Pharyngula

The secret life of babies

Years ago, when the Trophy Wife™ was a psychology grad student, she participated in research on what babies think. It was interesting stuff because it was methodologically tricky — they can’t talk, they barely respond in comprehensible way to the world, but as it turns out you can get surprisingly consistent, robust results from techniques like tracking their gaze, observing how long they stare at something, or even the rate at which they suck on a pacifier (Maggie, on The Simpsons, is known to communicate quite a bit with simple pauses in sucking.)

There is a fascinating article in the NY Time magazine on infant morality. Set babies to watching puppet shows with nonverbal moral messages acted out, and their responses afterward indicate a preference for helpful agents and an avoidance of hindering agents, and they can express surprise and puzzlement when puppet actors make bad or unexpected choices. There are rudiments of moral foundations churning about in infant brains, things like empathy and likes and dislikes, and they acquire these abilities untaught.

This, of course, plays into a common argument from morality for religion. It’s unfortunate that the article cites deranged dullard Dinesh D’Souza as a source — is there no more credible proponent of this idea? That would say volumes right there — but at least the author is tearing him down.

A few years ago, in his book “What’s So Great About Christianity,” the social and cultural critic Dinesh D’Souza revived this argument [that a godly force must intervene to create morality]. He conceded that evolution can explain our niceness in instances like kindness to kin, where the niceness has a clear genetic payoff, but he drew the line at “high altruism,” acts of entirely disinterested kindness. For D’Souza, “there is no Darwinian rationale” for why you would give up your seat for an old lady on a bus, an act of nice-guyness that does nothing for your genes. And what about those who donate blood to strangers or sacrifice their lives for a worthy cause? D’Souza reasoned that these stirrings of conscience are best explained not by evolution or psychology but by “the voice of God within our souls.”

The evolutionary psychologist has a quick response to this: To say that a biological trait evolves for a purpose doesn’t mean that it always functions, in the here and now, for that purpose. Sexual arousal, for instance, presumably evolved because of its connection to making babies; but of course we can get aroused in all sorts of situations in which baby-making just isn’t an option — for instance, while looking at pornography. Similarly, our impulse to help others has likely evolved because of the reproductive benefit that it gives us in certain contexts — and it’s not a problem for this argument that some acts of niceness that people perform don’t provide this sort of benefit. (And for what it’s worth, giving up a bus seat for an old lady, although the motives might be psychologically pure, turns out to be a coldbloodedly smart move from a Darwinian standpoint, an easy way to show off yourself as an attractively good person.)

So far, so good. I think this next bit gives far too much credit to Alfred Russel Wallace and D’Souza, though, but don’t worry — he’ll eventually get around to showing how they’re wrong again.

The general argument that critics like Wallace and D’Souza put forward, however, still needs to be taken seriously. The morality of contemporary humans really does outstrip what evolution could possibly have endowed us with; moral actions are often of a sort that have no plausible relation to our reproductive success and don’t appear to be accidental byproducts of evolved adaptations. Many of us care about strangers in faraway lands, sometimes to the extent that we give up resources that could be used for our friends and family; many of us care about the fates of nonhuman animals, so much so that we deprive ourselves of pleasures like rib-eye steak and veal scaloppine. We possess abstract moral notions of equality and freedom for all; we see racism and sexism as evil; we reject slavery and genocide; we try to love our enemies. Of course, our actions typically fall short, often far short, of our moral principles, but these principles do shape, in a substantial way, the world that we live in. It makes sense then to marvel at the extent of our moral insight and to reject the notion that it can be explained in the language of natural selection. If this higher morality or higher altruism were found in babies, the case for divine creation would get just a bit stronger.

No, I disagree with the rationale here. It is not a problem for evolution at all to find that humans exhibit an excessive altruism. Chance plays a role; our ancestors did not necessarily get a choice of a fine-tuned altruism that works exclusively to the benefit of our kin — we may well have acquired a sloppy and indiscriminate innate tendency towards altruism because that’s all chance variation in a protein or two can give us. There’s no reason to suppose that a mutation could even exist that would enable us to feel empathy for cousins but completely abolish empathy by Americans for Lithuanians, for instance, or that is neatly coupled to kin recognition modules in the brain. It could be that a broad genetic predisposition to be nice to fellow human beings could have been good enough to favored by selection, even if its execution caused benefits to splash onto other individuals who did not contribute to the well-being of the possessor.

But that idea may be entirely moot, because there is some evidence that babies are born (or soon become) bigoted little bastards who do quickly cobble up a kind of biased preferential morality. Evolution has granted us a general “Be nice!” brain, and also that we acquire capacities that put up boundaries and foster a kind of primitive tribalism.

But it is not present in babies. In fact, our initial moral sense appears to be biased toward our own kind. There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.

That’s kind of cool, if horrifying. It also, though, points out that you can’t separate culture from biological predispositions. Babies can’t learn who their own kind is without some kind of socialization first, so part of this is all about learned identity. And also, we can understand why people become vegetarians as adults, or join the Peace Corps to help strangers in far away lands — it’s because human beings have a capacity for rational thought that they can use to override the more selfish, piggy biases of our infancy.

Again, no gods or spirits or souls are required to understand how any of this works.

Although, if they did a study in which babies were given crackers and the little Catholic babies all made the sign of the cross before eating them, while all the little Lutheran babies would crawl off to make coffee and babble about the weather, then I might reconsider whether we’re born religious. I don’t expect that result, though.

Comments

  1. #1 aratina cage
    May 9, 2010

    I just finished reading it and couldn’t believe this, “The general argument that critics like Wallace and D’Souza put forward, however, still needs to be taken seriously”, was actually in the article. D’Souza does not need to be taken seriously—he cannot be taken seriously. The man is a raving lunatic and has nothing backing up his hand-waving about gods and souls except thousands of years of bullshit.

  2. #2 Brownian, OM
    May 9, 2010

    Why is it so difficult for people to understand excessive altruism? Behaviours are necessarily sloppy. We have a ‘fight or flight’ response to potential threats, we don’t have a “if you encounter a crocodilian, take actions b, c and d…if you encounter a large feline predator (including but not limited to sterile hybrids usually only encountered in zoos), take actions a, c, d, and the e4 behaviour series…’ response. Evolution just doesn’t encode for that kind of specificity in most complex behaviours. If we were all full of hard-wired behaviours that couldn’t be adapted (“be altruistic to all kin members with a coefficient of relatedness greater than 0.0312—use your handy gene-sniffing organ if you aren’t sure!—unless the individual has shared over 56 calories of food with you on at least three occasions…”) we’d never have been able to leave the Rift Valley for fear of encountering a situation for which we had no subroutines.

  3. #3 MarkL
    May 9, 2010

    Why single out the development of morality as evidence for god’s existence?
    The way that math and science have outstripped their roots in the evolution of man is far more impressive.
    As I’m sure you’ve noted many times, the idea that the creator of the universe also is so very interested in the morals of beings on one planet in the middle of nowhere is strange.
    If anything, the fact that morality is tied to creationist theories is a very strong argument against them.

  4. #4 jblumenfeld
    May 9, 2010

    I agree with the previous comments – and I’ll add that once we combine a self-awareness and basic empathy with our “giant” brains, we can actually try to go against some of our genetic predilections. Once we create a group morality, we often have to defer gratification or start thinking about the common good, even if we don’t instinctively want to. I guess that’s just more of the ‘behavior is sloppy’ argument made above.

  5. #5 Greg Esres
    May 9, 2010

    So we have innate morality because of God, and all morality is based on the bible? How can both be true?

  6. #6 eeanm
    May 9, 2010

    Evolutionary psychology is a borderline pseudo-science at the best of times, but this reductionist “Everything has a purpose” use of evolutionary psychology is sooo annoying.

    Especially when morality is so wrapped up in general intelligence. Our intelligence is why Homo sapiens were able to spread across the entire globe. Why should we be surprised that we’re able to create complex morality frameworks.

  7. #7 ashleyfmiller
    May 9, 2010
    they did a study in which babies were given crackers and the little Catholic babies all made the sign of the cross before eating them

    I have to confess that this mental image made me recoil in horror.

    I thought the tribal stuff was really interesting, it implies how plastic young brains are and why it’s so easy to get them to think their religion is worth killing other people over. Not because their religion is truer, but because their tribe is the one that matters.

  8. #8 https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawmqD_mcUIrSfOTlK3iGVsnEDcZmI43srbI
    May 9, 2010

    No kidding, I am right in the middle of a YouTube “debate” (I know, but it’s like Tiger Woods’ girlfriends – something to do after a round of golf) with a pair of smugly annoying little god-bots who think that the moral argument for god is THE MOST COMPELLING reason to believe.

    Scary. They start with a foundational bias, move to an either-or logical fallacy, conflate “might” with “must”, and yet think this is the number one supreme argument for the presence of their specific deity. A deity who in the past has demonstrated a complete and total lack of any sort of morality. (Do as Yahweh says, not as Yahweh does, I guess). The very same deity who allegedly punished mankind for all eternity for daring to eat a piece of fruit that gave them knowledge of good and evil – and therefore, knowledge of moral behavior.

    Sometimes, you just have to shake your head in amazement.

  9. #9 Knockgoats
    May 9, 2010

    An interesting point unrelated to the origins of morality arises from this work, and PZ’s comments about the TW: over the past few decades, we have been discovering that non-linguistic organisms (babies, apes, corvids, people with severe brain damage) are generally capable of far more sophisticated tasks than they were given credit for. Finding ways to allow them to show this is difficult, but very important, both scientifically and for humanitarian reasons. As I’ve mentioned before, my own TW works in this area, devising ways for people without speech or literacy, and often apparently without any internal language, to express their needs and preferences.

  10. #10 daedalus4u
    May 9, 2010

    I have a write-up on the physiology of xenophobia.

    http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/2010/03/physiology-behind-xenophobia.html

    I think that attributing certain attitudes to infants is mostly projection by adults.

    Infants “preferring” one type of face over another certainly can’t have the racist baggage that adults have, unless the genes that produce facial features also couple to the brain structures responsible for “preferring” one type of facial feature over another.

    Even in infants that has to be learned. We know that because the whole visual cortes only works properly through activity dependent development. When kittens are never exposed to horizontal lines, they can’t see them very well as adults. If visual development of seeing simple things depends on activity directed deveoloment, presumably things that are much more complicated (like ethnicity of faces) does too.

  11. #11 Sven DiMilo
    May 9, 2010

    Infants “preferring” one type of face over another certainly can’t have the racist baggage that adults have

    Indeed not. A simple “match Mom” rule could produce the same behavior, even when the Mom to match is entirely learned.

  12. #12 Quidam
    May 9, 2010

    For D’Souza, “there is no Darwinian rationale” for why you would give up your seat for an old lady on a bus, an act of nice-guyness that does nothing for your genes.

    Chicks dig a nice guy. Giving up your seat for an old lady absolutely increases your chances of passing on a few cc’s of genes to a youger lady in the near future.

  13. #13 f.boniboni
    May 9, 2010

    ITS FREAKING SIMPLE:

    Our nervous system evolved to be able to *LEARN IN REAL TIME* most of out plastic rules on empathy and who is to trust and how to trust.

    altruistic behaviors are, by definition, complex. most of its rules are learned in real time. what’s hardwired in our brain is the basis of empathy, some circuitry that gets solidified, fixed/static, like face recognition and some other bias.

  14. #14 Zernk
    May 9, 2010

    The point that the evolutionary psychologist counters the “voice of God within our souls” with porn makes this article a winner all on its own.

  15. #15 Citizen Z
    May 9, 2010

    D’Souza reasoned that these stirrings of conscience are best explained not by evolution or psychology but by “the voice of God within our souls.”

    The general argument that critics like Wallace and D’Souza put forward, however, still needs to be taken seriously. The morality of contemporary humans really does outstrip what evolution could possibly have endowed us with; moral actions are often of a sort that have no plausible relation to our reproductive success and don’t appear to be accidental byproducts of evolved adaptations. Many of us care about strangers in faraway lands, sometimes to the extent that we give up resources that could be used for our friends and family; many of us care about the fates of nonhuman animals, so much so that we deprive ourselves of pleasures like rib-eye steak and veal scaloppine. We possess abstract moral notions of equality and freedom for all; we see racism and sexism as evil; we reject slavery and genocide; we try to love our enemies.

    I don’t even know where to start. What planet does the writer live on? Most humans don’t care about strangers in faraway lands, or the fates of nonhuman animals. Most humans don’t possess abstract moral notions of equality and freedom for all. Racism, sexism, slavery, genocide… has the writer even looked at a history book?

    History makes a mockery of D’Souza’s claim that humans are stirred by “the voice of God within our souls”. Not only do humans seem naturally disposed to racism, sexism, slavery, and genocide, and not only has such evil flourished under religion, but the Bible of D’Souza’s religion has supported, at minimum, three out of those four.

  16. #16 Zeno
    May 9, 2010

    PZ: It could be that a broad genetic predisposition to be nice to fellow human beings could have been good enough to favored by selection, even if its execution caused benefits to splash onto other individuals who did not contribute to the well-being of the possessor.

    Selection pressure in favor of innate altruism might have resulted from the simple fact that the first people you meet are more likely to be relatives than complete strangers. Being well-disposed to people is almost certain to promote the welfare of genetic kin. It’s not as though early humanity had occasion to fret about the condition of people who lived far away (and “far away” was a pretty modest distance when all travel was on foot). Today, of course, no one is particularly “far away” from anyone else.

  17. #17 Knockgoats
    May 9, 2010

    The point that the evolutionary psychologist counters the “voice of God within our souls” with porn makes this article a winner all on its own. – Zernk

    Scoffer! It’s obviously the voice of God within our souls that makes porn arousing!

  18. #18 M31
    May 9, 2010

    Not only does the author gives much more credit to the goddidit folks than is warranted, but he gives this list of ‘higher altruistic’ traits as evidence that looking ‘outside’ of the natural world is a plausible option:

    “We possess abstract moral notions of equality and freedom for all; we see racism and sexism as evil; we reject slavery and genocide; we try to love our enemies.”

    But as far as I can tell, rejection of various of these notions is much more common among the religious, especially the fundamentalists of all persuasions.

    So I’d conclude that if God is to be taken into account, then it is best to think of it as a predisposition to anti-atruistic (i.e., evil) thoughts and actions.

    If not god, then it makes a good deal of sense to think of religion as a kind of parasite that hijacked the deep-seated tribal impulses exhibited by babies.

  19. #19 David Marjanovi?
    May 9, 2010

    Brownian (comment 2) FTW!!!

    like Tiger Woods’ girlfriends – something to do after a round of golf

    X-D X-D X-D

  20. #20 LM
    May 9, 2010

    Infants “preferring” one type of face over another certainly can’t have the racist baggage that adults have

    Yeah–people automatically prefer what they are familiar with, and it can be as simple as that. However, there is also evidence that suggests we have an innate, evolutionarily-developed readiness to potentially fear outgroups, if a fearful association is made in a person’s experience. It can be overcome, but evidence suggests it’s there.

  21. #21 nentuaby
    May 9, 2010

    And why would we think that altruism toward non-relations isn’t selected in its own right? Granted, way back when we were little squirrelly things social behavior was doubtless exapted from kin behavior. Once the species becomes basically social, though, it’s a different story.

    Helping unrelated neighbors when they’re in trouble makes one’s village more likely to thrive, which comes back and helps your geneline when your children now get to grow up in a thriving village. Some individuals and genelines might suffer a net negative from such behavior, but it’s hugely adaptive over the population.

  22. #22 Owlmirror
    May 9, 2010

    Not only do humans seem naturally disposed to racism, sexism, slavery, and genocide, and not only has such evil flourished under religion, but the Bible of D’Souza’s religion has supported, at minimum, three out of those four.

    Which one do you think isn’t in there?

  23. #23 darbyunlimited
    May 9, 2010

    I would argue that altruism toward one’s tribe would be selected for as much as, if not more, than towards one’s immediate family. Small human tribes tend to swap adults (it keeps the whole group from becoming too incestuous), so your tribe, upon whom all the individuals depend for their longterm well-being, becomes absolutely essential for perpetuating the members’ genes.

    We can now apply that tribal feeling across the globe – the key to getting contributions is to connect your donors emotionally to the recipients, pulling them into a shared group, dipping into that ol’ tribal feeling.

  24. #24 jdhuey
    May 9, 2010

    “It also, though, points out that you can’t separate culture from biological predispositions.”

    I’ve just started reading Marc Hauser’s _Moral Minds” and if the theory that humans are born with a genetic moral instinct (analogous to the genetic language instinct, ala Chomsky) is correct then the statement quoted above is most profoundly true and, is actually very very deep. Language, morality and the very ability to have a culture becomes an extended phenotype of our genetic heritage. Drawing a nice sharp clean line that divides cultural learning from biology is impossible – the two are just intimately and intricately intertwined.

  25. #25 deriamis
    May 9, 2010

    …[W]e may well have acquired a sloppy and indiscriminate innate tendency towards altruism because that’s all chance variation in a protein or two can give us.

    PZ, what you are describing with a “chance variation in a protein or two” is maybe schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, not a complex behavior like morality. I had thought you might be making a bad analogy, but you continued using it, and I felt the need to say something.

    Evolutionary psychology isn’t an entirely reductionist philosophy, so it’s best not to portray it as such. When an evolutionary psychologist talks about behavior, sometimes it’s behavior that is the result of influence by biological evolution (sex, gender roles, etc.) and sometimes it’s behaviors that have evolved like biology but are relatively independent of it (morals, religion, social taboos). In fact, one of the most contentious issues in evolutionary psychology is which behaviors are primarily a result of biology or higher reasoning.

    Most evolutionary psychologists tend to agree that morality is a function of higher reasoning that has components that are biologically based, meaning that individual behaviors might be based on sexual fitness or fulfilling basic bodily needs, but as a whole it tends to evolve independently of its component parts. This is why morals have become coopted by religion, by the way.

    So, when you’re talking about a complex set of behaviors such as morals and religion evolving, speaking of them in purely biological terms is incredibly reductionist. It just doesn’t work that way.

  26. #26 Yakaru
    May 9, 2010

    “…babies are born (or soon become) bigoted little bastards”

    Hmmm, maybe there is some kind of divine intervention.

  27. #27 Azkyroth
    May 9, 2010

    But is deliciousness innate or learned? O.o

  28. #28 deriamis
    May 9, 2010

    @Azkyroth #27:

    But is deliciousness innate or learned?

    I haven’t decided yet.

  29. #29 Azkyroth
    May 9, 2010

    Infants “preferring” one type of face over another certainly can’t have the racist baggage that adults have, unless the genes that produce facial features also couple to the brain structures responsible for “preferring” one type of facial feature over another.

    Whereas it’s perfectly logical that infants would have a general behavioral rule towards seeing the sort of faces they’re most familiar with as comforting and visibly dissimilar, or recognizably unfamiliar, faces as potentially threatening.

  30. #30 Azkyroth
    May 9, 2010

    When an evolutionary psychologist talks about behavior, sometimes it’s behavior that is the result of influence by biological evolution (sex, gender roles, etc.) and sometimes it’s behaviors that have evolved like biology but are relatively independent of it (morals, religion, social taboos).

    How does anything you said in this comment not apply to gender roles?

  31. #31 deriamis
    May 9, 2010

    Whereas it’s perfectly logical that infants would have a general behavioral rule towards seeing the sort of faces they’re most familiar with as comforting and visibly dissimilar, or recognizably unfamiliar, faces as potentially threatening.

    The unfortunate thing is that racism is probably evolutionarily advantageous. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing or that it’s even necessary anymore. After all, another evolutionary adaptation of ours, intelligence, is capable of overriding such behaviors.

  32. #32 deriamis
    May 9, 2010

    How does anything you said in this comment not apply to gender roles?

    It depends. When you speak of gender roles from the context of a biological basis, you are generally speaking of nursing and homemaking and other such things. When you talk about societal gender roles (which are complex behaviors), it’s the eligibility of women to vote and to work. The distinctions aren’t clear, as is true with nearly everything in psychology, but there is a general consensus on a few of these topics.

    Of course, none of this suggests a particular necessity to a gender role. Our intelligence has allowed men to be the primary caregivers to children with the inventions of such things as bottles and baby formula, for instance. There has been quite a lot of discussion in psychological circles about the shift in gender roles being largely determined by technological innovation, if you want to read about it.

  33. #33 deriamis
    May 9, 2010

    nursing and homemaking

    I will be specific before someone gets the wrong idea about what I am saying. I mean nursing children and homemaking in the sense of nesting. This is all within the context of the current discussion.

  34. #34 monimonika
    May 9, 2010

    deriamis:

    I will be specific before someone gets the wrong idea about what I am saying. I mean nursing children and homemaking in the sense of nesting. This is all within the context of the current discussion.

    Please re-clarify if I’m understanding you wrong. While I can understand what you mean by nursing (men not usually being able to produce breastmilk that easily), the nest building (homemaking) does not make as much sense. In a patriarchal society, maybe yes, but that is mostly built on the assumed social roles of men and women rather than innate biology. Outside humans, there are several species of birds in which the male is the one doing the nest-building.

    Actually, what do you mean by nest/home-making anyway? Keeping the house clean? Building the house? Obtaining and owning a nice house to live in? Handling the household finances? What?

  35. #35 deriamis
    May 9, 2010

    Actually, what do you mean by nest/home-making anyway? Keeping the house clean? Building the house? Obtaining and owning a nice house to live in? Handling the household finances? What?

    I mean specifically the drive to nest that many women experience around the fifth month of pregnancy. It’s a well-known and well-described phenomenon that seems to have no specific behaviors other than those associated with a general obsessive-compulsive type of pattern. It’s also not clear anywhere that the behavior has a pure biological basis, either, but it’s still discussed in evolutionary psychology circles as a potential evolutionarily-selected behavior.

    So, no, not “keeping the house clean… building the house… obtaining and owning a nice house to live in… handling the household finances” or anything like those because those behaviors are too complex to be described on a biological evolutionary basis. This is more like throwing out old sheets and buying new, “clean” ones for the baby and the like.

  36. #36 Shplane
    May 9, 2010

    Wait, wait. First you talk about how bigoted babies are, but then say that they’re not born religious? Huh?

  37. #37 irenedelse
    May 9, 2010

    Sven Di Milo #11:

    Infants “preferring” one type of face over another certainly can’t have the racist baggage that adults have

    Indeed not. A simple “match Mom” rule could produce the same behavior, even when the Mom to match is entirely learned.

    This reminds me of the experience my own mom conducted when I was a baby. My parents had come to live in Cte d’Ivoire, in West Africa, when I was 1 year old and my mother was curious to see how a baby from a European family would react toward Black people if not told they were different. So she simply tried to let things be and not point out that so and so don’t have the same skin color, and just observed what the baby (my own infant self) would do. According to my mom, the experiment went pretty well. Neither my parents nor their African friends would tell me there were Black people and White people, and it seems that up to age three, I simply didn’t care. I didn’t even seem to see the difference, or at least, I didn’t see it as a more important difference than having blond or brown hair, or being tall or short.

    What ended the experience was one incredulous African visitor, one time, who just couldn’t accept that a 3-year-old child didn’t see the evidence before her eyes and decided to show me, by putting together his hand and mine. Yep, one is dark brown, another pale pink. And this is what makes humans terribly different? What a strange world we live in.

    My mom, needless to say, wasn’t very happy to have her observations cut short. But as for me, I’m grateful I had the opportunity to be part of that little experience.

  38. #38 https://me.yahoo.com/a/c8vgv20epfOnyZYgaPKrcYfDk4TekTh7#ed6d2
    May 9, 2010

    I always wonder though if the racist babies aren’t displaying a learned behavior, particularly because we live in a society that still has a lot of racism. Most babies are pretty good at telling when their caregiver is uncomfortable and this could reasonably teach them that people of different features were a source of stress. I would be interested in seeing more study of this cross-culturally.

    Also, the moment evo-psych is mentioned, I tend to tune out. This field is usually so divorced from biology and anthropology. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, evo-psych is just about spouting the same old tired racist, sexist, cissexist crap despite the massive evidence against it. Evo-psych people love to pick a habit of modern western culture and then senselessly extrapolate it to the entire human population and history while actually ignoring the history and other cultures that behavior in completely different manners. On example I can think of is how they try to find excuses for why women like pink more then men (usually lovely sexist ones) while ignoring that this does not occur when men from nonwestern cultures are studied and that historically, before the twentieth century, pink was seen as a masculine color.

  39. #39 deriamis
    May 9, 2010

    I always wonder though if the racist babies aren’t displaying a learned behavior, particularly because we live in a society that still has a lot of racism.

    Possibly so. It at least appeals to the intuition to believe so, but I am not aware of any studies that demonstrate this in any but an anecdotal manner.

    Also, the moment evo-psych is mentioned, I tend to tune out. This field is usually so divorced from biology and anthropology.

    Necessarily so. The idea is to weed out biological and historical factors and concentrate on the behaviors that “survive” because they are an adaptation and to identify the ones that “die out” because they are maladaptive. Just like the study of biological evolution, there is no positive value attributed to an adaptive trait; it is simply adaptive.

    The rest of what you wrote is from the perspective of someone who does not understand the study of behavior. What you have described is what people who misunderstand evo-psych try to make it mean. The attribution does not work in the reverse. But I will agree with you that it is largely a nebulous field – even they know that, and it’s something of an in-joke in the psychological community.

  40. #40 deriamis
    May 9, 2010

    On example I can think of is how they try to find excuses for why women like pink more then men (usually lovely sexist ones) while ignoring that this does not occur when men from nonwestern cultures are studied and that historically, before the twentieth century, pink was seen as a masculine color.

    Reading what I wrote, I think you need an example of what I am talking about.

    The evolutionary psychologist does not talk about whether women like pink more than men. That’s an invalid study, and even if it were valid, it would better fit standard psychology.

    An evolutionary psychologist would instead ask whether a belief that pink is a feminine color would tend to produce adaptive or maladaptive behaviors. For instance, if a male wore pink in certain societies, he may be discriminated against in society, and the behavior of wearing pink would therefore be maladaptive if it impacted his ability to breed or feed his family. Similarly, the belief that the color pink is a feminine color may be maladaptive if it necessarily contributes to a large portion of males in society not being able to breed or feed their families to the extent that it impacts the well-being of a society.

    Another instance that an evolutionary psychologist would study might be how certain religious beliefs, such as those of the Mayans, could have been maladaptive and caused the downfall of a society. Evo-psych is just a shift in perspective that’s between biology, sociology, and anthropology. It tries to expand on biological evolutionary principles to explain group behaviors that can’t be explained by biology alone.

  41. #41 'Tis Himself, OM
    May 9, 2010

    Humans are a social, pack species. There are certain rules necessary to live in a pack to ensure survival of the pack. Share food, take care of the young, don’t kill other members of the pack unnecessarily, things like that. We react strongly against people who violate these rules. The rules become hard-wired because people who don’t follow them don’t survive to pass on their genes.

  42. #42 deriamis
    May 9, 2010

    @’Tis Himself, OM: That is probably the best summation of evo-psych I have ever seen. If you don’t mind, I am totally stealing that for a paper.

  43. #43 mikmik
    May 9, 2010

    Doesn’t altruism and compassion for living creatures arise from self awareness plus the necessity to identify with others in able to learn? If you see another creature suffer, say, when it puts its hand on a red hot stove element, unless you are able to identify with their pain as it would feel to you, you would have to learn everything by experience only.
    It follows that seeing or knowing about anothers discomfort causes us to feel discomfort, even if it is only an uncomfortable thought.

  44. #44 'Tis Himself, OM
    May 9, 2010

    deriamis #42

    Please do.

  45. #45 deriamis
    May 9, 2010

    It follows that seeing or knowing about anothers discomfort causes us to feel discomfort, even if it is only an uncomfortable thought.

    This is essentially the philosophy of self-motivated altruism. The problem is, other studies (see Milgram) provide evidence that the discomfort we feel isn’t a strong enough motivating factor toward altruism to significantly change gross behavior. People might feel the discomfort, and even display what they feel, but they don’t act any more altruistically. Some other as-yet-unidentified factor is likely involved, and evo-psych proposes that it is an evolutionary drive to protect our own even if it is at the expense of others.

  46. #46 Moggie
    May 9, 2010

    The news that babies may be naturally prejudiced is a little depressing. But they poop their pants, so what do they know?

  47. #47 Tim Harris
    May 9, 2010

    But why shouldn’t babies be ‘biassed’ towards their own kind? You have to start somewhere, and it is surely ‘natural’, given their vulnerability, that babies should want an environment that provides them with comfort. And that doesn’t mean that babies are all raging little racists or given half a chance will become raging little racists; this is surely a very silly way of looking at things, and it is not made any less silly by appeal to that (very Dawkinian) deus ex machina, rationality, that supposedly kicks in later in life and saves us from our worst instincts.

  48. #48 ursulamajor
    May 9, 2010

    And what about those who donate blood to strangers…

    When giving blood, it’s wonderful that a stranger’s life might be saved. However, feeding into the system also keeps said system working for me and my loved ones in our time of need. Wouldn’t the setting up of social systems of kindness and compassion really be the logical way of ensuring that such kindnesses, etc. will come back to us?

  49. #49 f.boniboni
    May 9, 2010

    Why nature didn’t invent wheels?

    Because there weren’t no roads. We built roads. We built roads because we learned, IN REAL TIME, with our nervous system, that everyone would benefit from them. Everyone wanted roads, everyone wanted to go fast. So the effort was combined. Can you cheat on such efforts to build a civilization?

    Stable evolutionary solution, where no cheater can ever prosper. That is why babies are prone to punish cheaters. That is why that are combined rules in each culture: ethos.

  50. #50 deriamis
    May 9, 2010

    Wouldn’t the setting up of social systems of kindness and compassion really be the logical way of ensuring that such kindnesses, etc. will come back to us?

    I also subscribe to Kant’s philosophy on this. It doesn’t work for everything, but it usually gets damned close when it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, I fall back to the principle of dual effect to help sort it out.

    We built roads because we learned, IN REAL TIME, with our nervous system, that everyone would benefit from them. Everyone wanted roads, everyone wanted to go fast. So the effort was combined. Can you cheat on such efforts to build a civilization?

    I am not sure where you are going with this. If you’re arguing for group effort for mutual goals, you should know that it only works when the mutual goals are both compatible and are sufficiently compelling to drive group behavior. There are plenty of studies to show this, though I haven’t really looked at any since general psych as an undergrad. The effect is quite rare. Besides, the history of the automobile and the roads we drive on is much more about the energy industry (and capitalism) than it is about mutual benefit.

  51. #51 blotzphoto
    May 9, 2010

    I just jumped down to the comment bar to answer this question as best i could so I apologize if it’s been covered but….
    “It’s unfortunate that the article cites deranged dullard Dinesh D’Souza as a source ? is there no more credible proponent of this idea?”

    This struck me a s very similar to a thought proposed by Noam Chomsky that moral systems… the very ability to make moral judgments is in some way ingrained in us. To Chomsky this follows from his work on generative linguistics, but it rings quite true in this instance.

  52. #52 Dionigi
    May 10, 2010

    Babies do not recognise race they recognise features that are familiar. Children brought up by nannies who are of a different race have no problem learning in a language different to their own or loving a nanny of a different race.

  53. #53 https://me.yahoo.com/a/O.jullMj0I2VvJaxMMVeNKSfOPf73voLSxJAe9PdlOWwi8Y-#258ec
    May 10, 2010

    I would agree that the trait of altruism is not completely formed in humans neither is confined to humans either. There are as was given in the article examples of “extreme altruism” caring about people in far away countries.
    we do not poses any obvious biological means as individuals to decide who might be kin as do some animals like say smell for instance we have to learn who is “covered by the altruistic rule”
    we as has been mentioned have a very extended ability to learn. Not all groups have the same rules with regards to altruism either which must be a response to their local conditions is very different north of the Arctic circle from the prairies of the mid west or the islands of the south pacific.
    It looks like what is different is simply the learned definition of who the rule applies to. Fearful mistrusting mothers teach children to mistrust strangers.
    It is the case with many vegetarians that there is a recognition of kinship with other animals and a reluctance to kill and eat them.
    There is still no need for any outside agent nor any evidence of any to explain it. just simple things built up to yield seemingly complex results.

  54. #54 https://me.yahoo.com/a/O.jullMj0I2VvJaxMMVeNKSfOPf73voLSxJAe9PdlOWwi8Y-#258ec
    May 10, 2010

    53 = uncle frogy
    I just can’t figure out how to sign on with an understandable name instead of the ASCII code
    nor it seems can I remember to sign with my preferred one either

  55. #55 John Scanlon FCD
    May 10, 2010

    Noooo!! Ev Psych is Teh Ebil!!! And you must be a gigantic douchebag to defend it in any way!!!

  56. #56 WCorvi
    May 10, 2010

    To use Maggie Simpson as evidence for how babies act and think is a lot like using Alley Oop as evidence that humans and dinosaurs co-existed (as a creationist once did).

  57. #57 monimonika
    May 10, 2010

    deriamis,

    Thank you for the clarification on what was meant by nesting (I looked it up afterwards). I did not know about this before. Your use of the word “homemaking” in the beginning irritated my feminist mindset, and thus it didn’t occur to me to look up what “nesting” could’ve meant.

    Thanks for getting me to learn something new,

    Monimonika

  58. #58 Vicki
    May 10, 2010

    I am tempted to grab the idiot D’Souza argument and point out that, by his logic, my sexual attraction to my husband may be merely evolutionary—in theory, I could become pregnant—but my equally strong attraction to my girlfriend is clearly a sign of a higher morality, since neither of us could possibly impregnate the other.

    Do you think they’ll buy it?

    (I don’t: they’re clearly both the same kind of thing, and both good.)

  59. #59 mabell_yah
    May 10, 2010

    Humans seem to be tribal by nature. We love our local tribe, but the next-door tribe not so much. The Onion said it perfectly: “an explosion in Afghanistan killed the equivalent of 5 Americans.”

  60. #60 https://me.yahoo.com/a/c8vgv20epfOnyZYgaPKrcYfDk4TekTh7#ed6d2
    May 11, 2010

    @39 “Necessarily so. The idea is to weed out biological and historical factors and concentrate on the behaviors that “survive” because they are an adaptation and to identify the ones that “die out” because they are maladaptive. ” We call those things you ignore important third variables. It is absurd to assume that you can determine which behaviors ensure survival divorced from biology and culture. You note this yourself “. For instance, if a male wore pink in certain societies, he may be discriminated against in society, and the behavior of wearing pink would therefore be maladaptive if it impacted his ability to breed or feed his family.” You cannot study these behaviors without taking culture and biology into account, because if you cannot, then you have no business saying anything beyond in X society at Y time, Z group reproduced less. You need to know things like if this behavior works well in other places and cultures, if there is a historical variable that could have dramatically skewed the data (consider the conquistadors arriving and contributing to the fall of the Aztecs, who sacrificed humans, assuming human sacrifice is maladaptive based on the fall of the Aztecs without controlling for the Europeans is mistaken). You would also need to know if this behavior was linked to other genetic or health issues, for example, certain walking patterns and MS. Declaring walking like you have drop foot maladative while ignoring the other related biological issues would result in poor theories. If you want to declare a behavior maladative, you need to qualify and consider history, culture and biology to rule out third variables.

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