Monday, March 21, 2005

Where did we come from?


In my last few days before failing my exam, my eldest son has started emailing me. He is a jewel amongst sons, but he is a creationist, and I'm not. One thing he asked is "humans have an inbuilt sense of morality, justice etc. - where'd it come from?".

Here is a very brief precis of my response.

"It evolved. Here is as simple as I can put it. The following is a parable, not my suggestion of actual events.

Imagine two tribes : the Bads and the Goods. The Bads have no sense at all of morality and justice (orcs). The Goods have a strong sense of the same. The two tribes go to war. Who wins? The Goods, because they can co-operate to build trebuchets, etc. The Bads are always out stealing each other's CDs.

So in a great war, the Goods destroy the Bads. The Bads become extinct. Voila, a population with your “inbuilt sense of morality, justice, etc.”

Is this us?

Not yet. Take it one more step. Evolution proceeds: a new kind of person appears (spontaneous mutation, snuck in by recessive genes, whatever) in the midst of the Goods. This type is covertly evil – lies when it can, cheats when it gets away with it, sly and underhand. Call it the Lowlife.

It is clear to see that the concentration of Lowlifes within the population will rise until it becomes too great a drain on the Goods and they're beaten by the neighbouring tribe of Goods who have fewer Lowlifes.

Goods and Lowlifes – starting to look a lot like our society.

So it makes sense to be a tribe composed as much as possible of Goods and with an efficient mechanism for detecting Lowlifes - even if it makes sense for an individual to be a Lowlife, especially the only Lowlife in a village of Goods. So how do the Goods survive?

They become better at detecting the Lowlifes. Those groups of Goods who have a strong hatred of Lowlifes, who punish them when they catch them and seek them everywhere, will probably do better than Goods who just let the Lowlifes take what they want. So survival of the fittest continues and we have societies of Goods and Lowlifes where everyone is always talking about and arguing for good and trying to detect and punish and destroy evil. Lets call this third "type" Witch-hunters (Witch-hunters can be either Goods, Bads or Lowlifes, as we shall see. It probably makes more sense to talk about Witch-hunting as a behaviour that anyone (Good, Bad or other) can exhibit). A tribe with lots of Witch-hunters (whether Good, Bad or Lowlife) out-competes a tribe without.

Looking more like us all the time.

One last development. All this good of the tribe is all very well, but evolution works principally on the individual level. Protecting the tribe only makes sense to the extent that they share “your” genes. But who’s looking out for number one? Wouldn’t it make sense (from an individual survival point of view) to preach righteousness but to sneak whatever you could when the Witch-hunter's back is turned? You’d do better, your kids would do better… doesn't it make sense to be a Hypocrite? Like a Lowlife but loudly trumpeting your alleged values , talking about trust as you betray, justice as you steal, peace as you mobilise the bombers. Urging the Witch-hunters on in their pursuit of the Lowlifes. Calling loudly for law and order as you feather your nest.

So, what kind of society would evolve from this pretty straightforward application of game theory?

A few out-right Bads - the neighbourhood threats, the psychopaths, the bad seeds.

A sizeable (but unknowable) proportion of Goods - Joe and Jane Average.

A finite number of Lowlifes - confidence tricksters, alternative therapists, people who do things on the quiet.

Almost everyone a Witch-hunter, whether Good, Bad, Lowlife or Hypocrite. Read the paper, listen to the PM or the Pastor, sit and listen on the bus. Everyone is always keen to identify and punish those who do wrong.

And practically everyone a Hypocrite. Argue with that if you can.

Sound familiar? Just what the Bible says, too."

Well, that should cheer him up. I used to be a door-to-door evangelist, you know?

Only two weeks until I pay thosands of dollars and fly thousand of miles to fail two exams over three days. Sigh.

Who needs Armageddon?



Blogger Foilwoman said...

Well, I just read this post today (months later), and I certainly believe and hope that your exams will be successful. But this is a great blog and a great post. As a U.S. citizen/resident watching the proportion of witch-hunters rise to almost 1950s like levels or higher, you've explained the phenomenon better than anyone else. Thanks.

2:38 AM  

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