral hunter-gatherers affect the evolution of human social behaviors?"), is mathematical, creating a model of small populations with given amounts of gene flow from outside (or, conversely, inbreeding), given amounts of warfare in which groups extinguish other groups and expand accordingly, and given amounts of altruism, expressed as individual costs (death in warfare by warriors) and group benefits (success in warfare). Then the paper draws on various other sources to decide on reasonable bounds for these various values, plugs them in, and comes up with the finding that altruism in these simplified terms could be selected for, even at substantial individual cost.

The equation Bowles comes up with for his model is:
Where c is the individual fitness cost to altruists (set at 0.03, as above), k (kappa) is the probability per generation of being in a conflict with another group, L (lambda) is is the probability of group survival in such a contest, F(ST) is the inbreeding coefficient of the group (higher means more inbred), and n is the group size. The equality represents the boundary case, where increased c, the individual cost of altruism, breaks even versus its group benefits. These benefits are represented by L as arbitrarily adjusted (subscript A) by the presence of altruists, where an extreme value of 3.3 means that a group with 10% more altruists than its competitor suffers half the mortality in a contest. Bowles admits that there is no way to empirically estimate this parameter, and offers a curve of possible values, from 0 (no effect) to a high of 3.

Another key variable is delta, the overall rate of adult violent mortality (somewhat determinable empirically), taken to represent warfare in some proportion. k equals 2*delta, as a simplified estimate, assuming half the combatants win and half lose on average.

Bowles then estimates some semi-empirical values from the ethnographic and archaeological literature. First, for conflict-derived mortality (delta), he settles on 14% as an estimated rate of violent death in prehistoric cultures among all adults (note how vastly higher this is than what we experience in contemporary life). This is transformed to rates of conflict (k) and rates of defeat or victory in such contests (L), adjusted by the putative in-group altruism factor. Group sizes and inbreeding rates have been extensively studied elsewhere, so are not a special focus in this article. Group sizes are averaged at 26, (though an infinite group size is also treated), and several possible inbreeding coefficients (ratio of between-group genetic variance to total variance) are offered in the derived curves (below).

The graph shows solutions to this equation with these various values plugged in. The equation is satisfied and altruism favored for areas above and to the right of each curve.

"Wartime mortality (delta) and the effect of altruism on success in conflicts (L, or lambda A) sufficient for the proliferation of an altruistic trait with individual fitness cost (c)=0.03 for three estimates of the extent of genetic differentiation among groups (F(ST)). Shown are the values of c consistent with Eq. 6 for the estimated F values from (12, 17). The representative values of delta are from Table 2. Populations on the horizontal axis in italics are from the ethnographic sample; the rest are from the archaeological sample." (from Bowles, 2009)

So, granted that this is a quite artificial situation, and that I am no expert in the field, what this paper does is to establish inter-group selection as plausible and quantifiable mechanism in accounting for trait-based altruism in the form of warrior behavior and sacrifice. The empirical boundaries seem plausible, while some of the mathematical simplifications seem less so (in this model, each conflict results in extermination of one group and doubling of the other, for instance. On the other hand, all non-altruists get to survive if their group wins a war, while altruist warriors die with 20% probability). Specifically, the right-ward parts of the curves indicate that given realistic rates of death (delta) from conflict, altruism could be selected for despite substantial costs (c) and modest group benefits (L). There are many other possible rationales for selection of in-group altruism traits, so this setting of warfare should not be seen as exhaustive.

The analysis just codifies and works out in population genetic terms the basic insight that groups are quite evidently objects of selection. As long as there are genetically distinct human groups, and those groups are being killed by other groups, (richly detailed and cheered on in the old testament, in the epics of many other cultures, and recently witnessed in the Balkans, Rawanda, etc.), there is evolutionary selection of groups going on. One focus of this selection would then be for group-related traits, which is to say, suggestibility, altruism, willingness to sacrifice all, and even communal spirituality.

One clear reflection of this in human nature is the enormous importance we put on group membership versus outsider status. The ten commandments never had anything to do with non-Jews. Killing was just fine outside the group, and laws were only relevant inside the group. Indeed, their point was to cement group identity. The same is evident throughout ancient history. Greek cities of antiquity were in perpetual warfare with each other, either killing opponents or enslaving them into a life of (at best) modest reproductive success. Likewise, much of adolescence is devoted to acquiring membership and status relations within ever-shifting groups.

The lesson for today is quite simply one of globalization- the urgent need to unite humans in a single affective group, transcending the national groupings which have been so powerful both in focusing human aspirations for the last few centuries and in providing vehicles for mutual extermination. Thankfully, there are many forces carrying universal messages, from the Olympics and crass Western consumerism, to the amazing computer and cell phone revolutions that allow a global audience to follow video tweets from the streets of Iran.

Are religious messages a positive influence? Yes and no. Religious doctrine and organization has through history been perhaps the most powerful creator of group identity (and thus also enters into the group selection arguments above). The probability that any one form of religion will capture the entire market and thus unify humanity is exceedingly low (however fervently wished-for). The best hope therefore is to mitigate religious particularities, dialing down dogma such that spirituality retains an empathetic, unifying pan-humanistic strength, while the divisiveness of fabulistic and group-identifying doctrinal commitments fades away.

Incidental links