sexta-feira, novembro 17, 2006

Uma (gen)ética egoísta

A Sociobiologia, uma interessante abordagem do comportamento humano a partir do que seria a seleção natural, tem se tornado cada vez mais popular entre as pessoas informadas. Entretanto, não é preciso muito esforço para ver a facilidade com que seus postulados podem levar a uma repetição do que aconteceu, no século XIX, com o darwinismo: seu uso como justificativa para normas sociais e diretrizes éticas injustas e exclusivistas, o chamado darwinismo social cujo preceito básico era "Só os mais fortes sobrevivem", significando que "é natural e desejável que os mais fracos (fossem os pobres, os menos inteligentes, os de cor de pele diferente) pereçam". Este texto, colhido a partir dos Arts & Letters Daily, trata do assunto.
The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Chronicle Review
November 17, 2006

The Social Responsibility in Teaching Sociobiology


Socrates was made to drink hemlock for having "corrupted the youth of Athens." Is sociobiology or — as it is more commonly called these days — "evolutionary psychology" similarly corrupting? Although the study of evolution is, in my opinion, one of the most exciting and illuminating of all intellectual enterprises, there is at the same time, and not just in my opinion, something dark about the implications of natural selection for our own behavior.

Should we revise Pink Floyd's anthem "Another Brick in the Wall" — with its chorus "No dark sarcasm in the classroom/Teachers leave them kids alone" — to "No dark sociobiology in the classroom"? To answer this, we need first to examine that purported darkness.

Basically, it's a matter of selfishness. For a long time, evolution was thought to operate "for the good of the species," a conception that had a number of pro-social implications; that may be one reason why "species benefit" was so widely accepted, and why its overthrow took so long and was so vigorously resisted. Thus, if evolution somehow cares about the benefit enjoyed by a species, or by any other group larger than the individual, then it makes sense for natural selection to favor actions that contribute positively to that larger whole, even at the expense of the individual in question. Doing good therefore becomes doubly right: not just ethically correct but also biologically appropriate. In a world motivated by concern for the group rather than the individual, altruism is to be expected, since it would be "only natural" for an individual to suffer costs — and to do so willingly — so long as other species members come out ahead as a result.

Then came the revolution. Beginning in the 1960s with a series of paradigm-shifting papers by William D. Hamilton, a notable book by George C. Williams (Adaptation and Natural Selection), and with further clarifications in the early 1970s, especially by Robert L. Trivers and John Maynard Smith, and magisterially summarized in Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology, the conceptual structure of modern evolutionary biology was changed — maybe not forever (it's a bit premature to conclude that), but into the foreseeable future. Sociobiology was born on the wings of this scientific paradigm shift, whose underlying manifesto holds that the evolutionary process works most effectively at the smallest unit: that of individuals and genes, rather than groups and species.

At first glance, none of this seems especially threatening. Moreover it has been liberating in the extreme, shedding new light on a wide range of animal and human social behavior. But at the same time, the individual- and gene-centered view of life offers, in a sense, a perspective that is profoundly selfish; hence Richard Dawkins's immensely influential book, The Selfish Gene. The basic idea has been so productive that it has rapidly become dogma: Living things compete with each other (more precisely, their constituent genes struggle with alternative copies) in a never-ending process of differential reproduction, using their bodies as vehicles, or tools, for achieving success. The result has been to validate a view of human motivations that seems to approve of personal selfishness while casting doubt on any self-abnegating actions, seeing a self-serving component behind any act, no matter how altruistic it might appear. Sociobiologists have thus become modern-day descendants of the cynical King Gama, from Gilbert and Sullivan's Princess Ida, who proudly announces his cynicism: "A charitable action I can skillfully dissect; And interested motives I'm delighted to detect."

Scientifically, such "detection" works. Ethically, however, it stinks: If the fundamental nature of living things — human beings included — is to joust endlessly with each other, each seeking to get ahead, then we're all mired in selfishness — a dark vision indeed.

It might ease the blow by noting that such a vision of human nature is hardly unique to modern evolutionary science. Thus, in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), David Hume wrote that "should a traveller, returning from a far country, bring us an account of men wholly different from any with whom we were ever acquainted ... who were entirely divested of avarice, ambition, or revenge; who knew no pleasure but friendship, generosity, and public spirit; we should immediately, from these circumstances, detect the falsehood, and prove him a liar, with the same certainty as if he had stuffed his narration with stories of centaurs and dragons, miracles and prodigies." Hume also noted, albeit playfully, "It is not irrational for me to prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of my finger." More than 200 years ago, people were made uncomfortable by such sentiments, and they still are.

Just as nature is said to abhor a vacuum, it abhors true altruism. Society, on the other hand, adores it. Most ethical systems advocate undiscriminating altruism: "Virtue," we are advised, "is its own reward." Such sentiments are immensely attractive, not only because they are how we would like other people to behave, but probably because at some level, we wish that we could do the same. As Bertolt Brecht notes in The Threepenny Opera, "We crave to be more kindly than we are," so much so that purveyors of good news — those who proclaim the "better angels of our nature" — nearly always receive a more enthusiastic reception than do those whose message is more dour.

Although people are widely urged to be kind, moral, altruistic, and so forth, which suggests that they are basically less kind, moral, altruistic, etc., than is desired, it is also common to give at least lip service to the precept that people are fundamentally good. It appears that there is a payoff in claiming — if not acting — as though others are good at heart. "Each of us will be well advised, on some suitable occasion," wrote Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, "to make a low bow to the deeply moral nature of mankind; it will help us to be generally popular and much will be forgiven us for it." Why are people generally so unkind to those who criticize the human species as being, at heart, unkind? Maybe because of worry that such critics might be seeking to justify their own unpleasantness by pointing to a general unpleasantness on the part of others. And maybe also because most people like to think of themselves as benevolent and altruistic, or at least, to think that other people think of them that way. It seems likely that a cynic is harder to bamboozle.

In Civilization and Its Discontents, perhaps his most pessimistic book, Freud went on to lament that one of education's sins is that "it does not prepare [children] for the aggressiveness of which they are destined to become the objects. In sending the young into life with such a false psychological orientation, education is behaving as though one were to equip people starting on a Polar expedition with summer clothing and maps of the Italian Lakes. In this it becomes evident that a certain misuse is being made of ethical demands. The strictness of those demands would not do so much harm if education were to say: 'This is how men ought to be, in order to be happy and to make others happy; but you have to reckon on their not being like that.' Instead of this the young are made to believe that everyone else fulfills those ethical demands — that is, that everyone else is virtuous. It is on this that the demand is based that the young, too, shall become virtuous."

At the same time, we can expect that society will often call for real altruism, not because it is good for the altruist but because it benefits those who receive. (If it were clearly good for the altruist, then society wouldn't have to call for it! In fact, cynics point out that it is precisely because altruism is generally not good for the altruist that social pressures are so often focused on producing it.) Friedrich Nietzsche was probably the most articulate spokesman for the view that society encourages self-sacrifice because the unselfish sucker is an asset to others: "Virtues (such as industriousness, obedience, chastity, piety, justness) are mostly injurious to their possessors. ... If you possess a virtue, ... you are its victim! But that is precisely why your neighbor praises your virtue. Praise of the selfless, sacrificing, virtuous ... is in any event not a product of the spirit of selflessness! One's 'neighbor' praises selflessness because he derives advantage from it."

If Nietzsche is correct, then there is probably a distressingly manipulative quality to morals, to most religious teachings, to the newspaper headlines that celebrate the hero who leaps into a raging river to rescue a drowning child, to local Good Citizenship Awards and PTA prizes.

"That man is good who does good to others," wrote the 17th-century French moralist Jean de La Bruyère. Nothing objectionable so far; indeed, it makes sense (especially for the "others"). But La Bruyère goes on, revealing a wicked pre-Nietzschean cynicism: "If he suffers on account of the good he does, he is very good; if he suffers at the hands of those to whom he has done good, then his goodness is so great that it could be enhanced only by greater suffering; and if he should die at their hands, his virtue can go no further; it is heroic, it is perfect."

Such "perfect" heroism can only be wished on one's worst enemies.

Exhortations to extreme selflessness are easy to parody, as not only unrealistic but also paradoxically self-serving insofar as the exhorter is likely to benefit at the expense of the one exhorted. Yet the more we learn about biology, the more sensible becomes the basic thrust of social ethics, precisely because nearly everyone, left to his or her devices, is likely to be selfish, probably more than is good for the rest of us. The philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell pointed out that "by the cultivation of large and generous desires ... men can be brought to act more than they do at present in a manner that is consistent with the general happiness of mankind." Society is therefore left with the responsibility to do a lot of cultivating.

Seen this way, a biologically appropriate wisdom begins to emerge from the various commandments and moral injunctions, nearly all of which can at least be interpreted as trying to get people to behave "better," that is, to develop and then act upon large and generous desires, to strive to be more amiable, more altruistic, less competitive, and less selfish than they might otherwise be.

Enter sociobiology. With its increasingly clear demonstration that Hume, Freud, Brecht, and Nietzsche (also Machiavelli and Hobbes) are basically onto something, and that selfishness resides in our very genes, it would seem not only that evolution is a dispiriting guide to human behavior, but also that the teaching of sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology) should be undertaken only with great caution. The renowned primatologist Sarah Hrdy accordingly questioned "whether sociobiology should be taught at the high-school level ... because it can be very threatening to students still in the process of shaping their own priorities," adding: "The whole message of sociobiology is oriented toward the success of the individual. ... Unless a student has a moral framework already in place, we could be producing social monsters by teaching this."

What to do? One possibility — unacceptable, I would hope, to most educators — would be to refrain altogether from teaching such dangerous truths. Teacher, leave them kids alone! Preferable, I submit, is to structure the teaching of sociobiology along the lines of sex education: Teach what we know, but do so in age-appropriate stages. Just as we would not bombard kindergartners with the details of condom use, we probably ought not instruct preteens in the finer points of sociobiology, especially since many of those are hidden even to those expected to do the teaching. For one thing, a deeper grasp of the evolutionary biology of altruism reveals that even though selfishness may well underlie much of our behavior, it is often achieved, paradoxically, via acts of altruism, as when individuals behave in a manner that enhances the ultimate success of genetic relatives. Here, selfishness at the level of genes produces altruism at the level of bodies. Ditto for "reciprocity," which, as Robert Trivers elegantly demonstrated more than three decades ago, can produce seemingly altruistic exchanges and moral obligations even between nonrelatives. Yet genetic selfishness underlies it all. Alexander Pope concluded, with some satisfaction, "That Reason, Passion, answer one great aim; That true Self-love and Social are the same."

Sociobiologists understand that there is an altruistic as well as a selfish side to the evolutionary coin. A half-baked introduction to the discipline, which pointed only to the latter, would therefore do students a substantial disservice. Moreover, gene-centered evolutionary thinking can also expand the sense of self and emphasize interrelatedness: Altruism aside, just consider all those genes for cellular metabolism, for neurotransmitters and basic body plans, all of them shared with every living thing, competing and pushing and somehow working things out on a small and increasingly crowded planet. There, by the grace of evolution, go a large part of "ourselves."

"Gene-centered theories are often reviled," writes the gene theorist David Haig, "because of their perceived implications for human societies. But even though genes may cajole, deceive, cheat, swindle, or steal, all in pursuit of their own replication, this does not mean that people must be similarly self-interested. Organisms are collective entities (like firms, communes, unions, charities, teams) and the behaviors and decisions of collective bodies need not mirror those of their individual members." To some extent, in short, we may even possess — gulp! — free will.

Beyond the question of what our genes may be up to and the extent to which we are independent of them, those expected to ponder the biology of their own "natural" inclinations ought also to be warned (more than once) about the "naturalistic fallacy," the presumption that things natural are, ipso facto, good. I'd even suggest pushing this further, and that the real test of our humanity might be whether we are willing, at least on occasion, to say no to our "natural" inclinations, thereby refusing go along with our selfish genes. To my knowledge, no other animal species is capable of doing that. More than any other living things, we are characterized by an almost unlimited repertoire; human beings are of the wilderness, with beasts inside, but much of the beastliness involves gene-based altruism no less than selfishness. (Recall the paradox that genetic selfishness is often promoted via altruism toward other individuals insofar as these recipients are likely to carry identical copies of the genes in question.)

Moreover, as Carl Sandburg put it, each human being is "the keeper of his zoo." Even that is not evidence of a lack of evolutionary influence; rather, it is a result of selection for being a good zookeeper. Socrates, we are told, elected to drink the hemlock when he could have followed a different path. Human beings are capable not only of understanding what the evolutionary process hath wrought, but also of deciding, in the clear light of reason as well as ethics, whether to follow.

David P. Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

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