Here’s my problem: I started this series on how altruism and moral behaviour may have been selected for. Now I’m to the point where I intended to pound the final nail, culminating my long-winded argument. But, I have had some trepidation regarding my final argument.
I was unsure of how to proceed; on one hand, this unfinished series was hanging over my head like a heavy cloud, slowly dripping raindrops on my head and making me irritable and I wanted to just ignore the bad feeling, plough on and finish it but on the other hand, tackling this with intellectual honesty would occupy a significant chunk of time and energy. Tackling this and admitting that I may have thrown more weight behind my argument than it can support is both humbling and is an opportunity to demonstrate how I go about sniffing out what smells intellectually off.
What I was going to say:
An attempt to crunching the history of personality down into a few sentences follows: personality researchers constructed lists of adjectives pulled from the dictionary; positing that we have a word for a behavioural tendency indicates its importance in describing our individual tendencies. These words were administered in the form of a test, in which the participant provided a self-rating on a scale for each adjective. E.g., participants answer questions like the following, ‘To what extent does the word ‘organization’ relate to you?’ A statistical technique, factor analysis, was then used to distill all the adjectives down by grouping together traits that correlated strongly with each other but not with other traits. Through this process, psychologists unearthed six personality dimensions: Honesty/Humility, Emotionality, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience.
To be clear, each of these are dimensions on which people differ and are not different types of people and each one of the dimensions is independent of the others. What the latter part means is that although someone may be high in Honesty/Humility, that same person may also be low in Agreeableness; where you lay on one dimension does not depend on where you lie on another dimension. (If you’re curious where you lay on these dimensions, here’s the test: http://hexaco.org/hexaco-online)
That variety in all these dimensions is conserved (you can probably bring to mind people who have high, low and intermediate levels of all the dimensions mentioned above) suggests that there may be some selection pressures maintaining both high and low levels of each dimension. For example, people who are high in honesty may be able to secure more alliances with other people and thus be more successful in life. Conversely, people who are low in honesty may also benefit: taking advantage of others can be very good for the pocketbook, provided you don’t get caught.
Given that I’m concerned with altruism and morality and how they may be explained by selection, I’m going to zoom in on honesty/humility (H) and agreeableness (A), ignoring the other four. Here’s a breakdown of what’s encompassed by both traits (copied from here):
Honesty-Humility: Persons with very high scores on the Honesty-Humility scale avoid manipulating others for personal gain, feel little temptation to break rules, are uninterested in lavish wealth and luxuries, and feel no special entitlement to elevated social status. Conversely, persons with very low scores on this scale will flatter others to get what they want, are inclined to break rules for personal profit, are motivated by material gain, and feel a strong sense of self-importance.
You can imagine that there are some costs and benefits from being on either end of the spectrum: an honest person will miss out on the potential benefits associated with exploiting others but will also avoid making enemies and accompanying retaliation. The converse may be true for very dishonest persons; they may reap the benefits of exploitation but perhaps at the expense of making enemies that may seek revenge.
Agreeableness (versus Anger): Persons with very high scores on the Agreeableness scale forgive the wrongs that they suffered, are lenient in judging others, are willing to compromise and cooperate with others, and can easily control their temper. Conversely, persons with very low scores on this scale hold grudges against those who have harmed them, are rather critical of others’ shortcomings, are stubborn in defending their point of view, and feel anger readily in response to mistreatment.
Highly agreeable persons are more likely to continue to collaborate with others, whether or not they have been exploited. They enjoy the support of some but may get screwed over by others. Conversely, those who are not so agreeable do not put up being exploited and tend not to cooperate with others. While they forego the gains associated with cooperation, they do not incur the cost of being exploited.
Imagine a world in which everyone is highly agreeable, A, honest and humble, H, (kind of like in The Invention of Lying). If a few very dishonest people (low H) popped up, they would have the potential to reap the benefits from exploiting others without incurring retribution costs because everyone else is very agreeable, and unlikely to retaliate. These gains would then enable these dishonest people to support more children, giving them an evolutionary fitness advantage over the very honest people. As more and more dishonest people are born, grow up and take advantage of others, it becomes advantageous to have little tolerance for exploitation (low A). If you have very little tolerance for being taken advantage of, you’ll be less likely to be exploited. Then as the average level of honesty/humility declines, so too does the average level of agreeableness. However, is there a limit to the extent of dishonesty and disagreeableness?
Right here is where my old self would argue that dishonesty, exploitation, holding grudges, and being vengeful would prevail without God. But, might there be a fitness advantage to being honest and cooperative? If there is, then God becomes an extra piece of the puzzle that isn’t necessary to explain the development of human morality.
Let’s return to that world, where dishonesty and anger are becoming more and more common. There are more and more people all trying to exploit each other. At some point there will be more people trying to exploit others than can be easily exploited; they will run out of victims. Also, recall that in this world people are vengeful and are not easily taken advantage of, so there will be a cost to being dishonest. At this point, the costs associated with being dishonest and the missed opportunities for being honest balance each other out and there is no advantage to being dishonest. Likewise, while disagreeable people benefit from not getting exploited, they also lose the advantage associated with being cooperative with others. This world will reach a balance of honest and dishonest people and agreeable and disagreeable people.
Neither the utopic nor the dystopic society could be sustained; eventually frequency dependence will balance honest/humility and agreeableness.
Support from the Wild
It’s been shown that societies with economies based on animal herding demonstrate greater violence than do societies with economies based on raising crops. The researchers postulated that animals, being much more mobile than carrots, are easier to steal than crops. Thus there is greater gain from being more willing to steal and more willing to retaliate against thieves in a herding society than a crop based society. However, being vengeful would have no benefits in a crop based economy. Conversely, cooperation in such societies is of mutual benefit to all farmers when it comes to harvesting.
This is potentially a real world example of two situations that select for different degrees of agreeableness and honesty: people with low levels of agreeableness and high levels of dishonesty would tend to do better in a livestock based economy. You could gain yourself a reputation for being vengeful and consequently be less likely targeted for future theft. Or you could be a cunning thief yourself and steal your way to wealth. Conversely, egalitarian people benefit most in a crop based economy. Cooperation with others helps to gain you helpers when it comes to harvesting your own crops. If you’re vengeful and conniving, you’re not likely to have neighbours coming around to assist in the harvest.
What’s my problem?
The real world support is limited: sure, the theory sounds plausible and tidy, but it made me uncomfortable to find that there is very little out there regarding personality traits selected by frequency dependence and fluctuating optimum.
Then shall I throw my hands up in defeat? Is morality an invention of God after all? I think not. There are mechanisms beyond these that I’ve touched on in the development of morality and ethics. My friend touched on morality here, pointing out that objective morality is an illusion and then goes into some really cool examples of altruism in the animal kingdom. Go read the rest here. The main point is, there doesn’t seem to be a singular mechanism for the development and maintenance of morality, but several. And none of them rely on a moral code dictated to us from above.