The Environment Foundation

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Sustainability Doesn’t Come Naturally: A Darwinian Perspective On Values:


Giles Chitty, Independent Financial Adviser: Are there examples of groups of predators who behave in a prudent manner in a way that, perhaps, if they have a maverick among them who is imprudent, they eliminate him? I am thinking strongly of the parallel around Kyoto.

Professor Dawkins: I don’t know of any direct examples of that. Something a little like it can happen, at least theoretically, in groups of individuals who know each other as individuals. I think, for example, of pack hunting animals, like wolves, or lions, who are in a certain amount of danger when they attack large prey. One could imagine that some individuals might selfishly hang back and allow the others to bear the brunt of the buffalo’s horns. One could also imagine theoretical models in which those who hang back are punished by the other members of the group, noticing that this is going on and driving the shirkers off the kill. But this does not really get to the problem of prudent predation, because we are now talking about a group of animals which know each other and, once you do that, then you are immediately into standard Darwinian theory of reciprocation, which is not to do with long-term altruistic considerations, but can all be handled in short-term language. So, although you probably could find examples which might look superficially like prudence, there are strong theoretical reasons for doubting it.

Phil Clothier, CorpTools UK: What is your definition of a value?

Professor Dawkins: A value is something which is maximised. So, in the case of the ultimate value, what is maximised by all animal and plant behaviour is gene survival. Animals and plants behave as if they had undertaken extremely sophisticated mathematical calculations, in which they are striving to maximise the survival of their genes. That is the ultimate value. More proximally, what animals are maximising are things like a full stomach or an orgasm – something which the nervous system values. The nervous system is pre-equipped with a tendency to value this sensation, whatever it might be, or the sensation of having a nice warm nest – something like that – and this is, from a Darwinian point of view, a proximal value in the service of the ultimate value of gene survival. But the general definition I suppose is something which is maximised.

Jess Kingsford: You say that large brains have been selected through evolution. Do you think that our ability to over-ride our more primal impulses was possibly what was favoured, or what was selected, or is it that what was favoured was the capacity to take the long view?

Professor Dawkins: I think that it was not the capacity to take the long view, in the sense in which all of us here would wish it to be, that was favoured by natural selection. I think that is an emergent property. In the same sort of way, electronic computers were originally built as mathematical calculating engines, and then it was an emergent property that they turned out to be very good at word processing and playing chess and things like that. So the capacity to see into the future would have been a useful thing for the short-term gain, the short-term benefit, of the individual – the capacity to plan a hunt, the capacity to take provision for a drought that’s coming, the capacity for storing food for the winter. These are all forward-looking enterprises, but they are all for the selfish gain of the individual. It is that that built into our brains the ability to plan for the future and the ability to plan for the world’s future, as opposed to just our own selfish future. That is the emergent property which would never have been directly selected, as such, by Darwinian selection.

Kate Rawles, Philosopher: You talked about the ultimate values that come from Darwinism and then proximal values. What is the relationship between them? What room for manoeuvre have we as humans got and, in particular, are there any constraints on our secondary values that we just can’t get?

Professor Dawkins: I speculated that one might breed animals that enjoyed pain, and that would be a fanciful example of changing values. I think your intuition on final constraints is as good as mine. I imagine there are pretty severe limits to what could be achieved by, not necessarily artificial selection, but by training. Could you imagine teaching children to completely reverse normal values? Could you train a group of children to grow up valuing things which are very, very far from what Darwinian selection would have built into them? Imagine bringing up children to kill themselves. That is pushing pretty far away from what Darwinian selection would allow. You are asking how tied are the teachable values to the primary Darwinian values. So, teaching people to kill themselves is pushing it about as far as it can go. In the last couple of months, we have seen disturbing examples where this apparently has been done, so it looks as though, rarely, something like that can happen. I suppose maybe you were asking because of the hope that one might be able to teach people to forgo short-term selfish gain in the interests of long-term world benefit. I am more optimistic about that. There are an awful lot of people who, either for cultural reasons or educational reasons or I don’t know quite what, do seem to be capable of subjugating their selfish desires for the good of humanity as a whole, or even living creatures as a whole. The fact that some people seem to manage to do this gives me hope that more people might.

Bob Boote, BTCV: There is so much that is going on today which adds up to evil. What is the value of evil in your context?

Professor Dawkins: I suppose I felt that I did not really need to stress evil because, in a way, many of the things that we call evil do seem to follow more naturally from the Darwinian background. One does not really need to stress that one expects that selfishness, ruthlessness, aggression, riding roughshod over the needs of others weaker than ourselves, are likely to follow from Darwinian natural selection. I suppose I ought to say that, as a passionate Darwinian in the academic sense that I believe Darwinism is the explanation for all of life, I am also a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to deriving values for our own life. A pretty good definition of the kind of society in which I don’t want to live is a society founded in the principles of Darwinism. That is, in a way, the central message of my lecture.

Michael Quint: You have mentioned the importance of strong policing. Does that not suggest our only hope of going forward is with the much maligned United Nations?

Professor Dawkins: I am naïve about such political matters. I suppose that governments within countries are at least capable, theoretically capable, of the kind of policing I am talking about – making people pay their taxes and suppressing too much manifestation of self interest. When it comes to international interactions, where you do not have world government, organisations such as the one you are citing are the nearest approach we have. It is clear that they are teetering on the edge of being workable, but they do not have the sort of teeth, the sort of powers, that strong governments within countries do.

Dominic Scholfield, People & Planet: I know you have written in the past about the possibility that ideas might develop a Darwinian pattern, using the meme as the unit of cultural transmission that can be replicated. If that is the case – if there is one idea that will survive, is it likely to be sustainability?

Professor Dawkins: The point about memes is that there is nothing special about genes. Darwinism can work with anything which has the property of being a self-replicating entity, which DNA molecules undoubtedly do have. One can theoretically imagine some other things having that property, like computer viruses and perhaps like ideas in a culture. Ideas in a culture may survive in the culture because they have survival value. They have what it takes to survive and if you look around our culture, you see trivial examples, like epidemics, crazes of fashion, games that children play in playgrounds. You are raising the hope that an idea like sustainability might be a good meme and might have a high survival value, in the sense that it would survive, perhaps because a world in which all individuals are imbued with sustainability is a world which is going to continue. Unfortunately that sounds perilously like the group selection argument that I mentioned earlier. One could say the same thing about a species and gene survival. A species, all of whose individuals work for the long-term survival of the species, is more likely to survive than a species whose individuals work for their own selfish good. But it is of the nature of Darwinism that short-term survival is what counts and, if the striving for short-term survival drives the species extinct, that’s just too bad. It is too late for natural selection among species, if there were such a thing to come along and save the situation because, by then, the species has already gone extinct. I rather fear the same thing is likely to arise for the meme analogy that you are proposing, but you might come up with an ingenious mathematical model to make it work.

Questioner: How do you work out if you have got to the right level of question rather than the right question?

Professor Dawkins: In the case of the moth and the candle flame, you could first of all check that, given a light source of optical infinity, the moth really does maintain a fixed angle to it. You could then experiment by systematically changing the position of the light to see if the moth changes its own. In other words, see if you can steer the moth just by switching lights on and off. So that would be a test that the moth is actually following that rule. Then I suppose you could test whether the trajectory of the moth in the vicinity of the candle really is a logarithmic spiral, by taking high speed films and analysing that. Let me weaken my position by saying that I am not necessarily saying that any particular ‘moth and candle flame’ kind of explanation is the right one, but you should be eternally alert to the possibility that the question you are asking is the wrong question. That does not mean you know when you have got the right question. But when somebody challenges you as a Darwinian to explain why people fight over shopping trolleys in Sainsbury’s or something, you don’t give them a naive answer at the wrong level. You say to yourself, "Moth in candle flame". It is a kind of self-warning.

Questioner: You talked about Darwinism as a framework by which you might be able to understand what conflicts with sustainability. I wonder whether the framework of economics makes better sense? Your example of contraception being rather anti-Darwinian might be very sensible from an economic point of view.

Professor Dawkins: Contraception makes economic sense even from an individual economic point of view. An individual impoverishes himself or herself by having too many children. Yes, economic values – just maximising one’s own wealth or any of the other things that economists call utility, whether it is personal wealth or sum of human happiness or whatever it is – all these are values which economists consider might be maximised. Economists, in a way, have an easier time because they are allowed to postulate any kind of utility function, any kind of value that might be maximised, and then look at the consequences. Darwinism is more constrained, in that we know what the fundamental utility function of nature is. It is gene survival. All other utility functions which are not gene survival have to come about as a kind of liberation from the deep Darwinian utility function. But having established that, we can liberate ourselves – and that was one of my central points tonight – we are left with the economists’ way of looking at things. What other kinds of utility functions do people maximise and how do they maximise them?

Richard Wilson, Environment Council: You said that people were afraid to enter into international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol for fear of somehow damaging their own individual position. However, often by entering into dialogue, you actually expose yourself to complex facts and knowledge which will allow you to improve your position. How do you know that you’ve got the right answer when you don’t have all the information?

Professor Dawkins: Uncertainties abound in nature as well. What turns out, as a matter of fact, to be the optimal proximal decision for ultimately maximising the gene survival is never obvious. Animals frequently get it wrong. But the assumption we make is that, in effect, an indefinitely complicated piece of mathematics goes on unconsciously inside the animal. The animal behaves as if it were a very powerful computer which has been programmed by generations of natural selection. Complexity exists in wild nature exactly as it does in the human economic situation. What is more simple in the Darwinian case is that the utility function is known. It is not known how it is maximised. That is extremely complicated, but the utility function is known. In the case of human economic decisions, we don’t even know what the utility function is. Different people could be maximising different ones. People could change their minds about what they are maximising. They could have some kind of curious weighted sum of different utility functions. In Darwinism the practice is just as complicated, but the fundamental value is known.

Rt Rev John Oliver, Bishop of Hereford: I speak on environmental issues on behalf of the Church of England. I am wondering whether there is really such a contrast between altruism and self-interest. Is it not possible to say that because we do have very big brains we can understand that it is essential for gene survival that we must have a sustainable future? And that is actually a very hopeful sign?

Professor Dawkins: I agree with that. In different words that is what I was trying to say. Big brains allow you to take a long distance view of your own self-interest and allow you to take actions which natural selection per se could never have allowed you to do. I would resist any suggestion that that is why natural selection gave us the big brains in the first place. I think it is an emergent spin off from the fact that we have big brains for other reasons. But, as a result, we can actually say my long-term self-interest is different from what a naive Darwinian computer would say it is. My long-term self-interest is to forgo short-term benefits in the interests of long-term benefit and that is a hopeful sign, I agree. However, I would shrink from calling it a legitimate evolution of the Darwinian process, because it might be misunderstood as suggesting that natural selection put it there for that reason – in the same way as natural selection put wings on birds so that they could fly. It is a bit of a different thing. I used the word spin-off just now and I think that is about right. There are precedents for that too, of course. The swim bladders of fish, which are used as flotation devices, started out as lungs, and it was a spin-off benefit that they could be used as flotation devices as well. Nature is rife with such cases. They are called pre-adaptations and I think you could say that what we have here is a pre-adaptation.

Anthony Forsyth: Your perspective on sustainability is obviously founded upon the Darwinian beliefs that you hold. However, in environmental circles, there has historically been a great association with different forms of spirituality – not only people like the Bishop, but a vast range of spiritual beliefs. Yet it is apparent from what you are saying that your Darwinian perspective allows very little room for spiritual beliefs. Do you feel that your Darwinian approach to sustainability in practice would be significantly different from an approach to sustainability allowing for a spiritual perspective? Assuming there is a significant difference, is your Darwinian approach to sustainability likely to be broadly adopted within the environmental community?

Professor Dawkins: I don’t think it was possible for you to tell from my lecture what my attitude to spiritual beliefs might be.

Anthony Forsyth: It clearly came across as viewing man as a dichotomy of mind and body, with no possibility of a soul. Whatever spiritual beliefs one might have, much of what you were attributing purely to genes would normally be attributed to genes in conjunction with what one might call a soul.

Professor Dawkins: I don’t find that a helpful way of looking at the world and so I am not the right person to answer that question. When I say I don’t find it a helpful way of looking at the world, that is putting it very mildly indeed.

Sustainability Doesn’t Come Naturally: A Darwinian Perspective on Values: