Ronnie Z. Hawkins, University of Central Florida
We humans are social animals through and through, and yet we often avoid acknowledging it. In fact, we seem to have a tendency to flee, whenever possible, from “seeing ourselves” clearly along quite a few dimensions of our being. Heresies, by definition, are likewise entities that are essentially connected with our social nature—they are ideas that deviate in some way from a group norm. This paper will examine some of the psychological and social (group) processes that came into play surrounding the “hammering” of one particular heresy—the notion of “group selection” in evolutionary biology—and will engage in some speculation as to why this particular heresy might have had to be hammered down so emphatically. It will also reflect upon the phenomenon of heresy-hammering as epistemically maladaptive, to the extent that it can result in a state of collective self-deception that may endanger the group as a whole. Some possible applications to our current situation will be considered in light of this finding.
The “Hammering” of the Heresy of Group Selection
Just what is a heresy? How might we understand the notion of heresy as an offense that an individual commits, or is accused of committing? What are the social dynamics undergirding an action like hurling the epithet “That’s heresy!”—who or what benefits from such actions, and who or what gets hurt? According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, the first definition of heresy (all three parts of it) has to do with holding a view differing from a religious belief system (implicitly assumed to lie within the Judeo-Christian tradition), while both formulations of the second avoid the theological tie but again emphasize deviance, variously from “a dominant theory,” “the truth,” or “generally accepted beliefs or standards.”
Throughout most of the latter part of the twentieth century, however, the theory of “group selection,” or the idea that groups of organisms as well as single individuals might be selected for survival (or not) on the basis of their manifest characteristics, was treated as a heresy. I remember it being so regarded when I was getting my early education in biological science, and it just so happens that Stephen Jay Gould, in his comprehensive The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, completed shortly before his untimely death, recounts an encounter of his own with the forces at play in an episode of “heresy-hammering.” As a young scientist attending a professional meeting in 1973, he questioned a speaker about a possible correlation between the smaller body sizes of Pleistocene mammals living on islands—as contrasted with larger forms found on continental mainlands—and the greater resistance to extinction their reciprocally greater population sizes might provide. His account of what happened next is as follows:
. . . the speaker’s response floored me (and stunned me into silence . . . . He said this and only this—and his words, with their intended dripping irony, cut through me—“are you really satisfied with a group selectionist argument like that?” He made no attempt to rebut my suggestion with any content whatever; the stigma of group selection sufficed for refutation. (Gould 554)
Now, famously, Thomas Kuhn drew our attention to the resistance scientists generally show toward significant alterations in the paradigms that guide their research, noting that “retooling is an extravagance to be reserved for the occasion that demands it” (Kuhn 76), and he maintained that techniques of persuasion were often as important as evidence and logic in bringing about the major changes of paradigm that have occurred in science from time to time. His conception pales before the above description, however. There is a strong affective component to what happened to Gould, a current of hostility capable of producing psychological and possibly even physiological distress in the person toward whom it is directed. The power of the rebuke is magnified, moreover, by its public nature—the heretical individual feels a negative response coming from the group, not just the spokesperson who points the finger, or so I would maintain. But why do certain ideas provoke such an emotional reaction—where does it come from, what purpose does it serve?—and why, in biology, at least for a number of decades, was the theory of group selection considered especially deviant? I will pursue answers to these questions using the lenses of social psychology and cognitive science as well as some contemporary philosophy in my spyglasses, although some of the material that will be uncovered has been grist for the mill of philosophers for many decades. Since I lived through incidents similar to the one Gould describes—though mercifully not pointed directly at me—I’ve been curious about these questions for many years. The common wisdom in biological circles seems to have held that V. C. Wynne-Edwards, who gave the theory of group selection its most elaborate articulation in his Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behavior (1962), was properly vanquished, his ideas discredited and his name, rightly, forever tainted with shame, by George Williams, in his Adaptation and Natural Selection (1966). That’s not quite the way Gould sees it in retrospect, however, and his analysis provides insight into some of the philosophical commitments as well as the psychological forces likely to have been at play during the time this heresy was so mercilessly hammered.
First, however, for the controversy’s disciplinary context. Gould, in his final major work, presents a “morphological” account of evolutionary theory—from his own chosen perspective, of course—utilizing an elegant visual metaphor, a diagram of a piece of fossil coral drawn by seventeenth-century artist and scientist Agostino Scilla. The coral’s three major branches represent what Gould sees as “the three central themes of Darwinian logic”: (1) the agency responsible for producing the diversity of life on earth is natural selection acting primarily at the level of individual organisms competing against one another, the more “fit” in local environments being “selected” to contribute more offspring to the next generation—this organismal level being the central (though not exclusive) focus of Darwin’s attention; (2) this selection process itself possesses the efficacy to produce the characteristics contributing to the “fit” as well as to eliminate those organisms that are “unfit”—it plays the positive as well as the negative role in evolutionary change; and (3) the process of natural selection, working gradually over the huge expanse of geological time, has been sufficient to generate the full scope of biological diversity, accounting not just for small, local changes but for the large phylogenetic divisions as well (Gould 13-15).
Scilla’s diagram depicts a coral that is not only branching but articulated, however, growing in segments separated by planes of cleavage that Gould takes to represent points of major and minor revision to Darwin’s central themes that have occurred over recent decades. As a result of these “cuts,” the theory has retained its overall configuration over time while having been altered and strengthened in much the same way that pruning back a tree often serves moderately to reshape and reinvigorate it. To take the major revisions Gould identifies in reverse order to the branches enumerated above, in opposition to point (3), evidence supporting punctuated equilibria—periods of slow, gradual change in organismic form being interrupted by times of massive extinction and rapid change—revises our view of how differences on a “macroevolutionary” scale came about; against (2), discoveries in developmental biology and related fields indicate a major role for internally generated form-giving processes, in addition to the externally applied, “chopping” process of natural selection; and, contra (1), evidence is accumulating to indicate that selection occurs on multiple levels—“genes, cell-lineages, organisms, demes, species, and clades” (Gould 21)—not simply at the level of the individual organism, as Darwin had originally emphasized. However, at the time the “theory of group selection” was being formulated by Wynne-Edwards, the idea that any superindividual grouping of organisms could be a winner or loser in the struggle for survival posed a direct challenge to the classical formulation of theme (1), which focused almost solely on organismic selection. As a deviation from this central “trunk” of evolutionary theory as Darwin first proposed it, whose bark got even thicker with the “hardening” of the “Modern Synthesis” around the middle of the twentieth century, “group selection” can thus be understood as fitting the linguistic definition of a heresy as it appeared (or, to the extent that the notion had been around for some time in rather vague terms, reappeared in far more developed form) on the scene in the 1960s.
Wynne-Edwards’s treatise on animal dispersion is a fascinating book, rich in detailed examples. It addresses the observation that most natural populations of nonhuman animals seem to live in patterns and at densities that make near-optimal use of the available food resources rather than overexploiting and degrading them, offering an explanation as to why this should be the case. The short answer is social organization: territoriality, social hierarchies, threat displays, and other sorts of “conventional” behavior serve as brakes on reproduction long before the number of individuals increases to the point at which it would be directly limited by the food supply, thus preventing the local population exceeding the regenerative capacity of its environment and thereby putting its own continued survival in jeopardy. Wynne-Edwards envisions a homeostatic control system for maintaining optimal population densities through a great variety of social conventions, analogous to physiological homeostatic processes operating within single organisms, which also may come into play in the form of reduced clutch sizes, resorption of embryos, and the like, reducing the number of offspring produced, as needed. Since some of these “self-perpetuating,” internally- regulated, local groupings of organisms will “prove to be better adapted socially and individually than others, and tend to outlive them, and sooner or later to spread and multiply by colonizing the ground vacated by less successful neighboring communities” (Wynne-Edwards 1962, 20), selection will occur at this level as well as at that of single organisms competing against one another. Wynne- Edwards also does not shy away from including the human species under the purvey of his theory, comparing the process of “group-selection” with individual selection thusly:
Where the two conflict, as they do when the short-term advantage of the individual undermines the future safety of the race, group-selection is bound to win, because the race will suffer and decline, and be supplanted by another in which antisocial advancement of the individual is more rigidly inhibited. In our own lives, of course, we recognize the conflict as a moral issue, and the counterpart of this must exist in all social animals.” (Wynne-Edwards 1962, 20)
The “antisocial advancement of the individual” at the expense of the group’s ability to sustain itself over time could include many different behaviors, of course, but the primary concern of Wynne- Edwards was that of excessive reproduction, which must be inhibited lest what Garrett Hardin famously termed the “tragedy of the commons” result. “If intraspecific selection was all in favour of the individual, there would be an overwhelming premium on higher and ever higher individual fecundity, provided it resulted in a greater posterity than one’s fellows,” and this, Wynne-Edwards maintains, “manifestly does not happen in practice” (Wynne-Edwards 1962, 19).
Now, my concern here is not to engage in a detailed examination of the theory itself, or the factual efficacy of group selection in the evolutionary process, but rather to consider the way it was received (or, rather, rejected), why it was treated not simply as an erroneous theory but as a heresy, and to draw attention to the processes whereby even innocent questions only peripherally connected to the notion were greeted with such palpable hostility, a reaction which seems itself to be an emergent group phenomenon. As Gould presents his own perspective on the group selection controversy, he does “not dispute [the] consensus” of most of his contemporaries that “Wynne- Edwards’s primary argument [is] wrong” (Gould 547), and he cites, as generally agreed-upon objections, that, at least when nonhuman animals are being considered, “groups rarely maintain the required cohesion,” and that “group selection (in Wynne-Edwards’s mode) will usually be far too weak a force to prevail over the conventional Darwinian mechanism of organismic selection” (Gould 550). However, Gould also holds that Wynne-Edwards’s work has been “greatly undervalue[d],” finds the popular view that George Williams delivered the theory a knockout punch to be “entirely unfair,” and in fact maintains that “I can cite few other theories, presented within evolutionary biology within my career, that could be deemed so challenging in implication, so comprehensive in claims, so fascinating in extension, and so thought-provoking” (Gould 547). Most intriguing to me, however, is Gould’s assessment of Williams’s own position, which became the rallying point for the anti-group selection forces. Rather than a counterargument going toe-to-toe with Wynne-Edwards’s, Gould finds it to be, instead, a largely rhetorical claim promoting ontological reductionism, an orientation that Gould himself terms a “cultural prejudice.” Williams asserts that, if a way can be devised to explain a phenomenon through organismic selection alone, then this lower-level explanation is always to be preferred in favor of the higher, and if we can make what Gould calls “the ultimate causal reduction” to a lower level yet, that of genes as the final discrete units upon which the knife of natural selection operates, so much the better. Williams appeals to “the principle of parsimony” to justify this reduction to the lowest possible level, but Gould points out that “Occam’s razor” was aimed at shaving away Platonic essences from argumentation, not refusing to recognize higher levels of organizational complexity that might actually exist in nature. Williams laid out his “doctrine,” moreover, by branding explanations invoking higher levels of selection with demeaning adjectives: “We must always bear in mind that group selection and biotic adaptation are more onerous principles than genic selection and organic adaptation” (Williams 123-24, as quoted in Gould 551-52). Onerous principles? But why should thinking in terms of higher levels of organization and competition be “onerous”?
From a perspective that is now several decades removed from the time when the “hammering” of this heresy was at its peak, I am happy to report that there seems to be a recent upsurge of interest in superorganismic behavior of various kinds (see, for example, Barabasi and Christakis & Fowler for some interesting findings in human medicine), as well as a new openness to explanations making use of group selectionist thinking. The evolution of our own ethical behavior and sense of morality is perhaps the most important development that is now being attributed to selection operating at the group level. Darwin himself placed “the social instinct, together with sympathy” as the “primary impulse and guide” underlying the tendency of humans and many other social animals to help others of their own kind—while attaching the important caveat that “these feelings and services are by no means extended to all the individuals of the same species, only to those of the same association” (Darwin 472), thus acknowledging the bloodier edge to this double- edged sword, our strong tendencies toward xenophobia and violence toward outsiders to the group. Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson have provided an extended defense of the evolutionary role of group selection in Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (1998), to which Gould makes multiple references in his recent text and from which I will raise some issues later in this paper. It seems that there are many today who do not find such higher-level analyses particularly “onerous.” I will therefore turn to Gould’s analysis of Williams’s position for a better understanding of the “why” and “how” of this particular instance of heresy-hammering.
Gould states that “subsequent developments” following Williams’s ostensible refutation of Wynne-Edwards’s theory “force us to consider one of the most troubling phenomena in the sociology of science—the principle of epigones and bandwagons” (553-554). He points out that original thinkers, Williams being a prime example, are usually well aware of the intricacies and limitations of the positions they espouse, whereas their followers often rigidify them and hold them as dogma: “founders tend to be brilliant and subtle, and to keep all major difficulties constantly in mind, while epigones generally promulgate the faith and disregard, or never learn, the problems, exceptions, and nuances” (543). With respect to the wholesale dash away from group selectionist thinking, he states that “I have never witnessed a more distressing bandwagon in science, or seen any idea of such salutary origin [the initial effort to attempt an explanation of all evolutionary adaptations as resulting from selection at the “lowest” level of organism or gene] pushed so far in the direction of thoughtless orthodoxy” (554). And his parting shot articulates several aspects of the process under consideration here:
When we think an idea through, and then reject the notion, we have at least made an intellectual decision . . . . But when we maintain an unarticulated and unexamined commitment, then use such a premise, albeit unconsciously, to render interesting ideas inconceivable, then we have fallen under the spell of dogma. (Gould 556)
First of all, Gould himself is acknowledging the “groupish” nature of the phenomenon in question; what is a “bandwagon” effect, other than something that occurs at the superindividual level—does it not refer to a whole group of people jumping onto the same vehicle, to be carried along for a ride all together? The very metaphor is at odds with our traditional western conception of autonomous, “rational” individuals reaching their own conclusions via their own intellectual powers. And yet, of course, such behavior is virtually ubiquitous, in academia as well as society at large, and usually goes unremarked. What is an epigone? My same Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines this as “an imitative follower,” especially “an inferior imitator of a creative thinker.” One cannot be an epigone all alone; this is a social role, to be played out in a group. Might not a human form of “selection,” including selection for mates as well as for professional positions within social hierarchies, occur at both levels—the infatuated lover who swoons at a potential partner’s ability to flak for the real innovator who is out of reach, the whole horse-cart of like-minded goodfellas who will carry out a task or promote a product without asking too many questions on their own? Perhaps. But regardless of how adopting these strategies might ultimately cash out in power or progeny, I think it is indisputable that these are real phenomena—there is something “ontologically objective” about such behavior (Searle)—that manifest in the context of a human language community of some sort, a group of human individuals interacting with one another over time and space, connected by a largely shared “web of belief.”
It is within the shared belief web, moreover, that the “commitment”—unexamined, arrived at not by “intellectual decision” but rather absorbed through a kind of social osmosis from other members of the group who seemingly already have embraced it—can be discovered. And, nota bene, as Gould observes, this commitment is generally “unarticulated”—what is being debated in words very often is not what is going on beneath the words, deep down where such “commitments” find their emotional home—and it also must be “maintained”—the group that the belief system joins together is, conceptually, at least as self-perpetuating as some of Wynne-Edwards’s seabird colonies, the binding process being an active one in both cases. Finally, there are the words “unconsciously, to render interesting ideas inconceivable . . . .” Unconscious?
Yes, much recent work in cognitive science appears to show that a very great deal of our cognitive processing is “unconscious,” and there are studies in social psychology that seem to indicate a possible inverse relationship between the power of social forces to affect an individual’s behavior and the degree of awareness that individual might have of being affected at all.1 But if one is acting “unconsciously,” how would one even know that a certain idea might be “interesting”? To answer this question, I will invoke the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, embarking on his classic description of “bad faith,” or self-deception:
I must know in my capacity as deceiver the truth which is hidden from me in my capacity as the one deceived. Better yet I must know the truth very exactly in order to conceal it more carefully . . . in the unitary structure of a single project. (Sartre 89)
Yes, of course it must be the “interesting” ideas that are condemned as heresies, thoughts that are meaningful, possibly true, and potentially fruitful for further investigation—otherwise, what would be the point?—and so, at some level below full conscious awareness, the one who chooses to push such ideas away must already have comprehended their content. But such ideas must be “rendered inconceivable”—they must be blocked from public as well as private view, covered up, hammered down before anyone in the group could begin to entertain them seriously, let alone “conceive” a version of reality amenable to their full elaboration. And why must they be concealed in such a way? Because they are somehow fundamentally in conflict with a “commitment” at the heart of the belief web, a central connecting strand without which the group itself might lose coherence and dissipate.
I believe that, in his concise description of what it means to “have fallen under the spell of dogma,” Gould has captured most of the important psychological and social (and perhaps this is the point at which we should ask ourselves if these are not two sides of a single coin) aspects of the phenomenon I have called “heresy-hammering.”2 Such “hammering” at unwelcome ideas in an effort to make them go away, and so to protect the web of belief and thereby the group to which each member owes loyalty, is common enough behavior—it goes on all the time, for example, in political discourse, and all the more easily when the news is covered in fifteen-second sound bites. What makes it particularly interesting, I think, with respect to the group selection heresy, is that the behavior itself is, in a sense, a remarkable piece of evidence testifying to the ontological solidity, if not of “group selection” as a process, at least of the sort of powerful emergent group phenomena upon which such selection might act.
There remains to be considered what the commitment, or perhaps set of interconnected commitments, was around which the wagons of anti-group selectionism had to circle, and why it was so necessary at the time to protect it. Gould has already provided us with a central strand in the set: reductionism, or, as I would further caricature it, a commitment to live within metaphysical atomism,3 a picture of the universe as ultimately reducible down to nothing but a huge collection of mindless billiard balls, randomly bumping into one another. To trace the implications of this metaphor, I will draw on the work of a number of feminist philosophers who have criticized this kind of commitment, this stubborn refusal to update one’s basic “unconscious” world-picture at least so as to accommodate the physics of Einstein and Bohr rather than holding fast to the “solid, massy particles” of Democritus and Newton, if not moving all the way up to incorporating contemporary physics and a more enlightened vision of the life sciences. In a world where all is just “atoms in the void,” and those “atoms” are not only devoid of all internally generated agency but also lacking any intrinsic relatedness to other “atoms” that could connect them necessarily into higher-order, superatomic groupings, there are no limits to the extent of external manipulation that may be carried out. Of course the “chopping” action of natural selection must, on this model, be construed as the sole creative agent in nature, because there are no forces “from within” that could spontaneously produce order, only forces impinging on the billiard-ball atoms “from without” (see Mathews). Moreover, the human experimenter (who, strangely enough, still seems to be blessed with plenty of agency, though just whence it comes, since human beings are also, in the final analysis, reducible to “atoms in the void,” remains unclear) has a free hand to plug in and plug out whatever is being conceived, on the basis of this metaphor, as fundamentally disconnected atomistic “bits,” such as genes, virtually at will—thus allowing, for example, an aspiring generation of biotechnologists to step into the “God-shaped hole” left behind after the original Bioengineer wound up his clockwork model and then withdrew (see Midgley). This cartoon world may not be entertained in conscious thought, but I’d say it can be glimpsed lurking just below the surface of more than a few grant applications that are rolling off the desks right now. George Williams and his followers may not have articulated the problem explicitly, but the notion that individual animals in local populations not only bore nonarbitrary relations to one another but also could control their reproductive processes from within could hardly have been more antithetical to this kind of atomistic reductionism, to which they seemingly were “committed.”
There may be another binding ligament in the belief web which the group selection “hammerers” were defending, however, one that may be even more centrally located than reductionism. This is the insistence on a kind of Cartesian detachment of observer from observed, a fleeing from what N. Katherine Hayles refers to as “the ‘messiness’ of ‘tight couplings’” (see Hayles 56; she is quoting Norbert Weiner’s words here, from his explanation of why many biological scientists seem to suffer from what has been called “physics envy”). At some level, all of us are probably a little bit uncomfortable about being observed too closely. There may even be an “existential” reason for this; as Heidegger observes, “Dasein is ontically ‘closest’ to itself and ontologically farthest” (Heidegger 37). As Hayles argues, however, a commitment to extreme subject-object separation at the metaphysical level can generate the belief that “one could act upon the world without oneself being acted upon,” which can, in turn, lead to notions like “rainforests can be cut without affecting those doing the cutting; rivers polluted without poisoning those polluting; fluorohydrocarbons released without affecting those doing the releasing” (Hayles 56). Perhaps the anti-group selection forces were also aware, at least beneath the level of whatever mental filtering process makes “bad faith” possible, that the despicable theory not only was emergentist and holistic rather than reductionist and atomistic, it was potentially capable of connecting us to the natural world and to each other in a most immediate and uncomfortable way, by making us more consciously aware of group-level interactions that we are participating in all the time but that we generally prefer to not to think or talk about. No wonder Williams and many of his colleagues might have found higher levels of selection “onerous”—the “couplings” would have been too tight and far too messy!
This consideration necessarily moves us down yet another rung, to examine what might lie crouching at the center of the commitment nest: the gendered nature of science as it has been practiced for, oh, so many years, decades and centuries, at least within the western world. As Evelyn Fox Keller writes, for example, in her essay “Gender and Science,” “both the scientific mind and its modes of access to knowledge” can be characterized as “masculine,” where “[m]asculine here connotes . . . autonomy, separation, and distance” (Keller 79). While there is surely no hard and fast division along gender lines with respect to how great a degree of reflexivity a scientist may be able to tolerate in his or her subject matter, an apparent need of many males to engage in, as put by Nancy Chodorow, “a more defensive firming of experienced ego boundaries” (Chodorow 167) has been identified by a number of feminist scholars.
With this thought, the plot seems to thicken even more, and I will now (forgive me) allow myself to indulge in some additional speculation regarding the group-protective intrigue potentially lurking behind the hammering of this particular heresy. Another phenomenon that I have long been curious about, one with very grave consequences that I fear are just beginning to be appreciated on a global scale, is why so little was ever done, in a serious and sustained manner, to stem the planetary “explosion” that has occurred in our human numbers, at an accelerating rate, over the last two to three hundred years. Our present problems were not unanticipated: John Stuart Mill voiced his concerns in the latter part of the nineteenth century (see Mill 1986, 2004), and Paul Ehrlich, rather famously, hit the talk show circuit forty years ago trying to convey, in simple terms, the impossibility of exponential growth of any one element going on forever, or even for more than just a little while, within a finite system. When you look at what has been allowed to happen, while demagogues have yammered on about the evils of abortion and educated people meekly turned their heads away, and realize that we now have more than six times as many human mouths to feed than ever existed on this Earth throughout all of our previous evolutionary history, the need for an explanation for the irrational behavior of this supposedly “rational” species should become obvious. Wynne-Edwards writes, in the preface to Animal Dispersion, “The evident loss by man, almost within the historic period, of the means for limiting population growth, which he formerly possessed like other animals, stands out with disturbing clarity” (Wynne-Edwards 1962, v). Is it at all possible that the branding of his thoughts as heretical might have had something to do, on final analysis, with a strong desire, perhaps particularly on the part of human males (and after all, the community of evolutionary biologists at that time, and perhaps still today, must have been largely populated by individuals of the masculine gender), to flee from the responsibility to begin taking steps to limit our own species’ population growth from within? (I mean, surely, if birds can do it, and bees can do it, why can’t we— with all our linguistic skills, reasoning faculties, and technological capacities—do it too . . . ?) To “hammer” home a point myself, could all of this emphasis on competition between “selfish” individuals—coupled with an equally strong refusal to explicitly acknowledge, for example, the obvious dots connecting the competitive “power” of a human subgroup with the size of its population (and thus armies and other group-enhancing organs)—have anything to do with the received wisdom holding that mammalian females have an interest in nurturing a few offspring well while males “benefit” most from sowing their seed far and wide? In view of the tragic consequences of neglecting, under patriarchy, to take the needed (and desired by many women) steps that would have facilitated a voluntary reining in of our own fecundity, consequences that seem already to be in evidence as I write this, I think this latter point, while no doubt seemingly outrageous to some, bears serious contemplation.
Group Selection, Self-Deception, and Epistemic Responsibility
In our initial attempt to understand how “unconscious” processes might be at work in maintaining “the spell of dogma,” I turned to Sartre’s analysis of “bad faith” or self-deception, his attempt to understand how an individual can be conscious and “unconscious” of something at the same time, so as to flee an unpleasant truth. I believe the process of heresy-hammering is, in fact, one manifestation of a collective effort to maintain just such a state of self-deception within a group, and I would also submit that, at a time in which all of humanity is facing a slew of interconnected, self-generated crises, finding ways to reduce the extent of our indulgence in self-deception at all levels—as “organisms (individuals), demes (groups), and species (the global village of Homo sapiens’ collective consciousness)”—would seem to be highly desirable. Self-deception, in fact, appears to be the flip side of Lorraine Code’s powerful notion of “epistemic responsibility,” our (individual and collective) responsibility to know the salient facts about the situation we find ourselves in—an important prerequisite, she appears to claim, for taking action that is morally and practically appropriate.
To examine a little more closely these connections among the epistemic, the ethical, and the prudent in a way that does not hesitate to make use of multilevel selection theory, I would like to take a closer look now into Sober and Wilson’s Unto Others. As an illustration of how “ethics,” or cooperative, other-regarding behavior, can be manifested and maintained in a self-perpetuating system of social organization, these authors tell the following story about two imaginary groups, the squibs and the squabs:
The squibs follow the social norm “Be altruistic to fellow squibs, punish those who don’t, and punish those who fail to punish.” The squabs have the norm “Solve your own problems.” They freely exploit fellow squabs, who may attempt to retaliate as individuals but without the backing of their tribe’s moral outrage. The altruistic squibs will outperform the quarrelsome squabs in all situations that involve between-group processes, such as direct conflict, foraging for a common resource, founding new groups, and so on. The problem of cheaters and freeloaders within groups, which is so often used to argue against the evolution of altruism, is not a problem for the squibs because cheaters and freeloaders are severely punished. . . . What does the person who punishes the person who fails to punish get from enforcing the norms? At the end of this inquiry is a behavior that benefits the group at some expense to the individual who performs the behavior. . . . [T]his is not a problem if the individual costs are sufficiently small. (Sober and Wilson 151)
As Sober and Wilson further explain, a few squibs who go to live in the squab society will be “mercilessly exploited,” while squabs who move into squib territory will be just as relentlessly punished, unless these individuals on both sides learn to alter their behavior so as to “do as the Romans do.” Since human individuals are quite flexible primates who can usually alter their behavior to fit the circumstances, the group-level traits will be more stable than the individual-level ones, and the two societies could theoretically continue on indefinitely side by side—unless they come into competition with one another, directly or in the formation of new groups, in which case, sooner or later, “the squibs will replace the squabs” (Sober and Wilson 152).
A few more words about the group selection controversy are in order at this point. Considerable research into this sort of phenomenon has been conducted under the banner of “evolutionary” or “economic” game theory, where multiple iterations of certain kinds of interactions—e.g., selfish, altruistic, “tit for tat” (starting out behaving altruistically and then returning in kind whatever response is received, selfish or altruistic)—between “individual actors” are carried out. As Sober and Wilson interpret the results obtained through such gaming, if you allow yourself to “see” the groupings that evolve, it is “child’s play” to “calculate relative fitnesses within and between groups, and determine what evolves on the basis of the balance between levels of selection”—in “tit for tat,” for example, groups (of two) composed of individuals that both start out altruistically (and then continue to return the favor) will outperform groups with one selfish member, and these will outperform groups where both members behave selfishly. They conclude that “[t]he difference between multilevel selection theory and evolutionary game theory is a matter of perspective, not process” (Sober and Wilson 86), despite the fact that “one of the primary goals in the development of evolutionary game theory was to explain the evolution of cooperation among nonrelatives without invoking group selection” (Sober and Wilson 79, my italics). (Again, one must ask “Why?”) Sober and Wilson’s story about “the squibs and the squabs” strikes me as an explanation that is far more easily understood than the more convoluted (less “parsimonious”!) attempts to understand the evolution and maintenance of the kinds of altruistic or “cooperative” behavior we do in fact observe in our own species and others by trying to “reduce” it to a strictly organismic, let alone genetic, level of selection.
Interestingly enough, a more recent development that seems to have emerged out of game- theoretic research is the discovery of “third-party punishment.”4 If a “third party” that is not affected by a selfish action is included within the game and given the chance to “punish” the one who takes advantage of a second party—thus “cheating” or violating the “squib” norm of being altruistic—the majority of “third parties,” from a variety of different human cultures (see Marlowe and Berbesque), will quite willingly “punish” the “cheater,” even at some cost to themselves. This result is being interpreted as an important process whereby social norms are maintained, and, since the behavior of selfish individuals can be restricted within the group in this manner—any “squabs” that migrate in or spontaneously evolve will be punished if they continue acting “squablike”—it is also having the effect of “rendering group selection empirically more plausible” (Fehr and Fischbacher). One more step is exhibited by Sober and Wilson’s “squibs,” however, that I would like to take careful note of at this time: not only do the squibs follow norms that have them starting out as altruists and punishing those who fail to be altruistic, whether they are the wronged “second parties” or the witnessing “third parties,” they also observe a third rule which Sober and Wilson seem to recognize as necessary for the perpetuation of the group: they “punish those who fail to punish.” I will return to this thought at the end of the paper.
To continue with the topic of self-deception, it just so happens that Robert Trivers,5 who is probably best known for his development of the concept of “reciprocal altruism,” which emerged out of game-theoretical considerations, has recently weighed in with a theory about the evolution of self-deception (ostensibly an “individual/gene-level-only” theory) proposing that a capacity not only for deception but for self-deception has been favored by natural selection, in humans as well as other social animals, largely because the individual who is not consciously aware of engaging in deceit would be less likely to present signs of nervousness or other indicators that might “give away” the lie to others and make him- or herself vulnerable (see Trivers 2000; Trivers 2002, 255-293). This assumes, of course, that the self-interested individual has a selective advantage to gain by deceiving others, and, thinking only in individualistic terms about short-term gain, this is quite likely the case. When our thinking becomes more fully fleshed out by incorporating a group-level function like “third-party punishing,” however, this notion may itself be in need of correction, and it seems that even Trivers may have an unacknowledged eye for the overall group-level pattern (he does now admit, in fact, that “group selection language is often formally equivalent to the language of return effects, though this may be obscured or denied”; see Trivers 2006, 68), as will be pointed out shortly.
The forces at play in self-deception are examined in considerable detail by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), a popular account of contemporary cognitive dissonance theory, which recognizes the psychological discomfort produced when an individual attempts to hold two conflicting ideas—let alone conflicting metaphysical metaphors or clashing worldviews—in his or her head at the same time. The theory holds that, for most people most of the time, the desire for conceptual consonance is so powerful that even a direct confrontation with evidence contrary to their chosen perspective will not change their minds, instead making them justify their position “even more tenaciously” to themselves (Tavris and Aronson 2). Since the move to self-justification makes possible the self-righteous defense of whatever orientation has been selected, it is said to be “more powerful than the explicit lie” (Tavris and Aronson 4); the self- deceiver, the person “in bad faith,” may never admit the mistake, and hence may continue along on what is sometimes an increasingly disastrous course of action. And, while many of Tavris and Aronson’s examples concern self-deception and self-justification by individuals, they seem to apply their thinking just as readily to pairs, families, and larger groups, without apparent concern for the impropriety of moving to a superindividual level of examination.
In considering group forms of self-deception and self-justification, they give the following explanation for the persistence of racial and other forms of prejudice and stereotyping (which are, of course, inaccurate assessments of reality and thereby self-deceiving at both an individual and a group level):
Without feeling attached to groups that give our lives meaning, identity, and purpose, we would suffer the intolerable sensation that we were loose marbles floating in a random universe. Therefore, we will do what it takes to preserve these attachments. Evolutionary psychologists argue that ethnocentrism—the belief that our own culture, nation, or religion is superior to all others—aids survival by strengthening our bonds to our primary social groups and thus increasing our willingness to work, fight, and occasionally die for them. (Tavris and Aronson 59)
This is another interesting passage that is, I think, worth breaking down. The first statement asserts something very intriguing indeed, to those with an interest in metaphysics. It proposes that at least part of our apparent need to identify, beyond ourselves as individuals, with larger groupings of people—which the authors take for granted is a very strong one—is to escape the mental picture of ourselves as “loose marbles floating in a random universe”—in other words, the metaphor for metaphysical atomism. And it is indeed a repugnant picture of the universe—fortunately, it’s wrong, or at the very least there is no reason to prefer this way of picturing reality over alternative depictions, and a fair amount of reason why we should not: trading in a mechanistic worldview for a vitalistic one6 (now there’s another “heretical” concept for you!) would provide a framework much more compatible with the emerging scientific understanding of things, for one, but that’s a subject for another paper. But how interesting it is that Tavris and Aronson juxtapose the need to escape such a desolate and frightening world picture with the equally strong attachment to a group–could getting over the fear of the former reduce our need for the latter? And, of course, it would seem that such a strong behavioral motivator—and how else to explain, for example, a suicide bomber who willingly dies “for his group”? Must we weave elaborate alternative explanations for this by appealing to “genes” randomly bumping around with other molecules inside his cells? Again, what type of explanation is more parsimonious?—would clearly provide material for “selection” to operate upon.
The other thing to notice in the above passage is that the issue on the table is ethnocentrism as the generator of prejudice, hostility, and war against an “other” group (see Keen)—the “necessary” reverse side, as mentioned earlier, of the process that generated our ethical behavior toward each other as members of the “same” group—or so we might hypothesize if we allow ourselves to conceptualize about the functioning of competing superindividual but subspecific wholes. The basic idea is “our group good—other group bad,” preferably grunted to ourselves and each other at a level just above the “reptilian” core of our brains. One might even say that the first part of this assertion lies at the center of every language community’s web of belief, the assumption that the group is in some way “good” and worth belonging to–otherwise, for a member of species that inherited a proclivity for the fission-fusion type of social organization (see Eisenberg et al.), why belong to it in the first place, or perhaps rather, how else to justify one’s continuing membership? There is, of course, a good evolutionary reason why the idea that one might have a choice about it tends not to rise to the surface of consciousness for many, the reason being that belonging to some group or other carried a very high return in survival value for our ancestors.
The way this kind of “our group good” orientation greases the slide over into self-deception follows nicely on the model that cognitive dissonance theory provides. As Tavris and Aronson explain, “[d]issonance is bothersome under any circumstances, but it is most painful to people when an important element of their self-concept is threatened—typically when they do something that is inconsistent with their view of themselves” (Tavris and Aronson 29). If an individual’s basic view of him- or herself is one of being “good,” and the corresponding larger-scale view is of one’s own group being “good,” then mistakes that are made by either the individual or the group are likely to be minimized or denied in order to keep a self-understanding of uninterrupted “goodness” in play for as long as possible. And that’s the basis on which the authors explain seemingly irrational behavior: “So powerful is the need for consonance that when people are forced to look at disconfirming evidence, they will find a way to criticize, distort, or dismiss it so that they can maintain or even strengthen their existing belief” (Tavris and Aronson 18).
How does self-deception work at the level of the group? Robert Trivers contributes a valuable passage illuminating the process, as he inadvertently allows himself to think in terms of multilevel selection theory out of his evident concern (i.e., that “the entire nation” not be devastated by a war; Trivers 2002, 286) to see that we come to grips with this propensity:
[in the context of an examination of the phenomenon of warfare] Processes of group self- deception only make matters worse. Within each group individuals are misoriented in the same direction, easily reinforcing each other, and absence of contrary views is taken as confirming evidence (even silence is misinterpreted as support). (Trivers 2002, 289)
Yes, if members of a certain language community are all carrying what is basically the same conceptual framework, supporting roughly the same web of particular beliefs, they are likely to speak of them to one another from time to time, thus reinforcing the hold those beliefs (and the larger framework) will have in their minds while simultaneously denying access to “contrary views” that might shake up the belief web. The heretical ideas themselves are unlikely to be given a fair, dispassionate, “rational” examination. Since such a closed-minded attitude is incompatible with the ideal of giving adequate scrutiny to an issue, moreover, and they “know” this at some level of awareness, group members are likely to suffer some internal distress, hence upping the emotional tone while all the more vehemently denying, intellectually, that they are being anything other than “objective.”
Now, coming face to face with cognitive dissonance theory should induce most people to take a somewhat closer look in the mirror. Are there beliefs that we, as individuals, “know” at some level but are denying at others so as not to have to admit that we have made mistakes? How could we ever be sure there are not? This question may rightly invoke the traditional western “problem of knowledge” with all its accompanying concerns and cul-de-sacs, but awareness of the possibility of deception not by an “evil demon” but by ourselves should be additionally sobering. And an even harder question, of course, is: Are we all, in groups (and of course as individuals we may be members of many groups, sometimes with beliefs that, if taken literally, are markedly in conflict with one another), deceiving ourselves about certain things, and mutually reinforcing these ideas in each other so forcefully that conflicting thoughts have a great difficulty penetrating—indeed, are we “unconsciously” hammering them down as just so many “heresies”? The difficulties disclosed by recent discourse over the extent to which “science” is socially constructed help to illuminate the problem here, although I believe many issues on the table for public scrutiny are, fortunately, somewhat less intractable; the “facts” regarding whether or not particular actions have been taken or certain crimes committed, for example, are not quite as ontologically slippery as whether quarks “exist” or how two seemingly separate particles can continue to be connected by “nonlocal” effects. (More challenging, however, will be sorting out an accurate picture of reality from all the intentionally misrepresented scientific “results,” and cleverly faked scientific data, that has lately been coming to light.)
But what would it matter if we were collectively deceiving ourselves? Aren’t we better off continuing to do so than making all kinds of trouble for ourselves by admitting that some of the convictions that have gotten lodged in our common belief web are false? The answer to that is, of course, No. And I will again enlist Sober and Wilson to explain why. After recounting their story about the squibs and the squabs, Sober and Wilson go on to articulate a most profound “asymmetry” between the two levels of selection: “Within-group selection [selection at the level of individual organisms inside a group boundary] can favor any behavior, depending on the social norm of the group. Between-group selection favors only social norms that lead to functionally adaptive groups” (Sober and Wilson 152). The first part of this statement holds that virtually any behavior at all can become established within a human group, no matter how contingent the circumstances of its arising, if it is held in place by the positive or negative feedback of the members of that group; once certain patterns of dress, sexual activity, social organization, speech and thought—including the particular configuration of the shared web of belief uniting the group—become “the norm,” they will be maintained by the “conforming” actions of individuals who want to remain accepted members of the group. Much self-policing behavior will occur below the level of conscious awareness—people just grow up learning “what one does” in any given context (see, e.g., Searle 137-47, on what he calls “the background”). Individuals may compete with other individuals for positions of greater and greater control over the flowing of social power within the system, but the process of selection for rising to these higher levels will be largely blind to the behaviors that all members of the group share (though not to a failure to share them). Since thinking in concordance with the common belief web is something that “everyone does,” and thinking differently would likely put any individual member at a disadvantage, that of potentially being criticized, ostracized, or even scapegoated (see Colman) by others, it’s not hard to understand how the processes excluding heretical thoughts might come into being within a group. So why is this a problem?
The answer lies in the second half of Sober and Wilson’s pronouncement. Between-group selection favors only social norms that lead to functionally adaptive groups. A group, a human society, is a self- organizing, self-maintaining entity of a higher level than a human individual; such an entity, by definition, has internal functions it must perform, and it must be able to adapt to changing conditions, continuing its life-sustaining activities all the while. Certain kinds of norms—whether or not persons of a particular gender cover their heads with scarves or skullcaps, for example, or shave their legs and their armpits—have little to do with the functioning of a society, as long as that society can continue to feed, clothe, shelter, and properly care for its members. If behaviors that run counter to these vital functions—gunning down strangers on street corners, for example, or indiscriminately disregarding traffic signals—become normative, however, at some point societal breakdown will result–even though these behaviors may be advantageous to certain individuals in the short run. If climate patterns or other environmental conditions change, moreover, dramatically enough to require major alterations in food production, say, or water distribution, there must be enough flexibility in the behavioral repertoire of the group to meet these challenges, or the group may be unable to adapt. Should another group with more viable norms happen to come on the scene at such times, the territory might be theirs for the taking.
It’s relatively easy to see the connection with function when considering actions of helping or hurting others—that’s how we evolved our “sense of justice,” our “intrinsic moral compass,” in the first place, or so many biologists and philosophers are beginning to believe (see, e.g., de Waal). In the epistemic realm the linkage may be a little less apparent, but I think the same considerations apply. A functionally adaptive human society needs to utilize the feedback it gets from all its eyes and ears and minds when its members interact with reality—the “ontologically objective” kind—and yes, there is such a thing, otherwise we could just “legislate” global warming right out of existence. If we suppress messages informing us that our socially constructed reality is starting to get out of sync with our physical and biological reality, simply because these messages cause discomfort to people who wish to hold onto a set of cherished but erroneous beliefs, the effects on societal function may not be immediate. But over time, if a human group seduces itself into adhering more and more exclusively to a coherence theory of truth, letting go of the notion that statements are true or false insofar as they correspond to actual states of affairs, it may gradually become less and less able to attend to internal or external changes. It might even fail to notice when an increasing number of its own members begin to lack the basic necessities of life, since such an unpleasant fact would conflict with the belief in its own goodness. A human society needs to allow “heretical” messages, thoughts that conflict with some of its own core beliefs, including the belief that the group itself is always on the right track, to penetrate its collective consciousness, in order to be able to deal with reality. A society that hammers down all heresies is, over the long run, in danger of losing its “epistemic compass,” becoming not only unable to adapt to change but possibly in danger of breaking asunder as its institutions become increasingly dysfunctional.
For a group to follow in the footsteps of Sober and Wilson’s successful “squibs” with respect to issues of knowledge, therefore, I would suggest that it explicitly institute a parallel social norm of “Tell the truth to fellow squibs, punish those who don’t (by blocking it out as well as by outright lying), and punish those who fail to punish.” To carry out the latter duty, the third-party punisher must go beyond calling out the liar or the cheater that he or she happens to stumble over, by taking responsibility for punishing others who fail to speak up when untruths directly under their purvey are being touted. Is it possible, for example, with respect to the larger political scene, that otherwise rational individuals, out of a desperate need to continue believing “our group good,” all of the time (even under the direction of a very bad leader), have succeeded in carrying out a “teleological suspension of the laws of physics” within their own minds (see Kierkegaard, Griffin)? There may be some risk to playing the role of the card-caller—and this risk no doubt grows as the group is allowed to stray farther and farther from a norm of epistemic integrity—but to many of us it would seem outweighed by the far more serious risk we all run when our collective trajectory is determined by largely unexamined commitments, reinforced by strong group-level emotions, that may be indefensible when exposed to the light of fully conscious deliberation. One strategy for the third-party punisher to pursue in situations like that described by Gould, when a sincere inquiry is slapped down by “dripping irony,” or perhaps greeted with a meaningful shoulder shrug or averted gaze (intentional nonverbal put-downs hiding beneath the cloak of inarticulability), is that of redirecting attention so as to “make the unconscious conscious” (see Belenky et al. 141). Since much of the power of the social forces underlying heresy-hammering or, in a larger theater, reality- blocking, seems to lie in their being operative below the level of conscious thought, rational confrontation and a demand for justification may prove an effective deflationary tactic.
Since so many of our present-day activities as individuals, moreover, are currently harnessed to practices maintaining various sorts of superorganismal entities—nation-states, corporations, political factions—that are often negatively efficacious with respect to the sustained, long-term viability of our species, perhaps allowing ourselves to become more adept at visualizing and articulating “what keeps it all going”—how such structures perpetuate themselves and how they might transform themselves—would be in order. As Searle observes, “the remarkable feature of institutional structures is that people continue to acknowledge and cooperate in many of them even when it is by no means obviously to their advantage to do so” (Searle 92). Were we but a little more conscious, a little less prone to self-deception, we might be able to discover better ways of organizing ourselves to meet real human needs instead of perpetuating the patterns in which we presently seem to be “Enframed.” I do not mean to be unduly sanguine—and, over the coming short run, believe me, I am not—but if our species can survive long enough to evolve more life- affirming structures (a possibility for which Nietzsche seemed to hold out some hope), there is a chance that, one day, it might give rise to “cooperators, bequeathing productive resources as well as genes to posterity”—progeny who, unlike ourselves, have “developed an unsurpassed strategy for survival” (see Wynne-Edwards 1986, 13) by limiting their own numbers as well as self-defeating intergroup conflict, through conscious, internally generated choice.
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- One such set of experiments was carried out by Bibb Latane and John Darley in the 1960s, inspired by the failure of bystanders to intervene in the very public murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City in 1964. Latane and Darley found that helping behavior was exhibited by about 70% of experimental subjects who were alone when confronted with a situation simulating a person “in distress,” but that the willingness to help dropped off when another person was present while the experiment was being conducted. When two friends were tested together, they tended to inhibit each other somewhat, and offered to help less often than a single subject in the “alone” condition; when asked, however, they generally readily admitted to having been affected in their response by their friend’s presence. The most dramatic drop in helping behavior was found in subjects under conditions of observation by an anonymous “peer” (actually a confederate of the experimenters) who refused to offer help; in the latter condition, only 7% of subjects offered help on their own. Subjects in this “passive confederate” situation, who were the most inhibited, tended to claim that they were “very little” influenced by the stranger in the room.
- I must attribute the inspiration of this term to Gould himself, who states “Williams’s doctrine . . . serves as a hammer against group selection” (Gould 551).
- Williams’s commitment to the framework of metaphysical atomism seems to have been quite explicit; he even pays homage to “Dalton’s atomic theory,” holding forth that such thinking, while it may not exactly represent “the truth,” surely supplies “the light and the way” (Williams 273, as quoted in Gould 552).
- It seems that even David Barash, writing in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, has become willing to consider group selection as at least “a conceivable explanation” for the evolution of altruism, and in particular for “third-party punishment.” Barash’s own reluctance to deviate from the party line of anti-group selectionist sentiment continues to this day, however—after laying out a fairly plausible group-level account, he carefully notes that personally he “doubt[s] it” (Barash B13).
- Interestingly enough, Trivers, like Gould, recounts an emotionally scarring initiation into the “manhood” of group selection rejection, as follows. He apparently first found Wynne-Edwards’s thinking to be quite challenging and invigorating, until an elder initiate took him in hand. Having been contemplating a possible connection between caribou antlers, habitat quality, and caribou reproduction, Trivers confesses, “I tried the idea out on my teacher, a biologist overseeing my writing, and I will never forget his reaction. He sat there, the way a priest might if his favorite altar boy had come and relayed heresy to him. He wanted to be friendly, but there was a deeply pained expression on his face. He turned sideways and said to himself, ‘Sounds like Wynne-Edwards to me’” (Trivers 1985, 80; italics added). Struggling with the issue seems to have occupied Trivers’s mind for some time—“if he was right, then whole worlds of sociology, anthropology, and political science came crashing to the ground”—but after reading David Lack (presumably his 1966 Population Studies of Birds) at the behest of his teacher over and over again, “[f]inally Wynne-Edwards let go completely and slipped off into the surrounding gloom” (Trivers 1985, 81). This process—what some might even call a “brainwashing”—was apparently so successful that, almost twenty years after having described that incident, Trivers remarks, with some of the smugness of one who will not let himself be fooled again, that (with a nod to Richard Alexander) “group selection thinking—the mistaken belief that natural selection favors things that are good for the group or the species—is just the kind of social theory you would expect to be promulgated in a group-living species whose members are concerned to increase each other’s group orientation” (Trivers 2002, 276). He calls it a “self-serving social theory,” the creation of which “hide[s] the true intention” of—whom? There may indeed be a significant number of individuals who are out to pick the pockets of others gullible enough to believe in doing things that promote “the good of the group,” but is it possible that by refusing to recognize the existence of more diffusely prosocial behaviors certain other sorts of “social theorists” are justifying a failure to take responsibility for actions rightly geared toward “increase [in] each other’s group orientation”? However, see Trivers 2006 for a possibly somewhat revised view of his thinking with respect to social groups.
- Ontologically, the idea that there exist multiple levels upon which functional wholes can be discerned, wholes that actively maintain their own organizational integrity for a time, is hardly shocking or surprising; the natural world is replete with them, and some might even give this as a definition of “living being” (see Goodpaster). That the human individual can be understood as a single organism is something few would deny, yet living humans are teeming with myriad smaller individual organisms in the form of gut flora, follicle mites and the like; human bodies are maintained in a state of health by functioning organ systems, some parts of which (like appendixes, or perhaps spleens) can be removed without apparent loss of functionality while others cannot; and several human individuals can cooperate to carry out a task with more efficiency that each could alone. A combination of living organisms of quite different forms—photosynthetic plants trapping the sun’s energy, animals enmeshed in food webs utilizing it in various ways, fungal and microbial organisms continuing its dissipation while releasing the material of nature back into elements for another cycle of recombination—coevolve together in the form of a living ecosystem. The biosphere itself is a functioning whole, maintained in its present state by a staggeringly complex set of chemical and biological interactions that we humans are just beginning to comprehend. Moreover, at all of these levels, a tremendous amount of agency is displayed—the biochemical, physiological, social, and ecological processes that keep the living world together are constantly maintaining the “system” in a most active way, and they are now being revealed in all their Heraclitean glory through the wonders of technology, from the “walking” of a dynein molecule down the length of a microtubule to the shifting currents of blood nourishing our cerebrums as we cogitate on real-time fMRI. “Life wants to Live,” and is busily going about doing so all around us, all of the time; meanwhile, “meaning” emerges out of the multiplicity of life processes we humans share with the rest of nature (also joy, and laughter, and dancing, or so Nietzsche would have us see). We do not need to structure our metaphysical metaphors according to what should be a long- buried model of a dead and desolate universe after all, nor do any of us need to work so hard at being “masculine” and keeping a “stiff upper lip” (in lieu of something else?) about the tragedy of all this self-constructed nihilism.