Morality is Accidental & Self-Congratulatory

The Selfish Gene remains one of my favorite books of all time and although published in 1976 it remains a compelling and insightful introduction to the brute mechanics of natural selection. Richard Dawkins later acknowledged that his book’s title may give a misleading impression of its thesis, erroneously ascribing conscious motivations or agentic properties to non-sentient strands of DNA. The core argument is dreadfully simple: genes (as opposed to organisms or species) are the primary unit of natural selection, and if you leave the primordial soup brewing for a while, the only genes that can remain are the ones with a higher proclivity towards replication than their neighbors. “Selfish” genes therefore are not cunning strategists or followers of some manifest destiny, but rather simply the accidental consequence of natural selection favoring their propagation. Nothing more.

Dawkins is responsible for coining the word ‘meme’ in the book to describe how the same principles behind gene replication can apply to ideas replicating. I thought about this when I read WoodFromEden’s post about the origin of patriarchy.[1] Their explanation for why male dominance persisted historically for so long is elegantly tidy:

Men make war. Or rather, groups of men make war. The groups that were good at making war remained. The groups that were less good at making war perished. That way, human history is a history of successful male military cooperation. Groups with weak male bonding were defeated by groups where men cooperated better.

Here too, there is no dirigible trajectory mapped out ahead of time. Cultural values which valorize physical male violence and facilitate its coordination at scale will become the dominant paradigm purely as a result of the circumstances’ ruthless logic. Any deviation from this set of values would lead your tribe towards extinction, which accidentally also meant your bards wouldn’t be around to write songs and poems extolling the virtues of sex equality. At least not until there have been an extensive change in circumstance.

This “security dilemma” may have been borne out of petty squabbles over hunting grounds in the Serengeti but its ramifications persisted throughout history. Military service today may be seen as a low-status and distasteful profession — quite literally grunt work — but it used to be venerated deeply as a path to honor and a cornerstone of civic duty. This philosophy is epitomized by the recurring and central portrayal of military men in stories from a long time ago (Homeric heroes of ancient Greece, Genghis Khan, Jedi knights, etc.), their deeds forming the backbone of societal narratives and cultural mythologies.

The historian Bret Deveraux analyzed the grand strategy video game Europa Universalis 4 to illustrate the war-hungry reality of the late medieval period:

Military power requires revenue and manpower (along with staying technologically competitive) and both come from the same source: the land. While a player can develop existing provinces, taking land in war is far cheaper and faster. The game represents this through both developing old land and seizing new land requiring similar resources [but compared to incorporating newly conquered land, development is about 4x as expensive while providing only marginal improvements]. That may seem like the developer has placed their thumb a bit unfairly on the scale, but, as Azar Gat notes in War in Human Civilization (2006) for pre-industrial societies that is a historically correct thumb on the scale. Until the industrial revolution, nearly all of the energy used in production came out of agriculture one way or another; improves in irrigation, tax collection and farming methods might improve yields, but never nearly so much as adding more land. Consequently, as Gat puts it, returns to capital investment (hitting the development button) were always wildly inferior to returns to successful warfare that resulted in conquest.

For most of history, living the good life meant killing people and taking their shit. The men of martial prowess — those exceptionally good at killing people and taking their shit — were appropriately exalted and deified for the base survival and material gain they were able to provide to their community. Fundamental to this community’s well-being is a male’s ability to commit acts of horrific physical violence in his individual capacity and to coordinate others to do the same (this too with violence if necessary). Any folklore or morality code which facilitated this core mission will replicate, spread, and become enshrined as humanity’s unquestioned zeitgeist. Not because it’s the “right” thing to do, but solely because no pacifist egalitarian civilization could have possibly survived to say otherwise.

I’ve written before about slavery, along a similar vein of Devereaux-inspired historical analysis. Although subject nowadays to some quixotic revisionism about why it existed, there is nothing at all remarkable about slavery’s near-universal historical pervasiveness. The only justification anyone ever needed to press another into bondage is the universal desire to have someone else do all the work. Any mythology pasted on top (including institutionalized racism) was always just set dressing. When industrialization made slavery increasingly politically and economically untenable, the moral and legal consensus conveniently caught up.

Consider the chasm with how much material circumstances changed. Promises of milk and honey used to serve as the bounty of divine compacts, but today I can performatively buy entire vats of the stuff and barely notice the financial hit. Cheap and abundant electricity is part of the reason I have trivial access to luxuries ancient royalty could only dream about. Buckminster Fuller coined the term energy slave as a way to contextualize energy consumption by calculating the equivalent kilowatt-hours a healthy human could provide through labor. It’s a crude equivalence for sure but with some basic assumptions[2] we can calculate the average American relies on the “labor” of about 150 energy slaves. Well what do you know, that happens to be around how many slaves George Washington owned.[3]

The most fascinating book I’ve never read is The Secret Of Our Success which essentially argues humans succeeded because we’re uniquely adept at making shit up — social conventions, cultural norms, religious mythology, etc. — which happens to be directionally useful.

One of the reasons stone tool technology languished for millions of years is likely a result of the brute limitations of a then-human’s cognitive capacity. It took about 3 million years of evolution for the human brain to triple in size; a pace too glacial to contemplate but still remarkably fast for natural selection. By contrast, the pace of cultural memetic evolution is not constrained by the corporeal cycle of birth and death. Once the human brain got swole enough, the jet fuel that really powered the next few thousand years of technological advancement was almost entirely a result of cultural advancement. Our ability to create viral memes, in other words.

I’m an atheist who believes religion is a fiction, but I happily recognize it as a materially useful fiction. The Dunbar limit normally would make us dreadfully wary of any interactions with Person No. 151, a hurdle which would have otherwise foreclosed the already impossibly long alloy trade routes necessary to start the bronze age. BUT if you make some shit up about how Person No. 151 is actually totally cool to trade with because they’re of the same religion or K-pop fandom or whatever, the cultural fiction is soothing enough for your flighty lizardbrain to let its guard down. Keep this up long enough and maybe pencils can exist.

Our mind’s rational capacity to observe patterns, question assumptions, and test hypotheses provides us with an envious advantage in mastering the physical world with everything from tracking game to optimizing steam turbines. But paradoxically as Gurwinder notes in his highly-recommended essay Why Smart People Believe Stupid Things, the very same intelligence can become an effective source of delusion:

As a case in point, human intelligence evolved less as a tool for pursuing objective truth than as a tool for pursuing personal well-being, tribal belonging, social status, and sex, and this often required the adoption of what I call “Fashionably Irrational Beliefs” (FIBs), which the brain has come to excel at. Since we’re a social species, it is intelligent for us to convince ourselves of irrational beliefs if holding those beliefs increases our status and well-being.

Unlike George Washington, I don’t support slavery (please clap). But also unlike Washington, I conveniently happen to benefit from a dense tapestry of infrastructure and tendinous globe-spanning supply chains affording me near-immediate satisfaction of my most trivial of whims. Based on the evident historical record, without the environmentally deleterious bounty fossil fuels facilitated, most of us would be conjuring up creatively compelling excuses for why forcing your neighbor to work for free is the Moral thing to do. Gurwinder cites exactly such an example with the 19th century physician Samuel A. Cartwright:

A strong believer in slavery, he used his learning to avoid the clear and simple realization that slaves who tried to escape didn’t want to be slaves, and instead diagnosed them as suffering from a mental disorder he called drapetomania, which could be remedied by “whipping the devil” out of them. It’s an explanation so idiotic only an intellectual could think of it.

The cynical ramifications of my argument might be impossible to avoid completely. Perhaps acknowledging how much our technological milieu guides our moral spirit could beckon us to intensify our agentic nature. To the extent the field of evolutionary psychology can be deployed to shed light on past and present mysteries, perhaps it can shed insight into the future too?

But ultimately, how scary is it to know your deeply held convictions are subject to materialistic opportunism?

  1. ^

    As Scott Alexander noted: “If you’re allergic to the word “patriarchy”, reframe it as the anthropological question of why men were more powerful than women in societies between the Bronze and Industrial Age technology levels.”

  2. ^

    The average per capita consumption in the US is 300 million BTUs. A human can sustain 75 watts of work over 8 hours, which translates to 2,047 BTUs of energy per day. If we generously also give our energy slaves the weekends off, that’s 260 days times 2,047 BTUs, or 532,220 BTUs of energy per year. I very likely fucked this up but I stopped caring hours ago.

  3. ^

    Another crude equivalence, but Washington’s net worth in today’s dollars is around $700 million, far outstripping every other US president until Trump showed up.