sperm donation and possible inbreeding – oops!

from the nyt (ghengis khan, move over!):

“One Sperm Donor, 150 Offspring”

“Cynthia Daily and her partner used a sperm donor to conceive a baby seven years ago, and they hoped that one day their son would get to know some of his half siblings — an extended family of sorts for modern times.

“So Ms. Daily searched a Web-based registry for other children fathered by the same donor and helped to create an online group to track them. Over the years, she watched the number of children in her son’s group grow.

“And grow.

“Today there are 150 children, all conceived with sperm from one donor, in this group of half siblings, and more are on the way. ‘It’s wild when we see them all together — they all look alike,’ said Ms. Daily, 48, a social worker in the Washington area who sometimes vacations with other families in her son’s group.

“As more women choose to have babies on their own, and the number of children born through artificial insemination increases, outsize groups of donor siblings are starting to appear. While Ms. Daily’s group is among the largest, many others comprising 50 or more half siblings are cropping up on Web sites and in chat groups, where sperm donors are tagged with unique identifying numbers.

“Now, there is growing concern among parents, donors and medical experts about potential negative consequences of having so many children fathered by the same donors, including the possibility that genes for rare diseases could be spread more widely through the population. Some experts are even calling attention to the increased odds of accidental incest between half sisters and half brothers, who often live close to one another.

oops! i wonder what the odds are for such accidental incest between half-siblings living in the same area? the calculation shouldn’t just be a numerical one (x number of half-siblings divided by the total population, or however the h*ck you’d do the math). no, you’d also need to factor in the fact that siblings would more likely be drawn to similar interests and, therefore, might be even more likely to meet: they both might wind up in the same discipline at the same local university or both wind up taking guitar lessons or whatever.

and when they do meet, there are good chances that they’d be — as they’d prolly experience it — inexplicably attracted to each other in the strongest possible way:

“Fast-forward then to 20 years later when another young man and woman, this time James and Maura [half-siblings that never knew each other], meet in eerily similar circumstances.

“Both of them happen to be out socialising with friends in a town which neither of them is from. They are instantly smitten. So strong is their incredible mutual attraction for one another, that a week later both of them feel they have known each other for a lifetime.

that’s because they share a great number of genes with one another.

normally, when children are raised together (and they have to actually have physical contact with one another as children, i.e. play together) between the ages of 0-6, a kind of imprinting happens which typically makes them NOT sexually attracted to each other when they grow up — i.e. the westermarck effect. siblings or half-siblings raised apart miss out on this imprinting, so if they meet each other as adults, they often experience this “incredible mutal attraction.”

the couple in the story above, james and maura, actually married and have had a couple of kids together. i don’t think this is a problem. even though we have a taboo against siblings mating, it’s really not morally despicable for siblings to mate if you think about it. as a society, we wouldn’t want it to happen all of the time on a regular basis — too much inbreeding, not good. but occasionally? i’ll give ’em a pass — especially in these accidental cases.

i would recommend such a couple to have some genetic screening done first, tho, before having kids, just to be safe. half-siblings are, obviously, not as related to one another as full-siblings; but, rather, to the same degree as an uncle-niece/aunt-nephew. iow, more than first-cousins. (the same as double first-cousins, tho, which is a common form of cousin marriage in places like saudi arabia.)

the question remains, however, what does all this sperm donation mean for our society? what does it mean when one man fathers 150+ children? well, it’s really just a form of polygamy in a way, isn’t it? or, at least, it kinda-sorta has a similar side-effect — a greater number of individuals who are related to one another as half-siblings.

what if this were done on a huge scale? what would the effects be? i’m not sure. if you did it repeatedly over many generations, i guess you’d eventually wind up with some sort of clannish or tribal society. maybe more clannish than tribal (you’d need some focused inbreeding for that, i think) — but only if everybody stayed put in the areas in which they were raised.

if you — and this is obviously only an extremely hypothetical situation that would never happen in reality — if you made sure to move everybody, or maybe half the population, around every generation, shuffled them up, i guess you’d get a more cohesive society than we have today, for instance, because everybody would be more related, but we’d avoid the effects of clannishness from too much local inbreeding. you would’ve narrowed the gene pool by making almost everyone in society the descendants of, say, 1M men as opposed to 87M men. what you’d do with the 86M men who didn’t get to breed?…i dunno.

oh! i guess you could just arrange it so that all women had to have one child via a sperm donor but the rest she could have with her husband! that would narrow the gene pool, too. man, my skills are wasted. i’d be GREAT at this cultural revolution stuff! (those are all copies of “the selfish gene” that my followers are displaying.) (~_^)

if the idea that too much outbreeding has lead to too loose genetic ties in the west and, consequently, to the fragmentation of the west is correct — maybe more sperm donation (or polygamy) for a while is just what the doctor ordered! you wouldn’t want to do it forever, tho, ’cause then you’d just be left with some messed up tribal society or something.

(note: comments do not require an email. every sperm is sacred!)

1. That’s really interesting—and off-putting, and the idea of a bunch of people running around and potentially committing incest without even knowing it makes me wonder (not for the first time) whether the Catholic Church hasn’t been right about sexual morality (including artificial insemination) all along.

even though we have a taboo against siblings mating, it’s really not morally despicable for siblings to mate if you think about it. as a society, we wouldn’t want it to happen all of the time on a regular basis — too much inbreeding, not good. but occasionally? i’ll give ‘em a pass — especially in these accidental cases.

But I thought you didn’t believe in morality at all—or did I misunderstand you?

i, myself, like to go all the way with this one and have simply concluded (a while ago) that there are no “rights” in life and whatever actions or activities our drives are inclining us to do — well, you just gotta fight for the “right” to do them.

2. @chillingsworth – “But I thought you didn’t believe in morality at all.”

it’s not that i don’t believe that we haven’t evolved to have certain behaviors which we call moral — obviously we have — i just, personally, feel that in this case, half-siblings mating every now and again isn’t hurting anyone else in society, so i give them a pass (not that they need a pass from me).

on the other hand, too much inbreeding all the time will, i think, make a society clannish or tribal. i don’t want that to happen to western societies, so i think it’s a bad idea — practically speaking — in a sort-of societal engineering sort-of way, not morally speaking.

hmmmmmm. but maybe that’s what morality is, in a way? codes for societal engineering? (^_^)

3. Right, are you sure that you know what you mean?

it’s not that i don’t believe that we haven’t evolved to have certain behaviors which we call moral — obviously we have . . . .

Right, so we agree that people think there’s such a thing as morality. A separate question would be whether there really is—whether some things are really, objectively good or bad, or right or wrong, regardless of what we subjectively think about them.

Sometimes you sound as if you thought there were no morality—“i just, personally, feel”, “not that they need a pass from me”, “i don’t want”. But other times you sound as if you believed. You personally don’t “want” the West to degenerate back into clans and barbarism, but also you think that things that move us in that direction are actually “a bad idea”, right? (It’s no defense to say that your objection is practical rather than moral—a practical means toward what end? Nothing is abstractly practical or impractical unless there is an underlying objective good to work toward, is it?)

In my experience, everyone seems to have a deep-seated inclination to think in terms of an objective morality, even people who say they don’t believe in any such thing. Have you read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity? (I recommend it, but that’s by the way.) As Lewis puts it,

. . . the most remarkable thing is this. Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties don’t matter; but then, next minute, they spoil their case by saying that the particular treaty they want to break was an unfair one.

Of course if someone thinks there is no such thing as objective morality and our belief in such is merely a product of evolution, he’ll see the widespread belief in it as further evidence of how deeply ingrained these congenital prejudices are. But at that point he hasn’t proven that there is no objective morality; he’s taking it as a starting assumption. If we’re hardwired to think in terms of objective morality, that by itself doesn’t prove that it doesn’t really exist any more than our congenital ability or inclination to reason in the first place (including our ability to do science) invalidates our reason and all our beliefs.

4. A few years ago I read John Man’s biography on Genghis Khan, and I must say that I was really impressed by this 13th century warlord – his strategic skills, his fighting skills, his leadership, his conquests, and last but not least, his ability to, err…get his seeds spread around. So I asked myself – would it be possible for me to make such a huge impact on the genetic makeup on the future population of the world as he did? I have no army of invincible mounted archers. But I guess I could donate sperm. A lot of sperm. In city after city, country after country, continent after continent…donate lots of sperm!

5. @chillingsworth – all good thoughts/questions, c.

lemme start here: i think that the only “win” in this life is to leave behind the most copies of your genes as possible. that’s what it’s all about. end of story. this applies to groups as well as individuals — so, today, the han chinese seem to be in the lead. (^_^)

having said that, i’m not han chinese. i’m a westerner and i prefer western ideals and behaviors (and our invention of science) most likely because i have western genes. i am driven to make sure that my genes, and genes most similar to mine, are the ones that get reproduced the most. therefore, i prefer western society, which our genes have produced and that, up until fairly recently, has been most conducive to reproducing western genes.

i think that, as humans, we have evolved to have certain (what we call) moral behaviors because they have aided us in propogating out genes and, therefore, these behaviors have been selected for. some of these moral behaviors are universal (some we probably even share with pond scum) — some populations exhibit these behaviors to greater or lesser degrees than others — and some populations have probably evolved quite different moral behaviors since they have lived in different environments and under different circumstances.

“A separate question would be whether there really is—whether some things are really, objectively good or bad, or right or wrong, regardless of what we subjectively think about them.”

if the end game, then is for a population to reproduce its genes as much as possible, then yes — objectively there are probably good or bad behaviors that would either promote or hinder that objective. the p.o.v. here is like that of a military strategist — which behaviors will aid us to reach our goal and which will hinder us? in that way, one could objectively evaluate good vs. bad behaviors.

apart from that, no, i don’t believe that there are universal, objective moral behaviors — i.e. that good or bad behaviors are equally appropriate for all populations in all places at all times. maybe there are a couple of basic ones — killing is generally bad — particularly killing your own ’cause then you kinda fail in spreading the most number of your genes as possible.

at the same time, we’re all individuals with our own quirky personality traits. i’m rather laid back about most social behaviors — doesn’t offend my sensibilities if someone is gay or if a brother and sister decided to marry. i don’t get grossed out from those thoughts. what can i say? that’s just me. however, i can rationally see that too much inbreeding would threaten our western way of life — which, i think, is most conducive to the reproduction of my genes and genes like mine — so i consciously, without any feeling of personal disgust or moral revulsion, say that i don’t think too much inbreeding would be a good thing for the west.

any of that make sense? or did i ramble too much? (^_^)

6. p.s. – maybe i should also add that i am an agnostic, not an atheist. so, when i say that i think that the only goal in life is to leave behind as many copies of our genes as possible, that’s not to say that i rule out 100% that there might be more to this life.

i don’t believe that there is. my gut instinct is that there is not. i also think it unlikely on logical grounds. but i am equally aware that i could be wrong. (it has happened — believe it or not! — once or twice before in my life that i’ve been wrong. (~_^) )

7. Do you really have to be 100% sure that there is no god in order to be an atheist? In that case only idiots could be atheists. You don’t demand from a religious person that he’ll have to be 100% sure that there is a god if he is to be accepted as a believer. I’ve always considered myself an atheist, however, I’d never say that I’m completely confident that there is no god. I dislike the term agnostic, agnostic sounds to me like someone who is somewhere “in the middle” between belief and non-belief. Personally, I’m on the non-belief side. I think that the universe just is, and, I must admit, I LIKE to think that the universe just is. But as I said, I know that I can’t rule out the possibility that this is not so.

8. The point I was trying to make was this, by the way: From your short description above of your beliefs, you seem more like an atheist than an agnostic to me.

9. @crassus – yeah, if i get into a lengthy discussion about it, i usually tell someone i’m an agnostic with strong atheistic tendencies.

if i get into a really lengthy discussion about it, then i explain that, instinctively — on a gut level — i’m an atheist. i don’t have any innate inclinations to believe in anything supernatural. but through thinking about it, i can see that there might be a god, so my gut instincts might be wrong.

at least that how i perceive it (i.e. that i’ve rationally thought about it), but maybe i’m an agnostic just because i’m neurotic. (~_^)

you are what you is, you know? (^_^)

10. @crassus – “But I guess I could donate sperm. A lot of sperm. In city after city, country after country, continent after continent…donate lots of sperm!”

that does seem to be a pretty efficient way to go about it! and you don’t even have to take care of the kids afterwards.

you guys get all the breaks. women just can’t donate so many eggs in such an efficient manner. (~_^)

11. My guess is, you prefer the term agnostic because it distances you from all those liberals who proudly call themselves atheists! :o)

12. @crassus – heh! nope. concluded i was an agnostic a looooooong time ago. before i ever bothered — or even knew about — those people. (~_^)

13. @crassus – “But I guess I could donate sperm. A lot of sperm. In city after city, country after country, continent after continent…donate lots of sperm!”

come (i’m not gonna make that joke) to think of it, you should probably donate sperm as much as possible within your own population and populations most closely related to yours. in that way you would be maximizing the numbers of genes like your own that get reproduced. (amiright? i think so.) only after you’ve done that should you start considering spreading your seed far and wide to distant shores, etc., etc.

happy trails! (^_^)

14. I guess you’re right about that. My home town would probably be a good place to start. But then it’s time to “conquer the world” – sperm bank after sperm bank. I’m gonna make the Chinese taller, the Indians fairer and the Italians less talkative!

Anyway, the men who really go to sperm banks and donate their sperm…why do they do that?! Is it their inner Temujin who urges them to do so?

15. (To HBD Chick)

No, I don’t think you’re rambling! I think you make sense. Also, thanks for being willing to have this conversation with me so far! (It’s so rare for people to have a conversation on the Internet—not that people don’t go back and forth in comments, but I think it’s rare to have a “conversation”, as opposed to, say, an exchange of insults of “I know you are but what am I”-level sophistication.)

But I think there’s still something unexplained (I won’t say unexamined) behind what you’re saying. “i think that the only ‘win’ in this life is to leave behind the most copies of your genes as possible. that’s what it’s all about. end of story.” But what does it mean to say “that’s what it’s all about”? If you think that’s objective good, as opposed to what you merely subjectively prefer, then on what basis?

I understand that that’s central to evolution—the genes that are propagated most are, well, the ones that are propagated most. But that’s descriptive. That’s a statement of fact about how things are. It doesn’t, by itself, tell us anything about how things should be, or about what we should do.

i think that, as humans, we have evolved to have certain (what we call) moral behaviors because they have aided us in propogating out genes and, therefore, these behaviors have been selected for.

Here’s a thought: If our concept of morality is simply a product of evolution, shouldn’t we just instinctively behave morally? But we don’t. As C. S. Lewis puts it somewhere, we are all guilty of violating the moral standards that we ourselves intuitively believe in. (That claim works a little less well in our current culture; I think modern Westerners tend to have inflated self-esteem and be pretty satisfied with themselves. At least I know I did. But even here it more or less holds.)

and some populations have probably evolved quite different moral behaviors since they have lived in different environments and under different circumstances.

If you’ll indulge me, I’ll quote Lewis again:

I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behaviour known to all men is unsound, because different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities.

But this is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own.

I haven’t taken as much trouble to do so as Lewis had; so to some extent (only to some extent) I’m taking his word for that. On the other hand, he adds,

. . . for our present purpose I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or every one. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.

Of course then you can say that those variations fit in perfectly with all the things you’ve been telling us for months about inbreeding and outbreeding and helping one’s relatives propagate one’s own genes, so to speak—and that you wouldn’t expect “anything like a total difference”, because all human beings are related to each other to some extent—and that you wouldn’t expect total selfishness to be adaptive for any population, because there’s always family, who share some of one’s genes—but again, that doesn’t mean that you’ve disproven the existence of objective morality; it means, perhaps, that neither of us can prove anything to the other from the other’s starting assumptions.

A classmate of mine once suggested that no one with one worldview can (strictly, logically speaking) ever convince anyone with a different worldview to join his own—say, that no Christian can ever convince an atheist to be Christian, or vice versa—by offering evidence and building on the other’s starting assumptions. Any inquiry that attempts to draw conclusions from evidence has to start from some starting assumptions—even the reliability of reason or the validity of any kind of evidence is itself an assumption—and it’s possible that you can never “get there from here”, can never reason from one worldview’s starting assumptions to some other worldview’s conclusions.

So I’m happy to try, but it may be futile—not just for the two of us, but for anyone, ever.

My classmate suggests that instead the way to go is to try to understand each worldview on its own terms, from its starting assumptions, and see whether it makes sense (on its own terms). Perhaps a person ought to believe whichever worldview he thinks is most internally consistent or least internally contradictory, starting from its own assumptions, rather than believe whichever worldview makes the most sense to him from his own (perhaps unexamined) starting assumptions.

Since you’ve identified yourself, I should perhaps also say (if it wasn’t already known) that I’m Christian: So far, I’ve concluded that Christianity makes more sense—is less internally contradictory—than any of the alternatives I’ve heard of, including materialism (the idea that there’s no God and also nothing else supernatural, just the matter and energy we see in this world).

i also think it unlikely on logical grounds.

I’m with you, I’m all for logic! I’m happy to continue this conversation, too, whether here or otherwise. (What can I say? I love talking about this stuff.) But all good Internet conversations must peter out sooner or later, and before this one does, based on our conversation so far, I really have to recommend to you C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain. When I first found out that he had written anything other than the Chronicles of Narnia (he wrote so much more!), I was surprised to learn how logical Christianity could be. When I read Miracles, he convinced me (I think his logic is airtight) that materialism is actually logically untenable—that it contradicts itself.

16. @chillingworth – “But what does it mean to say ‘that’s what it’s all about’? If you think that’s objective good, as opposed to what you merely subjectively prefer, then on what basis?

I understand that that’s central to evolution—the genes that are propagated most are, well, the ones that are propagated most. But that’s descriptive. That’s a statement of fact about how things are. It doesn’t, by itself, tell us anything about how things should be, or about what we should do.”

well, no, when i say “that’s what it’s all about” i don’t mean that that’s objectively good. i just mean that that’s how it is. there is no good or bad about it — that’s just Life.

is it good or bad when the lion kills and eats the antelope? it’s pretty bad for the antelope! and, for many of us in our modern, cushy world, it seems bad because it’s so horrible. but the lion’s gotta eat!

is it good or bad when a new male lion taking over a pride kills all the cubs sired by a different male? seems pretty horrible and unnecessary — but the name of the game is for mr. lion to leave the most genes behind, so he gets rid of the competition’s offspring and brings the females into heat so he can father some of his own big kittens. good or bad? good for one male lion (and arguably the females) — bad for the other male lion and the cubs that were killed.

myself — and this is just how i am wired — i can’t help but see humans as just another species of Life on this planet and that all the rules of biology must apply to us as well. was it bad or evil of ghengis khan and his hordes to kill their male enemies and their children and impregnate their women? well, it was certainly bad for the people that he killed … but he’s one of example of a big winner in Life.

how things should be? i’m not a big fan of the naturalistic fallacy. to be honest, i think it’s a fallacy. (~_^) how should anything in Life be other than the way it is? sure, we might want to change something(s) FOR OUR OWN BENEFIT (as do all peoples), but that doesn’t make whatever good or bad, objectively or subjectively. stuff in life is beneficial to some and, often, not to others. because of the way are brains are screwed in, we equate beneficial with good. that’s ok for most — but it “does not compute” for me. (^_^)

but, like i said, i do acknowledge that there might be a god and perhaps he’s laid down some rules on what’s objectively good or bad. i strongly doubt it, but it could be the case!

17. @chillingworth – “Here’s a thought: If our concept of morality is simply a product of evolution, shouldn’t we just instinctively behave morally? But we don’t.”

but people do just instinctively behave what we call morally. but what you and i would (prolly) agree is moral won’t necessarily be the same as what other populations of people might consider as moral.

you and i, being modern westerners, would no doubt find the idea of killing some revolting and abhorrent. it would probably makes us sick. (this is on a good day when resources are plentiful and we’re not at war, of course.) and most westerners walk around everyday and don’t kill each other because they are instinctively behaving morally. we don’t all not kill each other because of laws or church teachings — most of us, i think, find the idea revolting.

someone from another population, however, whose ancestors evolved under different conditions from ours might more freely kill someone else — especially an outsider (i’m thinking of papua new guineans, for example). they, too, instinctively behave morally given their history and situation.

not all populations are going to exhibit the same, what we call, moral behaviors ’cause we’ve all evolved to behave differently. and some individuals within populations will be less (or more) morally behaving since there is variation in every population.

18. @chillingworth – “…but again, that doesn’t mean that you’ve disproven the existence of objective morality; it means, perhaps, that neither of us can prove anything to the other from the other’s starting assumptions.”

no, not at all! like i said, maybe there is a god and maybe there is objective morality — those concepts are not instinctive to me — but i could be wrong. it has been known to happen. (~_^)

i commented over on another blog (it was throne and altar) that i have never understood how some people who think that the theory of evolution is correct then go on to conclude that that somehow disproves the existence of god. -??- all the concept of evolution explains is … well, evolution! it obviously flies in the face of a biblical (or any other) explanation of creation and how nature works — and maybe the nature of god(s) — but it says nothing about an “ultimate source” or anything like that. never made sense to me.

19. @chillingworth – “A classmate of mine once suggested that no one with one worldview can (strictly, logically speaking) ever convince anyone with a different worldview to join his own—say, that no Christian can ever convince an atheist to be Christian, or vice versa…. Perhaps a person ought to believe whichever worldview he thinks is most internally consistent or least internally contradictory, starting from its own assumptions, rather than believe whichever worldview makes the most sense to him from his own (perhaps unexamined) starting assumptions.”

your classmate is pretty wise! (^_^)

i joke here at home how, every year or two or so, i come to a great realization about humans. a year or two ago it was that “all humans are stupid.” (~_^) i still think that’s pretty right — man, most people are just dumb. and even those of us who are not so dumb still have so many difficulties with cognitive biases that sometimes i really just have to sit back and laugh (or maybe cry) at what we all get up to. (^_^)

this year’s conclusion is “people are different.” and i mean that people are really just very different from one another right down to the bone.

my own story re. belief in god is that when i was 14 i had a reverse-ephiphany waiting for the bus on the road to damascus when it literally just struck me that there’s no way we could know — as in empirically prove — that there is a god or not. you have to understand that i was raised a catholic — went to all catholic schools — didn’t know anybody who wasn’t catholic (or at least christian — my friend’s brother’s wife was luthern — she was very exotic to me when i was 10!) — and lead a pretty sheltered, aspergerian life. i had never heard the word agnostic before that point, and it was some six months later when i discovered the word for what i was.

looking back on it now, the age of my epiphany is striking — just when the brain is developing from a child’s brain into that of an adult. to me, i think it’s obviously that whatever “genes for disbelief” i have kicked in at that point — and i just ceased to believe. it wasn’t any great struggle. it just — happened.

i think most of us believe things one way or another just because of who each of us is — and we’re all different.

this is why i generally steer clear of discussing politics with leftists — i’m just too different from them and they from me. and never the twain shall meet. (~_^) i feel the same with religious discussions. i’m happy enough to have them if, like you say, it’s a real conversation (and i like conversations!), but most of the time it’s just talking past someone else.

i’ll put c.s. lewis down on the (growing) list! can’t guarantee i’ll read him anytime soon, tho, because i have to say — believing or not believing, or trying to work out the origins of the universe or whatever, are just not pressing problems for me. i’ve kinda concluded that they’re awfully big problems that maybe our little primate brains are not equipped to deal with. and i’m ok with not knowing (for now, anyway). maybe i’ll turn my brain to more existential problems when i retire from looking into human biodiversity questions. (^_^)

20. your discussion above is beautiful. i read those C.S. Lewis books in my early 20’s when i was a good christian & i loved them then – reread them in my 40’s (no longer a religious believer) & was profoundly disappointed with some of the less than stellar arguments (faith had smoothed over the weak links/wobbly points). but, i liked the world better back when i liked those books better!:) & nothing wrong with less than perfect logic:) kudos to you all.

21. @panjoomby – “i liked the world better back when i liked those books better.”

i know what you mean, without having read these books. i liked the world better, too, before i understood (as much as i do — if i do) how Mother Nature really works. it’s cool and exciting in one way, but it’s a bit disappointing to discover that there really isn’t unselfish altruism out there. not terribly disappointing (and i’d much rather know the truth than look at the world through some rose-colored glasses) — but the world seemed a kinder place when i was a kid. it still has it’s good points but sometimes … well, just … meh. (^_^)

22. but people do just instinctively behave what we call morally. . . .

I disagree—

. . . and most westerners walk around everyday and don’t kill each other because they are instinctively behaving morally.

Certainly most people don’t go around killing each other, but surely you don’t think that murder is the only thing people think is immoral? What about the years I was inexcusably unkind to my younger sister, or the times I picked fights with people for no good reason, or the times I’ve been selfish or a jerk? Am I wrong if I think that most people have this same experience, of having repeatedly done things we regret? If morality were merely a product of evolution, why wouldn’t I just have acted morally in the first place? What is the adaptive value of regret or guilt?

As long as I’m arguing about whether everything is a mere function of our genes, I think it’s reductive to suggest that either our behavior or our concept of morality is a mere product of evolution. (I know, I know, you’ve said reductionism works!) I get the impression that modern Westerners find the idea of killing someone a lot more revolting and abhorrent than, say, English some number of centuries ago did. Then, public executions were a common form of entertainment, maybe, for example? (I’m no historian, but things were different, right?) Now, one of the debate moderators this past Wednesday, with a straight face, asks Governor Perry whether he has trouble sleeping at night because a couple of hundred criminals have been executed (and that over the course of a decade?). Isn’t it the culture that has changed, rather than the genes? But that’s by the way.

i don’t mean that that’s objectively good. i just mean that that’s how it is. there is no good or bad about it — that’s just Life.

I don’t know, I really think I caught you—in both the original post and in some of this conversation after that—talking as if you believed in morality. But if, when pressed, you say that everything just “is”, then I guess there’s no inconsistency for me to argue with.

but, like i said, i do acknowledge that there might be a god and perhaps he’s laid down some rules on what’s objectively good or bad. i strongly doubt it, but it could be the case!

Right, and if all the language I’m thinking of was a manifestation of whatever little agnosticism you have left, then I didn’t mean to stamp it out in the name of consistency! No doubt it’s better to be inconsistent and somewhat moral than to be consistently amoral.

i commented over on another blog (it was throne and altar) that i have never understood how some people who think that the theory of evolution is correct then go on to conclude that that somehow disproves the existence of god. -??- all the concept of evolution explains is … well, evolution!

That’s something we can unite on, at least! Well put, too.

it obviously flies in the face of a biblical (or any other) explanation of creation and how nature works . . . .

Well, I wouldn’t put it that way—I think “creationist” literalism, as a way of reading the Bible, is a sort of anachronistic innovation, if that’s the right way to put it, and even today, it’s not clear that it’s not a minority position in America. (I’m sure it’s a minority position in the larger Christian world.) But I suppose that’s by the way as well.

. . . it literally just struck me that there’s no way we could know — as in empirically prove — that there is a god or not.

Thank you for being willing to share.

I agree that we can’t empirically know the existence of God as we would know anything in the physical sciences, but I don’t think it makes sense to understand one discipline of human knowledge on the terms of another. We don’t do empirical experiments in art or literature, either. We do, perhaps, “prove” things in philosophy, but in a very different sense, or at least a very different way, from how we prove things in the sciences, don’t we? Philosophy is very different from science. So is theology—not less useful or less real, but different.

i think most of us believe things one way or another just because of who each of us is — and we’re all different.

I think to some extent that’s true. But we also have some independent (at least independent to some extent) power of choice, and some independent power of reason, don’t we? If we didn’t, it would be impossible for you to do science or read and learn—your very thoughts would be mere bio-chemical events, inevitable products of their causes according to natural laws—and there would be no reason for you to think anything you think is true is actually true.

i’ll put c.s. lewis down on the (growing) list! . . . maybe i’ll turn my brain to more existential problems when i retire from looking into human biodiversity questions.

Then I have a feeling Lewis, or God, will be on your waitlist for a long time! But by all means continue looking into those questions, if nothing else. If it really interests you, then I think it’s probably a part of what God wants you to be doing.

Oh, and as long as we’re talking, I have to tell you, I’ve always loved your little icon—your Gravatar or whatever we’re supposed to call them. It’s hilarious. I think Calvin and Hobbes was probably the best comic strip ever.

23. (To Panjoomby and HBD Chick)

Ha ha well, I’m still in my twenties and a relatively new convert (c. eight years ago, in college); so I guess I’ll see whether I’m disillusioned as well by the time I’m in my forties! I’ll agree with you both (from experience on both sides, like you) that the Christian’s life is a lot brighter than the non-Christian’s—one way I’ve heard it put is that the Christian’s life is joy, punctuated with some amount of sorrow or emptiness, but that the non-Christian’s life is sorrow or emptiness, punctuated with some amount of joy—but I’ll disagree about whether it’s true or logical!

I’m curious, Panjoomby, did you read Miracles? Which Lewis books did you read? (I love so many of them!) I would be very interested to know—here or off site—exactly where you see Lewis’s logic going off the tracks—if you want to talk about it, of course!

HBD Chick, I totally agree, I don’t want to deceive myself, or be deceived; I want to know the truth! At risk of looking like someone with a compulsive Lewis-quoting habit, I’ll point out that he agrees, too, for whatever that’s worth:

Obviously, I used to say, a sane man accepts or rejects any statement, not because he wants to or does not want to, but because the evidence seems to him good or bad. If he were mistaken about the goodness or badness of the evidence that would not mean he was a bad man, but only that he was not very clever. And if he thought the evidence bad but tried to force himself to believe in spite of it, that would be merely stupid.

Well, I think I still take that view.

24. @chillingworth – “…but that the non-Christian’s life is sorrow or emptiness, punctuated with some amount of joy….”

well, i can only speak for myself, but my life isn’t composed of sorrow or emptiness with bits of joy thrown in. my life is actually full of awe and wonder … and joy every time i go out and take a gander at Mother Nature and all her wonders (i.e. pretty much everyday) … not to mention the odd supernova every now and again. (~_^)

i’m just disappointed that people aren’t capable of being as wonderful as i was told as a kid. i’m getting over that disappointment. but i’m still a little bit irked at the lies i was told (altho most of the people who taught me all these untruths seem to believe them themselves, so they weren’t actually lying).

i prefer facts. just the facts, ma’am! but i do understand that most people do not prefer the facts … and that a large part of our cognition (including my own) is about keeping the facts from us.

c’est la vie! (^_^)

25. I didn’t say only “bits”, I said “some amount”! The amounts could even be the same, and the Christian’s life would still be very different from the non-Christian’s—it’s like looking at the picture of the vase, and then realizing that what you thought was the picture is only the negative space around the real picture. (Well, OK, it’s not too much like that.) But maybe you and I aren’t actually talking about the same thing here.

All right, but you understand I think you can have the facts (that’s what I want, too!) and God, because I think Christianity is actually true. Any time you want someone to try to explain how that could be, you know how to reach me!

26. @chillingworth – “If morality were merely a product of evolution, why wouldn’t I just have acted morally in the first place?”

well because you’re forgetting the prime directive — reproduce your genes as much as possible … and then help out other people who share some genes with you … and, lastly, help out people who are not so related to you. it wouldn’t make sense for you (or anyone) to behave morally (i.e. good or altruistic) ALL of the time towards others (unless you’re an ant). you’d spend all your time helping out others to your own detriment. in fact, any genes that resulted in behavior like that would be pretty quickly selected right out of the gene pool.

no. you should only be, what we call moral, whenever it aids in helping you to spread your genes. when you were a kid, you were in direct competition with your sister for resources from your parents. they fed and housed you guys — but there would’ve been MORE for you if your sister wasn’t there. most siblings in most species (except, again, for the social insects) try to have a go at their fellow siblings when they are kids. makes sense.

27. @chillingworth – “Isn’t it the culture that has changed, rather than the genes?”

but then my question (that i always ask) is: where does culture come from? (~_^)

28. @chillingworth – “I don’t know, I really think I caught you—in both the original post and in some of this conversation after that—talking as if you believed in morality. But if, when pressed, you say that everything just ‘is’, then I guess there’s no inconsistency for me to argue with.”

i believe that there are behaviors that we call moral — but we only think that they are moral because they are beneficial to us.

i happen to be a westerner — someone of european descent — so i happen to favor western civilization. so, any behaviors that promote and preserve western civilization i happen to think are good — some might say moral. other peoples who aren’t westerners, tho, might say the behaviors i approve of are immoral.

i don’t believe that there is an objective morality, but like i said, i could be wrong. (^_^)

29. @chillingworth – “We don’t do empirical experiments in art or literature, either. We do, perhaps, ‘prove’ things in philosophy, but in a very different sense, or at least a very different way, from how we prove things in the sciences, don’t we? Philosophy is very different from science. So is theology—not less useful or less real, but different.”

well, i actually think all of those disciplines should just be sub-disciplines of biology. (~_^) i joke a bit, but mostly i mean that. any study about humanity is really just biology.

(of course, biology should just be a sub-discipline of chemistry … which should just be a sub-discipline of physics ….)

30. @chillingworth – “But we also have some independent (at least independent to some extent) power of choice, and some independent power of reason, don’t we?”

i’m not sure about that. almost everything i read coming out of neuroscience suggests that we do not. have a look at youarenotsosmart.com for a start. (^_^)

31. @chillingworth – “I think Calvin and Hobbes was probably the best comic strip ever.”

yeah, i love calvin and hobbes! absolutely brilliant! i pulled my gravatar from this video which just cracks me up! (^_^)

i also identify quite a bit with hobbes’ trouble-maker side — the side that would like to pounce and rough-and-tumble with calvin. i feel my personality is a bit like that. (~_^)

32. @HBD Chick
Your views are a lot like mine! However, I cannot see that the division between genes and memes has been mentioned. I believe it was Richard Dawkins who first came up with this division, and I think that this is a great way to explain the things regarding human behavior that cannot be easily explained by genes and instincts. I mean, if I dance in a certain manner around a camp fire together with other members of my tribe, or cut down a tree an put it in my living room for Christmas, it must first of all be seen as an example of “monkey see, monkey do”. I may have an instinct that urges me to do what other members of my tribe do – but the exact things they are doing, and may have been doing for generations, those I guess you can describe as memes.

The question was asked up here somewhere whether or not science would be possible without free minds. I think yes. I believe that back in those glorious days of hunting mammoths, as the brain, for some reason (maybe the need for language or tool making skills?), evolved and got ever bigger and badder, a brain appeared that was complex enough to start asking itself this question: “Why the hell do we really do this all the time? What’s the point? Where does it all come from? Where does the mammoth come from? Where do the mountains come from? Where do I come from?! Did someone create all this stuff?” Of course, the hominid who carried this brain, the very first philosopher, did not manage to come up with answers that would impress a modern listener, but at least I guess you could say that he started something big. It is a good thing that he reproduced! What I am trying to say is that, when hominids got smart enough to start asking “why”, it was just an inevitable sideeffect to the ongoing evolutionary process that made them better and better at finding answers to the question of “how” (how make better clubs and spears, etc.). I’m just thinking this up right now, but I think it makes some sense. How about you?

33. I finally got around to reading this colossal comment thread (at least one comment had a familiar feel, though), so I decided that I’d pile a bit more on it.

As a rather young agnostic atheist who has not read much C.S. Lewis, I would say that in broad strokes, I agree with hbd chick in this discussion. What I would like to add is that there are some flaws in Galton’s notion of contrasting the contributions of nature and nurture and that morality is one of the areas where they are manifest.

I see morality as a strategy…both a group strategy and the strategy of an individual within a group. It is a complex strategy and like many such strategies, it is not entirely encoded into our genes. However, it would be a mistake to deny the central role that biology plays in making it possible. Specific moral codes (and there are many–while they often share broad characteristics, there is no highly specific objective moral code that every society follows) are cultural artifacts and must be learned from parents, peers, or other members of a society. However, it is worth noting that this is in a large part because humans are cultural creatures and one of the

Systems of morality are broadly very similar across different societies because humans generally are very similar to each other in their basic psychology and the strategic landscape that different societies and different individuals within those societies face is also broadly similar. To be more specific, the issues that morality deals with are mostly interactions with other people. Since, despite much variation in specific forms, societies generally consist of a collection of individuals who share cultural norms and who must also at times interact with societies that do not share the same norms, the successful strategies that survive the test of time are bound to be broadly similar.

That said, given that morality is a strategy rather that merely a list of correct and incorrect behaviors based upon an objective standard, there is a fair amount of variation between the moral practices of a Ya̧nomamö tribesman and those of C.S. Lewis. There’s even variation within what we would consider to be one society, such as between a liberal urbanite in Manhattan and a rural conservative in upstate New York.

Now, I will admit some tension in my beliefs. I do not believe that a form of objective morality exists. However, I do believe that a moral system is more effective if everyone within a society believes it to be universal. That is, I think that the incorrect belief that there is an objective morality is an adaptive one if held by a majority within a society because it allows for a common moral currency and an orderly handling of issues of moral dispute. Much as it is difficult for two individuals with contradicting worldviews to communicate their ideas to one another clearly, it is also difficult for two individuals with drastically different moral beliefs to resolve their disputes in an orderly and amicable manner.

As to the question of the theory of evolution (by means of natural selection), the reason that it is so often used as a bludgeon against the religious is that it provides an alternate explanation to traditional religious creation narratives, and one that does not require the existence of a deity to operate. It is true that the existence of such a narrative, even one so well supported as the modern theory of evolution, does not provide any direct evidence against the existence of God. However, as an alternative to an empirically inferior narrative that does require the existence of a deity, it serves as an indirect set of evidence.

The further replacement of other religious narratives by more empirically robust accounts and the observation that attempted logical arguments for the existence of a deity tend to be bedeviled by logical flaws (though obviously, it is difficult to claim the non-existence of such an argument without logical error without claiming to have knowledge of all such arguments) makes the case for the existence of a deity look quite weak.

Given that the empirically strongest narratives concerning the state of the Universe do not require the existence of a deity, the strongest evidence of one’s existence would be the widespread belief in one among humans. However, a close inspection reveals that this belief is nowhere near universal and much of it is historically contingent rather than deriving from a reliable method of finding truth. For all these reasons, I don’t include the existence of any such deity in my working models and narratives of the Universe, which makes me an atheist, albeit one who acknowledges that there can be no definitive proof that no such being exists and that there is much I do not know and could easily be mistaken in this view.

34. @r.a. – “I do not believe that a form of objective morality exists. However, I do believe that a moral system is more effective if everyone within a society believes it to be universal. That is, I think that the incorrect belief that there is an objective morality is an adaptive one if held by a majority within a society because it allows for a common moral currency and an orderly handling of issues of moral dispute.”

i agree that a moral system — and religious belief, too — works better if everyone in a society thinks it’s universal.

otoh, i think that a society comprised only of people like me — i.e. pretty rational (as far as that goes) and not-too-dumb — would work well, also. you don’t need to believe that there is an objective morality to behave morally (which i think is largely inherited with some cultural learning).

i look forward to the day when i can mass clone myself and set up a new nation on some remote island somewhere. (~_^)

35. i think i’ve kinda made this clear, but just in case i haven’t — i am not a reluctant apostate. i don’t believe and i have not done s0 for quite some time now and i’ve never had any qualms about it instinct-wise. i am a natural-born atheist. (~_^) i never feel any doubts — i just acknowledge that i might be wrong. (and the neurotic thing, too.)

36. i think i’ve kinda made this clear, but just in case i haven’t — i am not a reluctant apostate. i don’t believe and i have not done s0 for quite some time now and i’ve never had any qualms about it instinct-wise. i am a natural-born atheist. (~_^) i never feel any doubts — i just acknowledge that i might be wrong. (and the neurotic thing, too.)

Well, by those criteria, I don’t think that I qualify as a reluctant apostate either. I just created a post (which I should have done shortly after creating my blog) explaining what I was thinking when I created my pseudonym.

37. @r.a. – “I just created a post (which I should have done shortly after creating my blog) explaining what I was thinking when I created my pseudonym.”

cool! i’ll have to stop by (prolly this evening).