Terrorism versus moral universalism from an evolutionary perspective

Terrorism versus moral universalism from an evolutionary perspective.

"Some students of human nature, such as the psychologist and zoologist David Barash, think that all evolution can give us is an existential ethic. Consider the following quotation (Barash 2000, p. 1014):

'Evolutionists might well look at all living things as playing a vast existential roulette game. No one can ever beat the house. There is no option to cash in one's chips and walk away a winner. The only goal is to keep on playing and, indeed, some genes and phyletic lineages manage to stay in the game longer than others. But where is the meaning in a game whose rules no one has written and which, at best, we can only decipher, and which has no goal except to keep on playing? Moreover, it is a game that can never be won and only, eventually, lost. In short, there is no intrinsic, evolutionary meaning to being alive. We simply are. And so are our genes.'

There is a tension in these comments. If there is no intrinsic meaning to being alive, then how does it constitute 'a loss' to die, and in what sense can you fail to 'beat the house'? Implicit in Barash's critique is a reliance on only a distal interpretation of an etiological theory of function. Our only function [in the capacity of] carriers of genes is to replicate." (Casebeer, 2003)

Morality and ethics cannot be understood outside of evolution, because all of the machinery that has evolved to make survival a mechanism to pass our genes unto the next generation also provides us with our sense of morality. Like our sense of consciousness, we are not aware of the process of acquiring a moral perspective, it is just taken on as part of a culture's moral sense, and that moral sense is relative. Its only real purpose is to serve the cohesiveness of the group, to keep internal peace, to give people something to believe in to reduce the terror of death or suffering, to instill a feeling of superiority in the face of conflict with neighboring tribes, etc. Morality has to do with tribal needs, not human needs per se.

In Natural Ethical Facts: Evolution, Connectionism, and Moral Cognition by William D. Casebeer, 2003, MIT Press, he states: "Paul and Patricia Churchland, Owen Flanagan, Antonio Damasio, and Mark Johnson have all done work in this area. Johnson, for example, contends that any plausible conception of cognition doesn't have room for 'pure reason' of the kind called for in a Kantian moral psychology. Ergo, traditional versions of Kantian moral theory (ones that don't have room for Deweyan moral dramatic rehearsal and moral imaginationsee chapter 1 of Johnson 1993) must be rejected. Though Johnson never mentions connectionism, the connectionist's ability to accommodate metaphor is a notable improvement over theories of reason that make sentential/deductive-nomological-style claims. Patricia Churchland rejects a Kantian approach to morality on account of its neurobiological implausibility, and Paul Churchland is explicit in his endorsement of virtue theory as being most strongly accommodated by connectionist-style cognition. This is a direct result of construing moral knowledge as a set of skills allowing one to navigate in a community, where such navigation, I argue, has the purpose of satisfying the functional demands of one's evolutionarily semi-fixed nature. 'A morally knowledgeable adult,' Paul Churchland notes (1998a, p. 85), 'has acquired a complex set of behavioral and manipulational skills, which skills make possible his successful social and moral interaction with others in his community. According to the model of cognition here being explored, the skills at issue are embodied in a vast configuration of appropriately weighted synaptic connections.'"

Since the War on Terror, we hear a lot of talk about true religion, evil, how terrorists violate common decency, etc. There seems to be no understanding that since faith based moral systems are arbitrary, and contingent on circumstances, there just is no right or wrong to rely on. From the perspective of soldiers, insurgents, partisans, terrorists, or citizens, what is moral or good is based on their religious upbringing, the current context of their situations, their indoctrination against others; so there is no way to agree on a common set of concerns for the suspension of hostilities. Our very nature is based on an evolved human architecture of conflict, not peace.

Charles Crawford states, "Although this fallacy in reasoning can be pernicious, another fallacy can be equally noxious. It is the fallacy of assuming that 'What ought to be is' or 'What ought to be can be.' A prominent example is 'Racial differences in intelligence ought not to exist; therefore, they do not exist; hence, anyone finding such differences must be using poor research methods or be politically motivated in their research.' There are many other examples in contemporary thought. One that comes to mind is 'Sex ought to be mutually enjoyable and personally enhancing. Aggressive sexuality is not compatible with this ought. Therefore, sexuality cannot be the motivation for rape, and hence rape must be motivated by men's desire to dominate women.' This type of reasoning leads to ideological or moralistic fallaciesleaping the chasm from the moral to the empirical realms. Although moral values cannot determine objective, scientific reality, anyone putting forth arguments or findings challenging this form of thinking can expect a rough intellectual ride." (Crawford in Crawford & Salmon, 2004)

I have just experienced this "rough ride" in several debates on Internet forums. Over and over again, it is declared that science entails looking at the motives of the scientists and that areas like racial differences in intelligence are not to be investigated because to do so violates the "what ought to be is." Of course, it is never stated that simplistically, it usually includes an elaborate explanation that no empirical evidence can be used to investigate racial differences until all racism is removed from societies everywherea requirement that would include removal of all humans everywhere since humans are inherently racial or nepotistic: they favor their own kind above others.

Morality then is a set of norms set up by a group of people that defines their commitment to the group and the rules to be followed that shows that commitment. The emotions that make people behave in a moral way include guilt and sympathy. However, it can also include feelings of vengeance and "envy can be employed to demonstrate commitment to harm (vengeance) or to reject unfair treatment (envy)."

Janicki states that "Given individuals' propensity to adopt the ideas and behaviors of others, it is undeniable that the content of those ideas and behaviors will influence cooperative and uncooperative tendencies. There is much evidence that this occurs. For example, in collectivist cultures, individuals tend to be more helpful toward members of their group than are people in individualist cultures. However, people in collectivist cultures are less helpful toward outsiders or strangers than are people in non-collectivist cultures (P. B. Smith & Bond, 1998)." (Janicki in Crawford & Salmon, 2004)

Genes can shape culture and culture can shape genes. How ethnocentric some races are then may be as much genetic as it is cultural. In the Middle East, where races were in close proximity and often fighting, humans evolved towards tribalism and moral particularism, whereas Whites evolved in sparsely populated regions and adopted a more cooperative or moral universalism set of behaviors (MacDonald, 2002a&b; Rushton1995). Cooperation was more important against the hostile glaciated environment because it was far more dangerous than neighboring tribes. Still, under both ecological extremes, cooperation was essential and "Moral obligations arise from an assent to the authority of moral feelings based on a judgment about the relationship of oneself to others or of oneself to one's group or of oneself to an out-group." (Holcomb in Crawford & Salmon, 2004)

Humans everywhere then are docile, they are easily led and freely submit to authority, and they readily believe what they are told. Today, most Americans still believe that there was some connection between 9/11 and the war in Iraq. In Europe, that link is rejected as pure propaganda. Nevertheless, in the United States, the people readily believed their leaders without much hesitation. The same situation is seen throughout the Middle East, where some of the most elaborate conspiracies are readily accepted and believed when presented to people by authority figures. Nothing is too outlandish or complicated to be believed. The West is evil and capable of extreme deviousness.

This brings me to the subject of terrorism. Bloom states: "Terrorism may denote the employment of violence or the threat of violence against noncombatants to achieve political objectives from a formally constituted government. Of crucial import is the psychological effect on government, representatives and those they represent from the violence and threat of violence. However, a comprehensive analysis of combat and combat supportfor example, personnel, intelligence, operations, logistics, policy and strategy, and communicationssuggests that there are no noncombatants. Even the very young, the very old, and classessuch as womenwho may be forbidden from or unlikely participants in direct combat can provide important combat and combat support functions. Much as military conflict can be conceived as politics by other means, the same may apply to terrorism. Given that politics may be defined as the sphere of goal-directed behavior wherein there are more needs than resources, terrorism becomes just another label for violence or its threat to satisfy need.

"As opposed to generating obfuscatory aphorisms such as "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter obfuscatory in that one can engage in violence for freedom or any other goal, while one can seek freedom with or without violencea generic evolutionary psychology perspective provides a biopsychosocial context within which terrorism can be appropriately analyzed. Whether terrorism should be prescribed or proscribed in all or particular cases will depend on ethical elaborations on means and ends and on equalities, equities, and absolute values concerning access to means and ends among people. Positing instincts of aggression as eternally adaptive or unadaptive is unnecessary." (Bloom In Bloom and Dess, 2003)

That may seem harsh, to include non-combatants as legitimate targets in war or terrorism, but of course it is always those who are in power who have the means to indoctrinate the public on what is "currently" acceptable moral behavior. That is, ethical systems are put in place to favor the established order: guns should be banned so only public officials have guns or can use guns to protect themselves, alternative media is declared a threat and attempts are made to ban it and to suppress free speech, only certain people can travel into or out of nations, or some nations are banned off limits, and terrorism is declared as an illegitimate means for change even though our own nation came into being using terrorism, as did many others like Israel. Zionist terrorists drove out the British and many of the Palestinians using terrorism. That is all forgotten now that the Palestinians are using terrorism to take their land back.

So political movements, radical movements, terrorism and warfare are just all means for either groups or individuals to get what they want. So let's look at some of the personality types, and the situations, that turn people towards terrorism. First, in extreme cases, we need to look at psychopathic personalities. Psychopaths account for about 1% of the North American population but they account for 20~30% of incarcerated male offenders, and 50% of serious crimes (Kinner in Bloom & Dess, 2003). It is interesting to note that Blacks also make up a large percent of the Prison population as well as serious crimes, but these authors failed to comment on whether Blacks are more psychopathic or it is due to low intelligence, or some other personality traits.

Though psychopaths are usually males who are callous, manipulative, superficial and often violent, psychopathy may also play a large part in creativity. Caucasians are both intelligent and have higher levels of psychopathy than other races, or at least East Asians. Some have argued that it is our higher tendencies toward psychopathy that leads to innovation, art, creativity, etc. (Eysenck 1998; Lynn, 2001)

"Who, then, are the 'psychopaths among us'? Hare (1998b) puts it succinctly: 'These are individuals who, lacking in conscience and feelings for others, find it easy to use charm, manipulation, intimidation and violence to control others and to satisfy their own selfish needs. They ... form a significant proportion of persistent criminals, drug dealers, spouse and child abusers, swindlers and con men, mercenaries, corrupt politicians, unethical lawyers, terrorists, cult leaders, black marketers, gang members, and radical political activists.'" (Kinner In Bloom and Dess, 2003)

I argued in "Niche Construction" that radical activists, with talent, were self-motivated to overthrow the established order for their own benefit, convincing others that they were committed to worthwhile causes. I submit that many environmental and humanitarian activists fall into this category, as well as politicians who defend the status quo. It also explains why racialist movements also have problems with individuals who take control for their own purposes in the end, and why we must always be vigilant for true motivations and be wary of the psychopathic personality that often eventually fractures otherwise sound organizations.

Machiavellianism has also been associated with psychopathy. This term comes from research by social psychologists, and is described as "subclinical" psychopathy (and I assume therefore more prevalent). Machiavellianism is characterized by: exploitative; calculating; deceitful; they view others as weak, untrustworthy, and self-serving; they are more dominant, more hostile in their attitudes; authoritarian; more emotionally detached; more manipulative and persuasive but are themselves less easily persuaded; and are less ethical in some situations or morally flexible. As an anecdotal observation, I wonder if there are ANY politicians that are not either psychopathic or Machiavellian?

Where psychopathy and terrorism meet is in terms of hypertrophy - bringing terrorists and those who feel oppressed together in common cause. What is interesting about psychopathy is that it can be evolutionary adaptive: "Cooke (1998a) has noted that psychopathy is more likely to be a successful life strategy in an individualistic society, such as America, than in a more collectivist society. Consistent with this view, psychopathy appears to be considerably more prevalent in North America than in Europe, at least in correctional centers, with one analysis yielding rates of 29% and 8% in North America and Scotland, respectively. According to both Rieber and Hare, psychopathy is actually becoming increasingly adaptive in North American society, which 'is moving in the direction of permitting, reinforcing, and in some instances actually valuing some of the traits listed in the Psychopathy Checklisttraits such as impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of remorse.' One reason for the relatively low prevalence of psychopathy observed in Scotland is what Cooke terms 'psychopathic drift.' Consistent with the 'rover' model of psychopathy, it appears that Scottish psychopaths are more likely to 'drift' from place to place, often being drawn to the excitement and anonymity of populous southern England. The niche for a psychopathic life strategy may be larger in southern England, where the transient population and densely populated cities provide the psychopath with anonymity and an unending supply of potential victims.'" (Kinner in Bloom and Dess, 2003)

Interestingly then as a side-note, not only is the United States dysgenic in terms of intelligence, but we are also increasing the number of people that tend towards psychopathy. These people, both males and females, have more children on average. The men are predators that easily manipulate females into bed without any guilt over the consequences, and women tend to have children as a result of either low intelligence and/or tending towards psychopathy themselves. Eventually, the egalitarian individualistic society must self-destruct, because it takes only a small percentage of psychopaths to wreak havoc.

Now back to terrorism. In the Middle East, what we see is a combination of several forces. Shame and loss of self-esteem from a people who have no ability to compete in an increasingly technological world. With television, the Internet, and foreign workers brought in to handle the difficult tasks like engineering and construction, their safe world has been turned upside down. They are faced to question their own beliefs, and that becomes increasingly difficult when cultures share alternative beliefs. In the West, our religions have been increasingly supplanted with the moralizing gods of multiculturalism and diversity, but the Semitic world is still fundamentalist.

I find it no surprise that most of the 9/11 suicide bombers were from Saudi Arabia, one of the strictest Islamic nations in the Middle East, but one that has a lot of oil money to send young men to Western universities. It is when they become immersed in our culture that they suffer the greatest humiliationthey come face to face with people who are smarter than they are and face to face with beautiful women who reject them. In Saudi Arabia they look down on Africans, only to find out in the United States that they garner even less respect from us than the Blacks doas a result of our affirmative action programs. This is a double humiliation.

It is not hard to understand then how terrorism can grow at a very fast pace, with millions of humiliated Muslims contributing financially towards terrorist organizations, and psychopaths or religious martyrs willing to die for the cause. It is a culture that condones and encourages doing anything to regain their self-esteem, and now with pictures of naked Iraqi men being humiliated by women, this shame will inflame many more into the terrorist or partisan campsand the violence will continue to spread.

As an atheist, I have always rejected that the fear of death was a strong component of religious affiliation. It seemed that all too often, the very religious were the most fearful of death. Atheists seemed to be able to accept death much more readily than religious people are. As an example, the Japanese kamikaze pilots, Communist gorillas, and National Socialists gave their lives for their race or their ideology. Nevertheless, apparently what is called terror management in the face of eventual death, people can take different means to preserve self-esteem or to feel that their lives will have meant something even when they are gone. For highly intelligent atheists then, it is the creative and productive that provides release from feeling the "terror." Leaving behind works of art, academic research, musical scores, or even the feeling that your life meant something because you sacrificed for the downtrodden as a missionary, reduces the fear of death.

So as an empiricist, I will at the moment accept that terror management is important. "[T]error management theory proposes that culturehumanly constructed beliefs about the nature of reality shared by individuals in groupsserves to assuage the terror engendered by the uniquely human awareness of death and, in so doing, to preserve consciousness (in its present form) as a viable form of mental organization. Only human beings embed themselves in a linguistically generated symbolic universe of their own creation that is nevertheless believed to be an absolute representation of reality by the average enculturated individual. Culture serves to reduce anxiety about death by providing the possibility for individuals to perceive themselves as persons of value in a world of meaning, and hence qualified for immortality. Accordingly, all cultures provide their constituents with an account of the origin of the universe, a prescription for acceptable conduct in the context of socially designated roles, and an explanation of what happens to people when they die that offers hope of immortality, symbolically through the performance of heroic deeds, the creation of enduring monuments or works of art, the production of large families, an identification with enduring institutions, or the personal amassing of large fortunes, and/or literally through the various kinds of afterlives promised by most organized religions." (Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski in Bloom & Dess, 2003)

In the Middle East then, Western incursions into their cultural and religious certainties, have been shaken. They can no more rely on the truthfulness of what they have been taught, so they must lash out at those who differ in belief in order to reinforce their own conception of reality. The Semitic mind is much more messianic and ethnocentric, and the West shatters that cohesiveness and absolutism of faith (MacDonald, 2002a/b). Their very existence is now being questioned. They now have only two alternatives, to capitulate in humiliation or turn to asymmetrical warfare, where a willingness to die in large numbers, as well as killing their own people if those people are seen as traitors. Any member of the new partisan forces seen as not supporting the war effort will be labeled an apostate, and will be dealt with harshly. And eventually, it could mean the toppling of governments that are seen as too pro-Western.

Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski state that, "One response to encountering someone with a radically different cultural worldview is to dispose of one's own worldview and adopt the worldview of the other, as occasionally occurs in religious and political conversions. Yesterday's Christian is now Buddhist; yesterday's Vietnam Warprotesting Students for a Democratic Society member is now a Republican Party shill. Consistent with this notion, research has shown that just prior to conversion, self-esteem is low and fear of death is very high, but that self-esteem increases and fear of death declines immediately following conversion." (Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski in Bloom & Dess, 2003)

In the Islamic world, I can only see one form of conversionfrom the highly religious to the religious terrorist. I find it hard to believe that any other option is open to a billion Muslims from Morocco to Indonesiafew of them equipped to compete in modern technological societies. Many will find other escapes from their insecure existence, but enough of them will be attracted to jihad to keep the ranks of terrorists swelling well into the future, unless another means of pacification or total defeat is handed to them. That seems unlikely given the methods used by terrorists and the alternatives open to them.

"At the same time that we derogate people who do not share our cultural worldviews, we make implicit and explicit efforts to divest people of their worldviews and go to great lengths to convince them (generally with tremendous displays of political, economic, and military power) to adopt our own culturally constructed conception of reality. Missionary activity is the most obvious example of this phenomenon in the religious domain, as well as the Cold War in the political arena. Christian missionaries have played a large role in the colonization of scores of indigenous cultures around the world. Similarly, the United States and the Soviet Union spent enormous time and energy in the latter part of the twentieth century to convince Third World countries to adopt a capitalist or communist ideological approach to life. And although there are obviously enormous physical resources at stake here, the major payoff for wholesale religious, political, and/or economic conversions is blatantly psychological. All cultures are fragile social constructions sustained by social consensus; consequently, the more people who adhere to a particular conception of reality, the easier it is for people to be confident that their vision of reality is 'true.'" (Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski in Bloom& Dess, 2003)

If the Islamists then are trying to fortify the believability of their world view, what is the United Sates doing in reverse? It seems to me that Bush & Company of Neoconservatives are just as firm in their convictions that Western democracy and our way of life is fit for everyone else, and any means to persuade them of that is an acceptable price. So we do seem to have a clash of civilizationseach firm in their belief that they are right and the other side is wrong. I must assume however that faith in spreading democracy around the world comes from a fractured culture where many beliefs are held, and it is trying to alter the worldview of the Islamists where that is not the case. In the West we have a myriad of faiths and/or secular perspectives while Muslims are unified at least in terms of believing in a singular religion even though they may provide various interpretations in its practice. That does not give me much confidence, from an evolutionary perspective, of winning over many minds (conversions) among the Middle Eastern populations.

In fact, it is only because as humans we are so accepting of authority, that the diversity in religions and worldviews has allowed the War Party to get us into the Middle East quagmire. Too many people readily accept what their leaders tell them without questionand it is part of our nature. No amount of education can vaccinate us from this tendency.

"Intercultural conflict depends on comparable processes. Because the processes are deeply embedded in our genetic/evolutionary heritage, attempts to modify prejudice and discrimination will have to deal with these processes and find ways to accommodate them, or use them to attain different goals. One of the processes, authority acceptance, is often used to encourage prejudice and discrimination, but can be employed to combat it. Another process, out-group attractiveness, evolved to maintain an adequate level of genetic variability within the tribe, and may very well be used to combat prejudice and discrimination."

"From the point of view of prejudice and discrimination, the direct implication of Hamilton's analysis is that we are essentially designed to be ethnocentricto favor our own group as opposed to others. A consequence of the psychological nature of kin recognition is that nonkin will be treated like kin when circumstances permit no distinction. Thus, selection for behaviors that increase inclusive fitness is a means by which individuals will favor an in-group comprised of nonrelatives as well as relatives. A dramatic example to which this mechanism may be applied is the kamikaze pilot or suicide bomber. Although dying may seem to belie an evolutionary struggle to 'survive,' it actually increases fitness if benefits to the in-group exceed the viability of the individual's potential offspring. The sum of material and status gains for suicide attackers attackers' families and damage to enemy out-groups may exceed an attacker's likely reproductive success. This is the case for the typical young, oppressed, male Palestinian bomber, as it is for a Tamil Tigress in Sri Lanka where, 'acting as a human bomb is an understood and accepted offering for a woman who will never be a mother.'" (Fishbein and Dess in Bloom& Dess, 2003)

The above does not predict a favorable outcome for America's war on terrorism, because we are caught with conflicting moralizing gods. On the one hand we have been indoctrinated over the last fifty years or so to embrace multiculturalism and diversityto accept that all cultures have legitimate ways of looking at the world; their worldview is as legitimate as ours. Now, the war on terrorism declares that "the other's" worldview is not legitimate, that they must change it and accept a Western style of democracy or be crushed. They will not be given any alternative, at least under the current administration as we go into the fall elections. Eventually, and I think I see signs of change, something must give. Either we reject cultural relativism or we end our intrusion into the Middle East and separate ourselves from that region and give them the autonomy they demand. The only alternative is a new world war as tensions escalate.

The real danger in the West then is that there will not be a consensus on what to believe. Many soldiers will die; while many others will hold them in contempt for thinking they have a right to impose their beliefs on others. It is the ideological conflict that we experienced during the Vietnam War writ large. At least during the Vietnam War, Communism seemed like a real threat to most people. They had the backing of a real danger in the Soviet Union. In the Middle East however, accept for terrorist attacks, there is no real threat. Removing Middle Eastern people from Western nations is all that is required for peace. I don't believe we have to remove them, but at least not let any in from this point forward. Good intelligence, a firm demand that they not embrace a militant Islam within our midst, along with a sensible acceptance of racial profiling well into the future must be at least discussed as an alternative to a world war.

On the other hand, since a new world war may take a while, we may shortly have more data on the real genetic differences between races and come to accept that the best way to organize nations is along racial lines.

"However, too much gene flow, especially from out-groups operating under different selection pressures than the host tribe, can be problematic in that it may disrupt the existing genetic adaptation to local ecology that the host tribe has attained (outbreeding depression). Thus, dual selection pressureson admitting new genes into the pool and on retaining the existing poolwould operate on phenotypes expressed at the in-group/ out-group interface." (Fishbein and Dess in Bloom& Dess, 2003)

From my personal experience in working in the Middle East, as well as working and living with diverse races in the United States, the above seems all to obvious. The Semitic races do not easily fit the Western way of life, technology, and secularism. The sooner we recognize our real differences, the sooner we can get on with working with them in terms of trade and commerce only, but not in terms of occupying the same nations with us in peace and harmony.

Matt Nuenke
May 2004

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