Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Darwinist Against Social Darwinism: II

Frans de Waal straightens out Milton Friedman, Enron's Jeff Skilling, and Richard Dawkins

In Part I I wrote about primatologist Frans de Waal's campaign to make more people aware of the origins of empathy in nature and to consider how this knowledge might benefit society. When discussing "nature" and "human nature" he stresses the importance of knowing the difference between Darwinism and Social Darwinism, with the latter being an inaccurate caricature of the former. In the video I embedded in the Part I post he says:

The thing that I'm reacting to strongly is that conservatives in the US try to present society as an imitation of nature, like "nature is a struggle for life, nature is a process of competition, and we need to mimic that in society..." and I'm not convinced that nature is like that, first of all, and I'm not convinced that what nature does needs to be mimiced in society... And my argument would rather be that we have a lot of cooperative and empathic and nicer tendencies, and if that's part of human nature then that needs to be represented in society as well. We need to build a society that has room for that and is not just based on competition.
A ton of people write about science, evolution and ethics these days. So why do I find him enjoyable to read and listen to? In the prologue to his 2001 book The Ape and the Sushi Master he wrote:
My personal prejudices probably shine through, even though I may be less good at spotting them than some of my readers. I come from the southern part of the Netherlands. Since I was not born in the actual province of Holland, I rarely refer to my country by this name. The cruel hand of the Spanish Inquisition, which in the sixteenth century reached all the way to Flanders and my part of the Netherlands, put a halt to the Reformation that brought Calvinism to the North. The South stayed Roman Catholic, and as a result my upbringing instilled less fear of God's wrath than is typical of the rest of Northern Europe. We have street carnivals (not unlike those in New Orleans), and in general we pride ourselves on a certain joie de vivre.
I knew it! Just listening to him and reading his work I could tell he had Catholic roots. We can always tell one of our own, even when they've lapsed or strayed.

That might not seem like an important point to make when it is clear that he's not a religious man at all, but I do think it makes him inherently different from the Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris types who throw a lot more heat than light around the public discourse on these issues. He clearly has a host of different sensibilities.

He has a strongly Catholic sense of ethics whether he still realizes it or not.

I take his point about the Spanish Inquisition, and of course our current nightmare just seems to go on and on, but I think one of the great tragedies of history is that the so-called Reformation largely put an end to the allegorization of certain parts of the Bible, and it leapfrogged back past the Catholic Church's attempted synthesis between faith and reason (using both Aristotle and Renaissance Humanism). It fell backward into dreary Augustinian obscurantism and the rejection of reason. Galileo and Cardinal Robert Bellarmine were great friends. If it wasn't for Luther, Calvin & Co., Galileo probably would have been hailed as a hero instead of being censured, but the Catholic Church was afraid of being seen as "soft on the Bible." It retreated behind fortress-like walls.

On the Freakonomics blog Frans de Waal wrote:
When I came to this country, over twenty-five years ago, I was amazed that creationism was still taken seriously, and assumed that it would blow over. It never did, of course. I can’t help but look at it as a left-over of a medieval mind-set unresponsive to overwhelming counter-evidence.

At the same time, I must say that I don’t think the recent wave of God-questioning rants have helped much. They have polarized the issue, whereas in my mind it is eminently possible to look at religion as a collective value system and at science as telling us how the physical world operates. Even though I am not religious myself, I think the conflict between science and religion is unnecessary and overblown.
That's refreshing. It's an attitude I greatly appreciate, coming from an evolutionary biologist.

Anyway, did you know that convicted Enron felon Jeffrey Skilling, who was found guilty on 19 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and lying to auditors, is seeking to have his conviction overturned by the Supreme Court? What nerve.

Skilling was a big fan of Richard Dawkins, and found justification in his own selfish cutthroat ways in Dawkins' writings on nature and evolution.

For this very sort of reason Frans de Waal takes strong exception to the language Dawkins uses to describe evolution, and for his part, Dawkins criticizes what he considers de Waal's tendency to be "poetic" when describing the behavior of animals.

In the excerpts below, de Waal examines the role of economics in society... Economics is, after all, a social science, not the "science of money." He also gives us his take on Milton Friedman, Skilling and Dawkins...

Does an economy serve society, or is it the other way around?
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant saw as little value for human kindness as former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney did in energy conservation. Cheney mocked conservation as “a sign of personal virtue” that, sadly, wouldn’t do the planet any good. Kant praised compassion as “beautiful” yet considered it irrelevant to a virtuous life. Who needs tender feelings if duty is all that matters?

Celebrated economist Milton Friedman claimed that “few trends could so very undermine the foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.” Friedman thus offered an ideology that puts people last.

Even if Friedman were right in theory about the connection between money and freedom, in practice money corrupts. All too often it leads to exploitation, injustice, and rampant dishonesty. Given its colossal fraud, the Enron Corporation’s sixty-four-page “Code of Ethics” now seems as fictional as the safety manual of the Titanic. In the past decade, every advanced nation has had major business scandals, and in every case executives have managed to shake the foundations of their society precisely by following Friedman’s advice.

Enron and the Selfish Gene

Outside a hip restaurant I finally met my celebrity. My friends had promised that this place was frequented by Hollywood stars, and indeed when darkness fell in the middle of dinner, and we spilled out onto the street, I found myself next to a cigarette-smoking movie idol whom I chatted with about this and that, and how our food must be getting cold. The encounter took place thanks to one of those rolling blackouts that struck California in 2000. Fifteen minutes later everyone was back at their table, back to normal, but of course what had just happened was extraordinary.

No, I don’t mean meeting the star, but witnessing the wonders of unrestrained capitalism, all thanks to Enron, the Texas-based energy company that had developed innovative ways of tweaking the market and creating artificial power shortages so that prices would soar. Never mind that the blackouts posed serious risks for people on respirators or in elevators. Social responsibility just wasn’t part of Enron’s mindset. They played by Friedman’s rules but were inspired by an unexpected additional source that came straight out of the world of biology. The company’s CEO, Jeff Skilling—now in prison—was a great fan of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, and deliberately tried to mimic nature by instigating cutthroat competition within his company.

Skilling set up a peer review committee known as “Rank & Yank.” It ranked employees on a 1—5 scale of representing the best (1) or worst (5), and gave the boot to everyone ranked 5. Up to 20 percent of the employees were axed every year, but not without having been humiliated on a website featuring their portraits. They were first sent to “Siberia”—meaning that they had two weeks to find another position within the company. If they didn’t, they were shown the door. The thinking behind Skilling’s committee was that the human species has only two fundamental drives: greed and fear. This obviously turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. People were perfectly willing to slit others’ throats to survive within Enron's environment, resulting in a corporate atmosphere marked by appalling dishonesty within and ruthless exploitation outside the company. It eventually led to Enron’s implosion in 2001.

The book of nature is like the Bible: Everyone reads into it what they want, from tolerance to intolerance, and from altruism to greed. Its good to realize though that if biologists never stop talking of competition, this doesn’t mean they advocate it, and if they call genes selfish this doesn’t mean that genes actually are. Genes can’t be any more “selfish” than a river can be “angry,” or sun rays “loving.” Genes are little chunks of DNA. At most, they are “self-promoting,” because successful genes help their carriers spread more copies of themselves. Like many before him Skilling had fallen hook, line, and sinker for the selfish-gene metaphor, thinking that if our genes are selfish then we must be selfish, too. This is not necessarily what Dawkins meant, though, as became clear again during an actual debate that we had in a tower overlooking my chimpanzees.

As brief background one needs to know that Dawkins and I had been critical of each other in print. He had said that I was taking poetic license with regard to animal kindness while I had chided him for coining a metaphor prone to be misunderstood. The usual academic bickering, perhaps, but serious enough that I feared some frost during our encounter at the Yerkes field station. Dawkins visited in connection with the production of a TV series, The Genius of Charles Darwin.

The producers arrived ahead of him to set up a “spontaneous” encounter in which Dawkins would drive up to the door, step out of his van, walk toward me, shake my hand, and warmly greet me before we’d walk off together to see the primates. We did all of this as if it were the first time—even though we’d met before. To break the ice, I told him about the epic drought in Georgia, and how our governor had just led a prayer vigil on the steps of the state capitol to make sure we’d get some rain. This cheered up the staunch atheist, and we laughed at the marvelous coincidence that the vigil had been planned as soon as the weatherman had announced rain.

Our tower debate was frosty indeed, but only because it was one of those unusually chilly days in Georgia. With Dawkins unselfishly tossing fruits at the apes below, we quickly settled on common ground, which wasn’t too hard given our shared academic background. I have no problems calling genes “selfish” so long as it’s understood that this says nothing about the actual motives of humans or animals, and Dawkins agreed that all sorts of behavior, including acts of genuine kindness, may be produced by genes selected to benefit their carriers. In short, we agreed on a separation between what drives evolution and what drives actual behavior that is about as well recognized in biology as is the separation of church and state outside Georgia.
In Part III, Frans de Waal examines the differences between the USA and Europe, and the relative merits of each.

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