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Adding to Harrison Koehli
I think that Harrison is fundamentally correct, that there are certain moral points that are fundamental to human survivalon one end and fiddly bits that are best considered mere etiquette and thus highly variable on the other, with everything in the middle being perhaps similar in pattern but very different in the details.
Where I differ with Harrison a little is on his description of societies with dysfunctional morality (culture) as sick. Not that sickness isn’t a bad way of describing many that suddenly switch cultures into e.g. communism and destroy themselves relatively quickly. That is a fantastic use case for the idea of cultural contagion of memetic viruses, a disease that sweeps in and turns a culture or body politic against itself.
However, sickness isn’t all that happens to kill off a species or individual. What is missing from Harrison’s discussion I think is simple evolutionary changes.
Now, to be fair, Harrison does discuss that certain cultures work better in certain times and places. But unless I am really failing at reading comprehension (always a possibility) he doesn’t explicitly state that this is an evolutionary process. This is important because the way evolutionary processes deal with complex and varied environments differs from the default way that we humans tend to deal with them.
Yea, that needs a little explaining.
So, humans. Humans, when we we find a problem or new frontier to explore we do what is sometimes called hill climbing. Basically we start off with “this kind of works” then try small changes to that, keeping the ones that work a bit better, then make small changes to that, etc. slowing going from the bottom of the hill to the top. We look at what other people do, imitate what works, make small improvements, etc. If some path doesn’t work out, we stop and go back to what we were doing before and try to improve from there again. Humans generally do not spend time reinventing the wheel but just keep incrementally making changes to the normal way of doing it. The “best practices”, if you will.
When we do make wild drastic changes, those who redesign things from the ground up are often looked as madmen, then geniuses if it actually works out. This gives you an idea of how infrequently we do such things. As a result, most of our breakthroughs happen either through madmen or interactions with societies that do things very differently than we do. Without such periodic shocks we tend to stagnate due to over coordination, as everyone looks at what everyone else is doing, cheats a bit by stealing everyone else’s standard way of doing things and then work on the margins.
Looking at it more charitably, we individually make huge strides quickly by going from “I don’t know how to make a knife at all” to “I watched 200 hours of YouTube videos on knife making and now I can make a knife just like that guy, including all of his errors.” We make a conscious decision on what to do based on what gets us the most certain improvements at lowest costs. If it works, that is good enough, and we just try and make it work better.
Evolutionary processes don’t do this, not entirely. Offspring from generation of species to the next can be thought of as copying a successful model, but generally other than smaller random variations tend not to be able to add much.
One major difference, however, is that evolution has no ability to copy between e.g. species, that is a flying squirrel didn't get there by looking at robins and saying "Damn, those birds got it figured out! Let's do that!" To put it in human business terms, it is as though every company has perfect secrecy on processes and design, and so cannot copy the methods of any competitors.
This blindness and inability to mimic other methods leads to really wild differences in how things get done. Thousands of different species move in all kinds of directions, not only climbing the hill in different places but climbing up thousands of different hills, and sometimes dramatically switching between hills, in the search for a higher point.
Take pill bugs for instance.
Pill bugs, found under rocks and such, are crustaceans, like lobsters or crabs, one of the few (possibly only) crustacean that doesn’t go to a body of water to breed. Let that sink in a second. Unlike millipedes or centipedes, who hang out in the same places, pill bugs are crustaceans. That means they have gills, not spiracles and the like as insects or other land arthropods have. Those gills need to stay moist, otherwise they can’t breath. The species cant just buy a new set of lungs, but rather adapted the less than stellar gills they had to work in a new environment. In effect pill bugs gave up on the “live in water” hill and leapt over to the “live on land” hill, and made it work.
The second important difference is competition between groups due to the lack of copying. In a sense, this is more a difference in how people think evolution works as compared to how it actually does. We often imagine there being one best way to do anything, and so we generally assume evolution is working towards one particular point. We talk about “highly evolved” organisms, or “the pinnacle of evolution” as though that has meaning in terms of evolution. In evolutionary terms, however, “evolved a lot” roughly means “bad design” whereas “hasn’t changed in millennia” means “got it right the first time.” See sharks, crocodilians and turtles, for example. Their basic layout, and indeed final form, was pretty much hit a few hundred million years ago. Three very different body types to fit different niches, all of which seem to be doing really well.
That isn’t to say more specialized or otherwise highly evolved species are terribly bad, but it does mean they are transient, more susceptible to changes in their environment, both in the setting and their competitors. What works really well now might be really bad later, and poof, they are gone.
Giant pandas are a great example of this. Their choice of ursine body type is a solid long term favorite; animals from actual bears to hyenas go for it. Marsupials are kind of a throw back compared to fully internal baby making, but sure, it works. Then pandas went for an insanely specialized diet of bamboo. Bamboo is… an interesting choice, seeing as how it is basically giant grass, with incredibly low nutrition for how tough and difficult to digest it is. Nothing much eats it, and things that do only usually eat the shoots or seeds. So why does an apparent carnivore start eating what oxen turn up their nose at? It is all over the place, and as stated, no one else wants it. Pandas effectively are the only guys at that giant salad bar. Bamboo has almost no nutrition so pandas have to sleep most of the day and otherwise largely sit still, but hey, they are large ursines with big teeth and claws, who are they running from? What seems like a strange turn makes perfect sense when you realize what would normally be a predator can just chill on a hillside and nibble the infinite grass no one else wants because it is still too big and scary to challenge. Sure, they aren’t going to get much population density, but that’s fine, plenty of space for that and they don’t need to breed every year anyway.
The trouble is those grassy hills stopped being so infinite. Humans didn’t care for all that bamboo, and now the opportunities to wander around and find all the food pandas need are limited, not to mention finding mates. The environment changed quickly, more quickly than the pandas can change, and now those same humans have to work overtime to make sure there are still pandas left.
In other words, 'panda' as a template wasn’t sick, it just stopped being a good match for the current reality.
Which brings us back to Harrison’s essay. Morality (culture) is objectively relativistic because it is created by an evolutionary process that includes some of humans’ ability to copy from each other. Sometimes cultures get sick, but sometimes they simply evolved for a different set of circumstances and have stopped being even “good enough” and are on their way out. There are objective realities, the cultural equivalents of “you have to be able to breath air if you are an animal that wants to live on land” or “you must be able to get enough calories to fuel your body”, but there are very different ways a culture can meet those requirements, just like pill bugs can get by using gills on land, or pandas can get by on bamboo. Then again, we can objectively say things like “gills are not really the way to go if you want to live on land” based on the fact that almost all long term land animals don’t use gills.
This also has the lesson that what works really well in one context can’t be expected to work as well, or at all, in another. I often hear people say that the structure of the military, lots of hierarchy and set rules you must follow instead of all this freedom to do whatever dumb thing you want, is superior and should be how we all live in society. Yet this misses the fundamental differences of those two systems in terms of their actual goals. Militaries need to work to effectively defeat rival hostile forces and so need huge amounts of coordination. Normal civilian life does not, indeed even a goal as clear and easily agreed upon as "stop those guys from coming over and taking our stuff" is pretty rare except in extreme cases. Typically applying the rules of the military to civilian institutions quickly makes them deranged, just as the military quickly becomes deranged when treated like a regular 9-5 job. Different cultures for different environments and specific niches within those environments. Sharks are great, but they don't do so well living under my deck pavers.
Again, that doesn’t mean it is all free for all. There’s a good reason why every culture has some version of “Do not murder, do not steal, do not rape, at least don’t do those things against actual humans like us.” Those are pretty close to the necessary building blocks of a functional culture, just like “be able to metabolize some kind of food you can get, then make more of yourself” are the necessary building blocks of a functional species. It is just that every environment has different demands related to and expanding from those building blocks, and there are many different ways of doing a good enough job at meeting those demands. Some are better than others, and things can go very wrong due to sickness or just environmental changes, but lots of things work. Sometimes very different things work just as well as each other, but that isn't to say that every culture that happens to exist at a particular moment is doing equally well as any other.
Seriously though, go read Harrison’s essay, just keep the evolutionary angle in mind as you do so. If you made it this far you might also enjoy my essay on Ants and Anima. Lots of other people did, and it directly ties to this idea of culture as an emergent and evolving thing in its own right.
Thanks for reading!
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This is an important point: human morality is for humans. If we meet an alien species their morality might be fundamentally different depending on their unique physiology. At the very least, it might not include such things as “there will still be humans tomorrow” as a prime good.
I am going to use the word culture to describe the range of moral rules and norms of a group of people.
Darwin’s finch beaks show some of that in action, however, so it certainly isn’t zero effect.
Some extant shark species shared the planet with the Jurassic age dinosaurs, for example.
Trash pandas, however, seem to thrive better now than in the past.
Not to mention the amount of top down direction as compared to bottom up decision making of the boots on the ground is very different from what most people believe.
Ants, cockroaches and humans both seem to be doing a great job solving these problems across a wide range of environments.