Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Nature Article on Evolution and Violence

The latest issue of Nature has an interesting piece on evolution and violence entitled "Human behaviour: Killer Instincts" by Dan Jones. Here is a sample:

...A growing number of psychologists, neuroscientists and anthropologists have accumulated evidence that understanding many aspects of antisocial behaviour, including violence and murder, requires the study of brains, genes and evolution, as well as the societies those factors have wrought.

At the same time, though, historians, archaeologists and criminologists have started to argue that in most places life was more violent — and more likely to end in murder — in the past than it is today. The time span of this apparent decline in violence has been too short for appeals to natural selection to be convincing. If humans have evolved to kill, then it seems that they have also evolved to live without killing, given the right circumstances.

....A key condition for an evolutionary account of homicide is an explanation of the fact that most deadly violence is committed by men. Evolutionary psychologists say that this is because men have evolved to compete more intensively than women in the race for status, material wealth and sexual partners. In terms of the by-product theory, men are more likely to suffer the consequences when competition gets out of hand. This competitive kindling, Daly and Wilson argue, is at its most combustible in men of low socioeconomic status in regions of high social inequality, suffused with a sense of everything to gain and little to lose.

....The evidence suggests that humans may indeed have what the Seville Statement called a 'violent brain', in as much as evolution may favour those who go to war. But evolution has also furnished us with a moral sense. The complexities of the relationship between morals and violence may prove a fruitful field for future research, in as much as they can be disentangled from the social and historical factors that clearly hold great sway over the ultimate levels of violence. Evolution is not destiny; but understanding it could help maintain the hard-to-discern progress of peace.

Going from our violent past to our enhanced future... this issue of Nature also has some interesting reply letters to this Commentary about cognitive-enhancing drugs published in Dec. 2007. Here is a sample of some of the replies:

From Nick Bostrom:

...Unfortunately, progress on developing effective cognitive enhancers, and on understanding their long-term effects, is hampered by a shortage of focused research in this area. In general, the potential of enhancement medicine has yet to be fully appreciated.

Prevailing patterns of medical funding and regulation are organized around the concept of disease. Every pharmaceutical on the market with alleged cognitive-enhancing effects was developed as a treatment for some pathology. Its good effects on healthy adults' brains were discovered as fortuitous side effects. This disease-centred framework impedes the development of safe and effective enhancing medicines and has several consequences.

And from John Harris and Muireann Quigley:

...Science and technology will continue to generate all sorts of new enhancers, and the quest for enhancement is not necessarily unfair or unethical. We humans are inveterate enhancers, striving to increase our intelligence and to improve our memory and powers of perception.

Consider spectacles: before they became commonplace, those who had good eyesight enjoyed an advantage over those who did not. Later, those who could afford spectacles joined those with naturally good eyesight — increasing (or decreasing?) natural unfairness. Enhancing technologies that improve eyesight are now widely available; we do not conclude that they are unethical because they are not globally accessible.

Before the invention of lamps or candles, most people went to bed at dusk; these inventions, and then electricity, enabled social life and work to continue into the night. Night owls can steal a march on their lazier or saner competitors, raising the bar and creating pressure for longer working hours. But such enhancement technologies are not considered unethical.

The same is and will continue to be true of cognitive enhancers. We must press for wider and more equitable access, turning our backs neither on technology nor on improving the human condition.

And finally, Nature also has the scoop about the Canadian government's decision to close the Office of the National Science Advisor.