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February 12, 2009


Understanding check: You mean that if someone is aware that love evolved for evolutionary reasons, and is also aware of the adaptation-executing-not-fitness-maximizing principle, it is imprudent for them to say:

"Well, I know, my dear, that my love for you is an adaptation for the sake of reproductive fitness. But evolution can't dynamically reconfigure me; and so all that matters from a psychological perspective is the fact that I love you; and so I can expect to carry out all the actions that would be associated with a true pure love for you, into the indefinite future."

Because there's still leftover unscreened pattern that has to do with the evolutionary shaping, like:

"We need to stay together for at least three years before we marry to find out if we'll still like each other after the initial pair-bonding passion wears off, especially if we don't plan on having children."

Eliezer, yes, exactly.

"the fact that we had no conscious awareness of intending to achieve that selfish benefit should offer little reassurance."

For many of my actions, I can imagine bad motives, and good motives. "Things done wrong, and done to others' harm, which once you took for exercise of virtue. Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains" (TS Eliot, "Little Gidding"). I consider that too much navel-gazing will not result in true self-knowledge of motives. I may get to know myself better over time, but for the moment I just have to not-know.

However, if one cannot bear to imagine that one is a bad person, or ever does bad acts, that will bias ones self-knowledge and self-observation.

The term "selfish" is awkward to use in this economics/ev. psych context, and I think it might be prudent to avoid it.

Humans are sometimes "selfish". This is an in-the-brain process involving computing means and ends and choosing an antisocial action that benefits the individual. Call this "brain selfishness"

Anything which has undergone natural selection will behave "selfishly", even if it does not have any brain or process akin to choosing. Call this "gene selfishness".

In the last paragraph, for example: "If we take an action that gives us selfish benefits..." does "selfish" mean "brain selfish" or "gene selfish"?

Consider someone grasping something to prevent falling. Did the person see the object? Maybe. Did the person realize that they could grasp it in order to prevent falling? Maybe. Did they use means-ends thinking ("brain selfishness") to achieve their goals by grasping it? Probably not. The part of our brain that does means-ends and social thinking is slower than that.

I concede that we might unconsciously be doing antisocial means-ends thinking a lot of the time. But sometimes we just execute, without invoking the modules involved in "brain selfishness".

Is this a restatement of the principles of correlation and causation? Feeling happy yesterday is correlated to feeling happy today; disagreement is correlated with doubt in your own position; conscious positive intentions are correlated to altruistic actions. There's even a causal link in each of Robin's examples.

Of course, an outcome can (and usually does) have more than one cause. I would sum up Robin's argument as: people are biased to pick their favorite contributing causes for a particular outcome, and ignore or underestimate others. I don't think the concept of "screening" contributes anything over and above causation and correlation.

'We know evolution shaped our minds to promote our selfish genetic interests relative to others'

Yes, but it is also true that evolution has shaped our minds to promote co-operation in groups for the benefit, protection and survival of the group itself, and leadership behaviour that supports the group and others who are more vulnerable within it. Perhaps this supports the selfish genetic interest of the group.

These two drives/instincts often come into conflict within an individual and the friction between them is one of the key sources of tension and thus growth and progress in human culture. These tensions might relate back to the urge to achieve Alfa status. Franz De Wall decribes primates seeking to achieve Alfa status and acting in predominantly selfish/agressive ways to achieve it. Once achieved, the Alfa must then act for the benefit of the group in order to successfully hold on to power. Even those primates who do not achieve alfa status will often act for the benefit of the group, and even sacrifice for it.

Sideways, the screening assumption is what lets people assume they can ignore other causes.

Edward, evolution shaped our minds to help the group by helping individuals.

Johnnicholas, our conscious doubts whether we are acting selfishly is about brain-selfishness.

Incredible post all around. Each of the examples is interesting, but the abstraction of "beware ideal screen theories" is truly excellent. Thanks!

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