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Wil Franklin's picture

Interesting intersection


Too many interesting intersections with conversations I've been having with my students.  I must read "The Odds of That" because of the connection to an August 18, 2009, NYTimes science article by Natalie Angier, "Brain Is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop". Here she is summarizing primary literature (which my class also looked at) that has found behavioral and neurological changes in rats associated with chronic stress.  In short, under stress rats are much more likely to default to habits while the non-stress control group was able to demonstrate more flexibility in behavior patterns. This was also correlated to changes in brain activity and anatomy.  In stressed rats, regions of brain associated with habit formation and habit displays were more active and larger, while in the non-stressed counterparts regions associated with executive function/decision making were proportionally more active and larger. Natalie, of course brought human behavior to bear on this and it sounds very much related to the point that we are “hard-wired to over-react”.  Also, speaks to Paul’s point that diversity in stories is a good thing and even, perhaps, too much fear to behave outside of group norms restricts flexible behavior.


Furthermore, in another related conversation with my students about the evolutionary origins of morality, as evidenced by altruism in primates among other social animals including ants and bees, I found intense resistance to the idea that all moral behavior can be reduced to selfish acts.  That statistically speaking (over large numbers of individuals over many generations) altruism can be an evolutionarily stable behavior if individuals are parts of communities and even more so if the members of the community are closely related.  Under these conditions, what seems on the surface as an altruistic act, is actually the most individually beneficial act (= Darwinian fitness). For a very in depth look into this view see Richard Dawkins’, “The Selfish Gene”.  To me, this points to the group as the preeminent source of morality, but my student’s were shaken by the notion that we are all selfish.  I’m not sure there is an operational difference? Furthermore, they could not tell my what the source of morality should/ought/is, but still had a sense that “true/pure” altruism exists.


Now back to finding common stories.  Can it be possible that it is enough to be biologically programmed to make patterns and that we are similar enough to find similar patterns in all the noise/chaos?  And is it enough to say we are all individuals that are dependent on one another?  That that dependence has generated an evolutionarily stable sense of responsibility to others?  We are not moral, we are just selfish enough to act in ways that benefit the group?


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