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In a recent post, Fred Reed asks:
Why should I not indulge my hobby of torturing to death the severely genetically retarded? This would seem beneficial. We certainly don’t want them to reproduce, they use resources better invested in healthy children, and it makes no evolutionary difference whether they die quietly or screaming.
The short answer is that any killing, for whatever reason, increases the likelihood of killing for other reasons. One exception is self-defence, but that’s not done for pleasure. Another exception is capital punishment, but that, too, is not done for pleasure. More to the point, no single citizen can carry out an execution. It requires a lengthy judicial process. The same reasoning applies to the final exception of war. No single citizen can declare war.
It’s not for nothing that killing is so taboo, especially recreational killing. Several things have contributed to the success of Western societies, but a leading one is the relatively peaceful nature of social relations. When people can go about their business without fearing for their lives, much becomes possible that otherwise would not be. This taboo is so crucial that we even extend it to nonhumans. Cats and dogs have no inherent right to life, yet it is a serious offence to torture them to death.
That’s society. What about biology?
At this point, Fred may speak up: “But those are social reasons against killing of any sort. What are the biological reasons?”
The immediate biological reason is empathy. If I try to hurt someone, I feel the pain I inflict. Truth be told, the only life forms I enjoy killing are flies and mosquitoes. If a moth flies into our home, I’ll go to some length to capture it and set it free outside, and I know others who do similar things. Just think of all the car drivers who come to a screeching halt to avoid running over some poor animal.
It’s empathy that makes me and others act that way. And I cannot easily turn it off. It shuts down only when feelings of contempt enter my mind, as with those contemptible flies and mosquitoes.
Empathy is hardwired. It’s 68% heritable in the case of affective empathy, i.e., the capacity to respond with the appropriate emotion to another person’s mental state (Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen, 2013). To date, studies have focused on disorders caused by too much empathy or too little. Psychopaths may have intact cognitive empathy, but impaired affective empathy. They keenly understand how others feel without actually experiencing those feelings. The reverse impairment may affect autists. As for depressives, they may suffer from being too sensitive to the distress of others and to guilt over not helping them enough.
These disorders exist at the tail ends of a normal distribution. By focusing on these extremes, we forget the variability among healthy individuals. We all vary in our capacity for empathy, just as we do for almost any mental capacity.
How can evolution explain empathy?
Why do we feel empathy? How could natural selection favor such selflessness? This is of course the point that Fred is trying to make. Empathy keeps us from doing things that supposedly make evolutionary sense. Therefore, it could not have evolved. It must have been given to us by a Great Designer.
But why did this Great Designer give more of it to some people than to others? We’re talking about a heritable trait. It’s not as if everyone starts off the same way, with some later falling behind through their own wrongdoing.
And how has the Great Designer preserved this selfless behavior? Unless something is done, empathic people will eventually be overwhelmed by a tidal wave of cheaters, free riders, and people shouting “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” This is as much a mystery for creationists as it is for evolutionists. It’s one thing to explain how altruism came to be. It’s another to explain how it manages to survive in this cynical world.
These questions passed through my mind when I was going through my late mother’s effects. I discovered she had for years been donating money for various projects in the Third World, at a time when she was a widow with no pension. Meanwhile, as a teenager, I had to take on all kinds of odd jobs to help us make ends meet. Looking over those donor receipts I shook my head and felt some resentment. How do good Christians like her manage to survive?
Yet she did, like others before her. For one thing, she was suspicious of strangers, and this suspicion extended to some ethnic groups more than to others. She was prejudiced and “postjudiced.” If someone acted dishonestly with her once too often, she would have no more to do with him or her. Such people were “contemptible.”
Today, that sort of behavior might seem un-Christian. But her Christianity was of an older, judgmental sort, being inspired more by the punitive Old Testament than by the forgiving New Testament. She would judge people, and her judgment could be harsh, very harsh.
Over space and time
Just as the capacity for empathy varies from one individual to another, it also varies statistically from one human population to another, being strongest in the “guilt cultures” of Northwest Europe. Guilt is the twin sister of empathy. Both flow from a simulation of how another person thinks or feels (an imaginary witness to a wrongdoing, a person in distress) and both ensure correct behavior by inducing the appropriate feelings (anguish, pity).
Why are guilt and empathy so strong in Northwest Europeans? Other societies ensure good behavior by relying on close kin to step in and enforce social rules. This policing mechanism has been less effective west of the Hajnal line (which runs roughly from Trieste to St. Petersburg) because kinship ties have been correspondingly weaker. There has thus been stronger selection for internal means of behavior control, like guilt and empathy.
This zone of relatively weak kinship is associated with unusual demographic tendencies, called the Western European Marriage Pattern:
- relatively late marriage for men and women
- many people who never marry
- neolocality (children leave the family household to form new households)
- high circulation of non-kin among different households (Hajnal, 1964; ICA, 2013)
The Western European Marriage Pattern was thought to have arisen after the Black Death of the 14th century. There is now good evidence for its existence before the Black Death and fragmentary evidence going back to 9th century France and earlier (Hallam, 1985; Seccombe, 1992, p. 94). Historian Alan Macfarlane likewise sees an English tendency toward weaker kinship ties before the 13th century and even during Anglo-Saxon times (Macfarlane, 2012;Macfarlane, 1992, pp. 173-174). I have argued that this tendency probably goes still farther back (Frost, 2013a; Frost, 2013b).
Whatever the ultimate cause, Northwest Europeans seem to have been pre-adapted for later shifts away from kinship and toward alternate means of organizing social relations (i.e., ideology, codified law, commerce). This tendency has taken various forms: the intense guilt-driven Christianity of the Anglo-Saxon penitential tradition and, later, Protestantism; the medieval alliance between Church and State to pacify social relations; and the post-medieval rise of the market economy. This cultural evolution has been described by the historical economist Gregory Clark for the English population between the 12th and 19th centuries. As England became a settled society, success went to those who could resolve disputes amiably and profit from thinking ahead—in short, those who had middle-class values of thrift, foresight, self-control, nonviolence, and sobriety. This English middle class, initially tiny, grew in numbers until its lineages accounted for most of its country’s gene pool (Clark, 2007; Clark, 2009a; Clark, 2009b).
But what does that have to do with evolution???
At this point, Fred may again speak up, with more than a touch of exasperation: “You’re ducking my question! You’re talking about culture, society, and religion! What does that have to do with evolution???”
Everything, Fred. Everything. Unlike other animals, humans have to adapt not only to their physical environment but also to their cultural environment. In short, we’ve become participants in our own evolution. We have domesticated ourselves.
Let me return to your initial question. What’s to stop you from torturing to death the severely retarded? First, your sense of empathy should. If it doesn’t, you’re the one with a severe mental defect. I wouldn’t want you as a fellow citizen, let alone as a neighbor. The law of the jungle may give you the right to torture defenceless people to death, but it also gives me the right to organize a lynch mob and hang you from the nearest tree.
Chakrabarti, B. and S. Baron-Cohen. (2013). Understanding the genetics of empathy and the autistic spectrum, in S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, M. Lombardo. (eds). Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Developmental Social Neuroscience, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Clark, G. (2009a). The indicted and the wealthy: Surnames, reproductive success, genetic selection and social class in pre-industrial England.
Clark, G. (2009b). The domestication of man: The social implications of Darwin. ArtefaCTos, 2, 64-80.
Frost, P. (2013a). The origins of Northwest European guilt culture,Evo and Proud, December 7
Frost, P. (2013b). Origins of Northwest European guilt culture, Part II,Evo and Proud, December 14
Hajnal, John (1965). European marriage pattern in historical perspective. In D.V. Glass and D.E.C. Eversley (eds). Population in History. Arnold, London.
Hallam, H.E. (1985). Age at first marriage and age at death in the Lincolnshire Fenland, 1252-1478, Population Studies, 39, 55-69.
ICA (2013). Research Themes – Marriage Patterns, Institutions for Collective Action
Macfarlane, A. (1992). On individualism, Proceedings of the British Academy, 82, 171-199.
Macfarlane, A. (2012). The invention of the modern world. Chapter 8: Family, friendship and population, The Fortnightly Review, Spring-Summer serial