March 1995

Bob Green Resigns

I don’t know if I am happy or sad. Tonight it is necessary for me to announce my resignation as Vice-President and as Publisher and Editor of The Utah Humanist. I’m happy because with this chronic fatigue, I no longer have to do the work of publishing or editing. Sad, because for these last three years I have enjoyed it very much; it has been a rich and rewarding experience.

As I announced last year, I have been diagnosed with chronic low-grade lymphoma, which is usually not life-threatening. Chemotherapy treatments have not resulted in any measurable success. I have had lymphoma for many years and it just isn’t going to go away easily. It is life-threatening, and at the last consultation, the Oncologist made the usual suggestions.

However, I have a great deal of experience with this illness. I have been in this situation before, not quite this seriously, but enough that the measures I took before will most likely work again. I have to do what I have done in the past and stop all outside activity, reduce stress to a minimum, and concentrate on taking the best care of myself that I can. I have a wonderful support system, much better than in the past, and feel confident that with time the lymphoma will go back to its usual dormant state and I can have many good years ahead of me.

I want to express my appreciation to those I have worked with over the past four years for the many pleasant experiences we have shared and for the accomplishments we have worked together to bring about. I deeply regret having to leave the Board and the work of the journal.

We have come a long way from four years ago when the Board was meeting around Anne Zielstra’s student housing kitchen table. Of that group only Flo Wineriter, Anna Hoagland and I remain. With meetings then of 10 to 15 at the nearby day care center, the Chapter at present is a mature, stable group of humanists from whom the leadership can draw for support and participation.

If there is any one, single accomplishment I can point to with the greatest pride, it was my participation in the Committee chaired by Nancy Moore (one of the original group) which composed the Statements of Belief and Purpose. These are now, by the way, printed on the other side of the membership cards.

The Utah Humanist, however, has been my best accomplishment. We decided to publish a Journal, rather than a Newsletter, because of the need to define and explain humanism, which information was not available elsewhere. Lately, I haven’t been able to keep up to what I consider my “standard,” which is another reason why I must give it up. I especially want to thank my Assistant Editor, Willa Mae, who has acted as proof reader and copy editor. The excellence of the Journal is due to her diligence. She has also kept me from getting too radical, which I am wont to do from time to time. It is now up to someone else to continue the publication, in whatever form it takes. (Who knows, it may even be possible to improve on our work.)

And so, with a grateful heart that I have been able to participate in this great adventure, I must say goodbye to the responsibilities, and I’ll see you at the meetings.

–Bob Green

An Evolutionary Perspective on Competition and Cooperation in Robert Wright’s: The Moral Animal

This is a truncated outline of a lecture presented by Kristen Hawkes, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology at the University of Utah, to the February 9, 1995 meeting of the Humanists of Utah.

I begin with a disclaimer: Mr. (Ron) Healy invited me to talk about the recent book by Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, with special attention to the issues of competition and cooperation from an evolutionary perspective. At the time I had just begun to read the book and didn’t suspect Wright of a moral tract. His lucid review of recent ideas and his engaging use of the life of Charles Darwin to illustrate them are a nice introduction to some of the most exciting work on human behavior that has emerged in the last few decades from developments in evolutionary biology. I recommend the book to you. It is well written and has the virtues of good scholarship. If you wish to follow up his assertions and generalizations, footnotes give the key references to get you started. But the book does end with an argument about what Wright sees to be moral implications of an evolutionary perspective. Now, this may be exactly the forum in which to debate such ideas. But I am not a moral philosopher. Since I don’t find Wright’s moral prophesies convincing, a focus on them would put me in the position of summarizing arguments about an area in which I can claim no special expertise, with which I don’t agree, only to then criticize my own summary. You would not get your money’s worth.

So please indulge instead a consideration of the conceptual tools provided by current evolutionary views of competition and cooperation (which are introduced in Wright’s book). Let me show you some of the ways these tools are useful for the task of investigating and explaining human behavioral variability over time and space. That way I can talk about things I actually work on.

Let’s begin with Darwin’s deceptively simple theory of evolution by natural selection. By the first half of the 19th century the evidence had accumulated in Darwin’s circle (some due to his own work) that the distribution of plants and animals in the living world was consistent with “descent with modification.” Variation over both time, in fossil sequences, and over space, in biogeographically diversity (neighboring populations being more alike and marked by barriers to migration) suggested ancestral relationships among distinct species. The question on the table was this: what process propelled and directed the changes?

Darwin says himself that his insight that natural selection was the process came on reading Malthus’ essay “On Population” in which Malthus lamented the fact that populations can increase faster than their food supplies. Darwin saw that this simple fact implied competition for scarce resources. And since (as cursory observation shows) individuals within any population vary and if any of this variation makes some individuals even slightly better able to solve the current problems of surviving and reproducing, then any heritable component of such variation must increase over time, out competing the heritable component of variants less able. As circumstances changed, the variants more suited would be favored. This process would result in an association between features and the circumstances in which they occur.

Darwin knew nothing of genes and the problem of inheritance was one he never solved. But in the first half of this century Mendelian inheritance and natural selection were joined in the synthetic theory of evolution. That provided the fundamental elements of modern evolutionary theory. It took some additional work on them before their promise was realized. Especially important developments in the study of animal behavior only took place in the 60’s and 70’s when G. C. Williams published Adaptation and Natural Selection: a critique of some current biological thought, William Hamilton explained the implications of kin selection, and John Maynard Smith developed the concept of Evolutionarily Stable Strategies. All this is recent enough that it is not surprising that applications of these ideas to questions of human behavior seems barely begun.

The result of these developments was a way of investigating the living world by constructing hypotheses about any particular puzzling feature on two central assumptions. First, natural selection is the process that has designed living organisms. Second, time and energy are always limited so that individuals must make tradeoffs in the face of constraints. The first is the basis for expecting individuals to do things likely to maximize their reproductive success or more generally their inclusive fitness–their relative contribution to descendant gene pools. Over evolutionary time characteristics spread and persist when the individuals with those characteristics are better at contributing genes to descendant generations. The second assumption is the basis for the use of economic logic. Tradeoffs are unavoidable. Everything has a cost. More spent on one thing means less to something else.

With these working assumptions researchers use models (sometimes quite simple ones) to investigate topics that include: why males and females behave differently; why the character and extent of those differences varies; why individuals do different things at different ages; why patterns of time allocation vary not only by sex and age but also by sex and/or wealth; why individuals use different resources from one time and place to another; why family arrangements take different shapes, why there is more sharing and help in some cases than others, over some things than others, with some associates than others. The theoretical foundation of behavioral ecology makes the answer to these questions in one research setting directly useful elsewhere. Not because it explains away the variation. Different cases show whether variables actually do co-vary in the ways expected. Work over the last few decades has, if anything, revealed more variation than previously guessed. But it reveals larger regularities within the variation not only among other animals but among people as well.

There are four important issues about competition and cooperation to clarify. I’ll briefly elaborate on each. First is the importance of distinguishing the interests of groups and the interests of their individual members. Second is the way that the “genes eye view” shows how individual fitness interests can overlap, but never perfectly–so that conflicts are expected even among the closest kin. Third the fitness interests of males and females differ with implications for conflicts both between and within the sexes. The fourth is an array of issues arising in the cooperation of distant kin. This last category includes models illustrating both the limits on cooperation and showing when it might be quite robust.

Each of these issues can be illustrated in recent work like mine on human behavioral variation within and among communities dependent on wild foods. Hunter-gatherers, without farming or herding, must solve the problems of life that faced people everywhere before the origins of agriculture. If we find that variation in the problems they face and the ways they solve them are systematically related to features of local ecology, and can be explained by applying the use of evolutionary models, we can use those relationships to provide hypotheses about variation in the past. I note some examples.

An evolutionary perspective focuses attention on fitness related costs and benefits to individuals. It allows us to construct and test hypotheses about variation in behavior. By appealing to a general theory about behavioral variability we can take our results to the archeological and paleontological record left by people in the past. And we can compare human behavior to the behavior of our closest living non-human relatives–the other primates, a comparison that increasingly shows how much more like us they are than once supposed.

If a moral implication must be drawn, consider this: evolutionary ecology offers some useful tools for exploring and explaining when and why people and perhaps some other primates are concerned about morality. As very social animals our associates can be a source of both large costs and also large benefits to each of us. But explaining why conflicts of interest always plague us, so that the behavior of individuals often follows a course that results in “irrational” group level outcomes, does not make the fundamental conflicts of interest go away.

–Bob Green

Making Life Worth Living

This was the title of a Letter to the Editor published in the Salt Lake Tribune on February 21, 1995. It was a very interesting letter from Jon D. Green of the Humanities Department of Brigham Young University. The purpose of the letter was to encourage support for Public Television, The National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the letter, Professor Green refers to himself and others in the Humanities as “humanists.” Now this seems to affect some people, because these self-called “humanists” are obviously also “theists.” Personally, I will be glad to acknowledge their right to the title, but to differentiate them from other “humanists” (secular, religious, non-theist, naturalistic, etc.) it is perhaps best to call them “Humanities Humanists.” I can do this because for many years I also was a “Humanities Humanist.” After all, the Humanities are the product of what humankind has done with its human-ness, and cannot be ignored by any thinking person.

Four years ago this month, I was introduced to the Humanist Manifesto and concluded that in the 40 years of being a student of the Humanities, I had become what is called a humanist. For the next several months I processed a change in the content of my belief system. I had to eliminate the cognitive dissonance between what I had learned from the Humanities (including naturalistic evolution) and Mormon doctrines such as theism, sin, guilt, and salvation. These concepts had become less meaningful through the years although I attended church regularly. In this mind altering process, I began to experience the exhilaration of becoming “free” in the sense of no longer being bound by dogma. I had achieved a union between knowledge and belief. It was a truly remarkable experience, this freedom, and I don’t want to lose it.

However, I have observed that many non-theist humanists are as dogmatic in their non-theism as theists are in their theism, and I don’t want part of either. My humanism remains rooted in the Humanities, and my non-theism is minor, almost forgotten. I have no need to reinforce or re-justify it; I like the freedom from dogmatism of either kind.

Further on in his letter, Professor Green explains his objective in teaching the Humanities. I find his explanation very meaningful. Because of my illness, I am experiencing the winding down of my life, and I look for purpose and meaning. It is not surprising for two “Humanities Humanists” to find our objectives are the same. I want to include his explanation, and finish with the Statements of Belief and Purpose of the Humanists of Utah, which I helped compose. I see no difference between the two. Professor Green writes:

Successful engagement in those things Socrates called “the Good, the True and the Beautiful” will ensure significant enhancement to the life of man, so that, as Thoreau wrote, we can “learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn,” and not as he also wrote, to discover when we die “that we have not lived.”

–Bob Green