Against the Übermensch

By Razib Khan | August 14, 2012 12:56 am

On some occasions I have disagreed with friends who were influenced by the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche as to the contingent role of Christianity in the introduction of a highly egalitarian moral ethos in the West. The same tendency toward valorization of spiritual equality, and an exaltation of self-sacrifice as opposed to selfishness, were elaborated in a variety of religious-ethical systems between the first Olympic Games and the rise of Islam. Nor do I think these religious-philosophical systems were particularly original. Rather, I suspect that they “hook” into deep rooted intuitions about the moral order of the universe that we already have as human beings. Fairness is at least as much felt as it is taught.

I was reflecting upon this when considering narrative fiction, in particular works of adventure with a heroic protagonist. Though some characters may have flaws, we intuitively know what is the good. One of the fascinating aspects of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is that the author seems to take joy in shattering the sanitized perceptions of medieval chivalry many have. And yet that heroic ideal persists. We know the archetype, and it’s not some cultural creation. A hero is a hero is a hero. They defend the weak against the strong, because weakness and strength does not denote a particular moral rank order.

Why? From an evolutionary perspective this is “the problem of altruism.” If evolution maximizes individual fitness why do you help others? Kin selection, reciprocal altruism and group selection all purport to explain this phenomenon. The mathematical biologist Sergey Gavrilets has some answers, On the evolutionary origins of the egalitarian syndrome:

The evolutionary emergence of the egalitarian syndrome is one of the most intriguing unsolved puzzles related to the origins of modern humans. Standard explanations and models for cooperation and altruism—reciprocity, kin and group selection, and punishment—are not directly applicable to the emergence of egalitarian behavior in hierarchically organized groups that characterized the social life of our ancestors. Here I study an evolutionary model of group-living individuals competing for resources and reproductive success. In the model, the differences in fighting abilities lead to the emergence of hierarchies where stronger individuals take away resources from weaker individuals and, as a result, have higher reproductive success. First, I show that the logic of within-group competition implies under rather general conditions that each individual benefits if the transfer of the resource from a weaker group member to a stronger one is prevented. This effect is especially strong in small groups. Then I demonstrate that this effect can result in the evolution of a particular, genetically controlled psychology causing individuals to interfere in a bully–victim conflict on the side of the victim. A necessary condition is a high efficiency of coalitions in conflicts against the bullies. The egalitarian drive leads to a dramatic reduction in within-group inequality. Simultaneously it creates the conditions for the emergence of inequity aversion, empathy, compassion, and egalitarian moral values via the internalization of behavioral rules imposed by natural selection. It also promotes widespread cooperation via coalition formation.

I need to read, and perhaps replicate, the methods, before I say more. What I will offer though is that this type of research has obvious non-biological implications, in particular the human penchant for equality. But importantly this also has to be balanced against the fact that we’re hierarchical creatures with a keen sense of our position on the pecking order. When it comes to human action, wheels within wheels.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy
MORE ABOUT: Bullies
  • Andrew Lancaster

    You do not go into detail about your criticism of Nietzsche but you may be criticizing a simplified version of him. Christian morality does of course contain many natural and instinctive things, or otherwise it would not be popular. And every other major religion presumably does the same, and always has. But there are obviously differences, and so history is contingent on the differences between such movements.

    One of the classic differences which interested Nietzsche was not just that Christianity promotes the heroism of those who are modest and defend the weak, but that it also represses other reasons that people can be naturally self sacrificing. Were the 300 defending the weak, or dieing a beautiful and noble (Greek for both words: kalos) death? It is natural not only to defend the weak, but also to aspire to greatness for its own sake, even sometimes through pain and death.

    A particular textual example of this sort of difference between Greek and Christian heroism is that Aristotle effectively lists pride as a virtue. (You have to look at his use of the word megalopsuchia, which is difficult to translate.) We all know this is not the case in the Bible, and especially so in the NT.

  • Grey

    “Then I demonstrate that this effect can result in the evolution of a particular, genetically controlled psychology causing individuals to interfere in a bully–victim conflict on the side of the victim.”

    Interesting. If you’ve seen a lot of violent incidents you’ll have seen this “type” although after reading this maybe it’s less of a type and more the case of particular individuals having a particulaly large dose of a common type of psychology – or even the random overlap between a large number of people with that broad psychology and inividual levels of bravery. It seems to particularly come out as a reaction to male vs female violence although i guess that may just be a function of physical size distorting the bully-victim ratio.

    Actually – thinking while writing – on a smaller scale you see this behavior all the time it’s just that only in the particularly violent examples will you only see the particularly heroic.

    .
    “A necessary condition is a high efficiency of coalitions in conflicts against the bullies.”

    Interesting again as the above starts to breaks down in environments where potential interveners aren’t sure they’re going to be backed up by onlookers. The less certain of backup a potential intervener is then the more “heroic” they’d need to be to act.

    .
    “Standard explanations and models for cooperation and altruism—reciprocity, kin and group selection, and punishment—are not directly applicable to the emergence of egalitarian behavior in hierarchically organized groups that characterized the social life of our ancestors.”

    It may not be relevant but in my experience the more the individuals in a group attempting to perform a group task are functionally equal or close to equal the more egalitarian the forms become simply because it is more efficient. You see this in the military where the more specialist and selective a unit is the more egalitarian it is (in day to day functional forms if not on the surface).

    (In a specialist unit with people working at or above their level of competence the added value from the officers and NCOs directly overseeing the work itself is low and potentially negative. It’s more efficient if they just check it afterwards. On the other hand where you have a lot of people engaging in a task below their level of competence then the officers and NCOs can have a direct influence on the average level of competence by directly controlling the task.)

    You also see it on a larger scale between national armies where some are much more rigidly heirarchical than others at a functional level, by which i mean the rank in the heirarchy where individual initiative is allowed is set at a higher level.

  • marcel

    Grey wrote: (In a specialist unit with people working at or above their level of competence the added value from the officers and NCOs directly overseeing the work itself is low and potentially negative. It’s more efficient if they just check it afterwards. On the other hand where you have a lot of people engaging in a task below their level of competence then the officers and NCOs can have a direct influence on the average level of competence by directly controlling the task.)

    This puzzles me. If people are working at or above their level of competence, doesn’t that mean that they are at most barely competent at their task? I would think that this is where a supervisor who is competent at the task can add the most. Similarly if people are working below their level of competence, doesn’t that mean that they are capable of performing the task? And here, supervision would be least useful (if we trust them not to shirk). Please explain.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    I wonder if, similar to how there are arguments romantic love is an invention, a mixture of sexual desire/limerance and the model of mother/child love, if altruism springs from natural desires not to harm ones own young?

    In most traditional societies, people hit their children. But they do not beat their children to death. There comes a time where the cringing and crying overwhelms any anger or desire to discipline. Self-control takes over, and they ease up on discipline. In many societies, any adult in a village can discipline any child, but despite this things still do not get out of hand despite there sometimes being no clear blood relations.

    Maybe similar to the features associated with being cute being so universal that cuteness is even recognized in animals, the behaviors associated with suffering are so painful to see (within “the circle”) that they jumped early on from their intended role (ensuring we did not kill the next generation in anger) to a general desire to show mercy (or defend/comfort, when we were not the ones inflicting) anyone perceived as weaker and more helpless.

  • AG

    Nixon’s visit to China fits the hypothesis.

  • Dwight E. Howell

    In reference to the first poster. Every one of the three hundred had snuck out of camp, murdered a Helot, and snuck back into camp as a sort of final exam before being accepted as a warrior. Weak Spartan babies were killed soon after birth. The youth of a Spartan male was spent undergoing rigorous/brutal training to make them the toughest humans alive. If there was anything the Spartans loathed it was weakness. I think that it is most likely safe to assume that however the Spartans saw their stand against the Persian army they weren’t all that enthused about defending the weak nor did they have any egalitarian views relating to non Spartans. They were absolutely committed to being the best no matter what it took.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #1, good point. that’s why i’m kind of wary about reference anything tangential to a post…always more complicated than what you are trying to illustrate ;-)

  • Grey

    @3

    “If people are working at or above their level of competence, doesn’t that mean that they are at most barely competent at their task?”

    Maybe i should have said fully competent i.e. they are fully capable of performing the task to a satisfactory level on their own as opposed to people who can perform a task but not neccessarily always to a satisfactory level. In the first case interference wastes time. In the second case interference can improve average performance.

  • Grey

    @4 “if altruism springs from natural desires not to harm ones own young?”

    I tend to that view myself except i’d express it as traits which chemically prevent people from (at least fatally) harming their young even when they’re in a fit of rage. A trait like that ought to be selected for you’d have thought – especially in species whose young take a long time to mature.

  • Ed

    “If evolution maximizes individual fitness why do you help others?”

    We’re pack animals. :)

  • Reed

    Christianity may not be as “special” in its morality as it’s often claimed to be. The new testament is way behind, say, Ashoka’s pillars. But it does seem to have had an unusual degree of success in getting people to adhere to its principles. Especially when a large and literate middle class appeared who could actually read and understand them, but even before. Consider its raw human material. Try to fast forward the Germanic culture of the Migration Period and get to modern Europe, but without Christianity. True, democracy has pagan roots. But how do you get from vikings to universal natural rights, abolitionism, discomfort with gruesome executions, parliamentary hearings on poverty? Even in the “Song of Ice and Fire period” (Wars of the Roses?) you have mendicant friars and Vatican officials following armies around begging them not to fight. The ritualized jousting of that age came about because the church was upset with the brutal free-for-all tournaments that preceded it. To reference another popular TV series, any guess why the Romans suddenly decided it was a bad idea to make slaves fight to the death during the 4th century?

    And what other conquerors 500 years ago had to listen to their priests talk like this:

    http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/learning_history/spain/spain_montesinos.cfm

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    But it does seem to have had an unusual degree of success in getting people to adhere to its principles.

    what do you think of the impact of buddhism on tibet’s militaristic power decline in the late first millenium? or perhaps the influence of confucianism on the transformation of the song from a military founded polity to a civilian bureaucracy? answer what you think of these questions directly. i’m trying to gauge if you have any cross-cultural knowledge to speak of to make such a sweeping judgment of the specialness of christianity, since you have to know a lot about other cultures to make such a judgement.

    And what other conquerors 500 years ago had to listen to their priests talk like this:

    http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/learning_history/spain/spain_montesinos.cfm

    and what do you think of the conventional islamic critique of how the umayyads treated their mawali?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mawali

  • Onur

    Reed Says:

    And what other conquerors 500 years ago had to listen to their priests talk like this:

    http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/learning_history/spain/spain_montesinos.cfm

    Razib Khan Says:

    and what do you think of the conventional islamic critique of how the umayyads treated their mawali?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mawali

    Razib,

    There is an important difference between your example and Reed’s example. Mawali were Muslim. But the Amerindians whom Antonio Montesinos mentions were not Christian, as is clear from his these statements:

    “And what care do you take that they receive religious instruction and come to know their God and creator, or that they be baptized, hear mass, or observe holidays and Sundays? Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls?”

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #13, good point. i was going to bring up dhimmis as a more generalized example. i can also quote particular confucians in regards to their opinions on barbarians. though i agree that the spanish response was sui generis, i don’t know if that’s partly a function of the extremity of the cultural clash.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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