• On the Road

Last year Edge received an invitation from Juan Insua, Director of Kosmpolis, a traditional literary festival in Barcelona, to stage an event at Kosmopolis 05 as part of an overall program "that ranges from the lasting light of Cervantes to the (ambiguous) crisis of the book format, from a literary mapping of Barcelona's Raval district to the dilemma raised by the influence of the Internet in the kitchen of writing, from the emergence of a new third culture humanism to the diverse practices that position literature at the core of urban creativity."

Marc D. HauserLee Smolin

Robert Trivers

Eduard Punset — Redes-TV


Click for information on "Darwin Y La Tercera Cultura" on Redes TV

Click here for a 2-minute tv clip

Las nuevas lecturas del 'Quijote' copan los actos de Kosmopolis

Israel Punzano — Barcelona
EL PAÍS - Cultura - 04-12-2005

Cervantes was not the the only protagonist of the second day of Kosmopolis. Also debated was the influence of Darwin's theory of the natural selection in the advances of diverse scientific disciplines, that include evolutionary biology to neuroscience to cosmology. In this colloquy, which also covered the future of the humanism, were the cosmologist Lee Smolin, the biologist Robert Trivers and the neurocientist Marc Hauser. The presentation of the event was Eduard Punset and the moderator was John Brockman, who is know for spreading scientific publications. Smolin emphasized the importance of the investigations of Darwin in the later development of Einstein's theory of the relativity and wondered if we were prepared to accept a world without absolute laws, where everything changes. Hauser pointed out that the revolution of Darwin's revolution was also about morality, as it counters the rationality of Kant and the predominance of emotions in Hume.

Brockman: "Hoy la cultura es la ciencia, los intelectuales de letras estan desfasados"
Justo Barranco — 05/12/2005 — Barcelona

"The thinkers of the third culture are the new public intellectuals" as "science is the only news"... "Nobody voted the electricity, the Internet, the birth control pill, or for fire. "The great inventions that change everything involves technology based on science "... "It is critical to participate in the discussion of such questions today as the culture is science." 

La tercera cultura en Kosmopolis
John Brockman
EL PAÍS - 05-12-2005

In terms of science, the third culture is front and center: geneticist J. Craig Venter is attempting to create synthetic genes as an answer to our energy needs; biologist Robert Trivers is exploring the evolutionary basis for deceit and self-deception in human nature; biologist Ian Wilmut, who cloned Dolly the sheep, is using nuclear transfer to produce embryonic stem cells for research purposes and perhaps eventually as cures for disease; cosmologist Lee Smolin researches the Darwinian evolution of universes; quantum physicist Seth Lloyd is attempting to build quantum computers; psychologist Marc D. Hauser is examining our moral minds; and computer scientists Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google are radically altering both the way we search for information, as well as the way we think.

Kosmopolis, literatura a la ultima
Eva Belmonte
December 3, 2005

Kosmopolis 2005. Celebration of International of Literature in the Center of Contemporanea Culture of Barcelona (CCCB).

...The relation between science and the third culture was another one of the subjects of debate of this Celebration of Literature. Four personalities of the scientific world participated in the Third Culture event. They are Robert Trivers, John Brockman, Marc Hauser and Lee Smolin. They demonstrated that Literature is not is not just the province of the old school of the humanities culture.

Can a person be considered cultured today with only slight knowledge of fields such as molecular biology, artificial intelligence, chaos theory, fractals, biodiversity, nanotechnology or the human genome?  Can we construct a proposal of universal knowledge without such knowledge?  The integration of  "literary culture" and "scientific culture" is the basis for what some call the "third culture":  a source of metaphors that renews not only the language, but also the conceptual tookit of classic humanism
The New Humanists 

A polifacética figure
Brockman and the New Intellectuals 
"Science won the battle"
"¿Qué queda del marxismo? ¿Qué queda de Freud? La neurociencia le ha dejado como una superstición del siglo XVIII, de ideas irrelevantes"


...there is a deep relation between Einstein's notion that everything is just a network of relations and Darwin's notion because what is an ecological community but a network of individuals and species in relationship which evolve?  There's no need in the modern way of talking about biology for any absolute concepts for any things that were always true and will always be true.—Lee Smolin

...what I'm interested in is how science can now come together with moral philosophy and do some interesting work at the overlap areas.  This is not to say that science takes over philosophy, by no means.  It works together with philosophy, to figure out what the deep issues are, what the overlapping areas are, and how we can meet together.—Marc D. Hauser

I believe that self-deception evolves in the service of deceit.  That is, that the major function of self-deception is to better deceive others.  Both make it harder for others to detect your deception, and also allow you to deceive with less immediate cognitive cost.  So if I'm lying to you now about something you actually care about, you might pay attention to my shifty eyes if I'm consciously lying, or the quality of my voice, or some other behavioral cue that's associated with conscious knowledge of deception and nervousness about being detected.  But if I'm unaware of the fact that I'm lying to you, those avenues of detection will be unavailable to you. —Robert Trivers


Last year Edge received an invitation from Juan Insua, Director of Kosmpolis, a traditional literary festival in Barcelona, to stage an event at Kosmopolis 05 as part of an overall program "that ranges from the lasting light of Cervantes to the (ambiguous) crisis of the book format, from a literary mapping of Barcelona's Raval district to the dilemma raised by the influence of the Internet in the kitchen of writing, from the emergence of a new third culture humanism to the diverse practices that position literature at the core of urban creativity."

Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new focuses that lead to our questioning of many of our foundations. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in physics, information technology, genetics, neurobiology, engineering, the chemistry of materials: all are questions of capital importance with respect to what it means to be human.

Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution through natural selection are central to many of these scientific advances. Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist, Marc D. Hauser, a cognitive neuroscientist, and Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist, travelled to Barcelona last October to explain how the common thread of Darwinian evolution has led them to new advances in their respective fields.

The evening was presented by Eduard Punset, host of the internationally-viewed Spanish-language science television program Redes, and a best-selling author in Spain. A Redes television program based on the event was broadcast throughout Spain and Latin America.

The house was packed. The Barcelona press was present (see El PaisLa VanguardiaEl PaisEl Mundo, and a cover story in "Culturas", the magazine fo La Vanguardia).

I believe that self-deception evolves in the service of deceit.  That is, that the major function of self-deception is to better deceive others.  Both make it harder for others to detect your deception, and also allow you to deceive with less immediate cognitive cost.  So if I'm lying to you now about something you actually care about, you might pay attention to my shifty eyes if I'm consciously lying, or the quality of my voice, or some other behavioral cue that's associated with conscious knowledge of deception and nervousness about being detected.  But if I'm unaware of the fact that I'm lying to you, those avenues of detection will be unavailable to you.


(ROBERT TRIVERS:) Why do I talk about, or wish to talk about, deception and self-deception in the same breath?  Because I think you miss the truth about each if you are not conscious of the other and the relationship between the two.  If by deception you only think of conscious deception, where you're planning to lie or aware of the fact that you're lying, you will miss all the lying that goes on that the individual is unaware of, and this may be the larger portion of lies and deception that is going on. 

Conversely, if you think about self-deception without comprehending its connection with deception, then I think you'll miss the major function of self-deception.  In particular, you'll be tempted to go the route that psychology went a hundred years ago or so and think of self-deception as defensive: I'm defending my tender ego, I'm defending my weak psyche.  And you will not see the offensive characteristic of self-deception. 

What do I mean by that?  I mean that I believe that self-deception evolves in the service of deceit.  That is, that the major function of self-deception is to better deceive others.  Both make it harder for others to detect your deception, and also allow you to deceive with less immediate cognitive cost.  So if I'm lying to you now about something you actually care about, you might pay attention to my shifty eyes if I'm consciously lying, or the quality of my voice, or some other behavioral cue that's associated with conscious knowledge of deception and nervousness about being detected.  But if I'm unaware of the fact that I'm lying to you, those avenues of detection will be unavailable to you. 

Regarding the second argument, it is intrinsically difficult, and mentally demanding, to lie and be conscious about it.  The more complex in detail the lie—the longer you have to keep it up—the more costly cognitively.  I believe that selection favors rendering a portion of the lie unconscious, or much of the knowledge of it unconscious, so as to reduce the immediate cognitive cost.  That is, with self-deception you'll perform better cognitively on unrelated tasks that you might have to do moments later than if you had just undergone a lot of consciously mediated deception.

Let me step back and say a word or two about the underlying logic. First of all, we understand that if we are making an evolutionary argument in terms of natural selection, we are talking about benefits to individuals in terms of the propagation of their own genes, and there are innumerable opportunities in nature to gain a benefit by deceiving another. 

However, the reverse is true for the deceived. 

The deceived is typically losing knowledge or resources or whatever, resulting in a decrease in the propagation of their genes.  So you have what we call a co-evolutionary struggle: with natural selection improving deception on the one hand, and improving the ability to spot deception on the other.

Now let me just say that deception is a very deep feature of nature. At all levels, all interactions, e.g. viruses and bacteria often use deception to get inside you. They may mimic your own cell surface proteins.  They may have other tricks to deceive your system into not recognizing them as alien and worthy of attack.  Even genes inside yourself, which propagate themselves selfishly during meiosis may do so by mimicking particular sub-sections of other genes so as to get copied an extra time, even though the rest of the genome, if you asked their opinion, would be against this extra copying.

When you turn to insects and larger creatures like those, we know that in relations between species, again there's a huge and rich world of deception.  Considering insects alone: they will mimic harmless objects so as to avoid detection by their predators.  Or they will mimic poisonous or distasteful objects to avoid being eaten.  Or they will mimic a predator of their predator, so as to frighten away their predator.  Or, in one case, they will mimic the predator that's trying to eat them, so that the predator misinterprets them as a member of their own species and gives them territorial display instead of eating them.

They will even, I have to tell you, mimic the feces, or droppings, of their predators.  That's so common it has a technical term in the literature, forgive me, "shit mimics".  And they come in all varieties and sizes.  There are moths that look like the splash variety of a bird dropping.  And you can understand from the bird's standpoint, you might have a strong supposition that this is a butterfly or a moth, but you'd be unwilling to put it to the test—especially if you have to use your beak to put it to a test.

Now when you turn to relations within species, you find a rich world that we're uncovering now of deception also.  To give you two quick examples.  Warning cries have evolved in many contexts to warn others of danger.  But they can be used in new and deceitful contexts.  For example you can give a warning cry in order to grab an item of food from another individual.  The individual's startled and runs for cover, you grab the food. You can give a warning cry when your offspring are at each other's throats—they run to cover and then you separate them and protect them from each other.  It has even been described that you can give a warning call when you see your mate near a prospective lover—get them dashing to safety, and then you intervene. 

In this continually co-evolving struggle regarding truth and falsehood, if you will, there are situations in other creatures as well as ourselves where we have to make tight evaluations of each others' motive in an aggressive encounter.  I'm lining up against Marc Hauser; how confident is he of himself?  I'm courting someone; the woman is looking at me; how confident am I of myself?  And so on.  That allows misrepresentation of these kinds of psychological variables and you can see how self-deception can start coming in.  Be more confident than you have grounds to be confident and be unconscious of that bias, the better to manipulate others.

Once you have language, that greatly increases the opportunity for both deception and self-deception.  We spend a lot of time with each other pushing various theories of reality, which are often biased towards our own interests but sold as being generally useful and true.

Let me just mention a little bit of evidence—and of course there's a huge amount of evidence regarding self-deception, from everyday life, from study of politics and history, autobiography, et cetera.  But I just want to talk about some of the scientific evidence in psychology. There's a whole branch of social psychology that's devoted to our tendencies for self-inflation.  If you ask students how many of them think they're in the top half of the class in terms of leadership ability, 80 percent say they are.  But if you turn to their professors and ask them how many think they're in the top half of their profession, 94 percent say they are. 

And people are often unconscious of some of the mechanisms that naturally occur in them in a biased way.  For example, if I do something that is beneficial to you or to others, I will use the active voice: I did this, I did that, then benefits rained down on you.  But if I did something that harmed others, I unconsciously switch to a passive voice: this happened, then that happened, then unfortunately you suffered these costs. One example I always loved was a man in San Francisco who ran into a telephone pole with his car, and he described it to the police as, "the pole was approaching my car, I attempted to swerve out of the way, when it struck me". 

Let me give you another, the way in which group membership can entrain language-usages that are self-deceptive. You can divide people into in-groups or out-groups, or use naturally occurring in-groups and out-groups, and if someone's a member of your in-group and they do something nice, you give a general description of it—"he's a generous person".  If they do something negative, you state a particular fact: "in this case he misled me", or something like that.  But it's exactly the other way around for an out-group member.  If an out-group member does something nice, you give a specific description of it: "she gave me directions to where I wanted to go".  But if she does something negative, you say, "she's a selfish person".  So these kinds of manipulations of reality are occurring largely unconsciously, in a way that's perhaps similar to what Marc Hauser in his talk was saying about morality.

A new world of the neurophysiology of deceit and self-deception is emerging. For example, it has been shown that consciously directed forgetting can produce results a month later and they are achieved by a particular area of the prefrontal cortex (normally associated with initiating motor responses or overcoming cognitive obstacles) suppressing activity in the hippocomapus, the brain region in which memories are stored. So there is clear evidence that one part of the brain has been co-opted in evolution to serve the function of personal information suppression within self.

What I want to turn to very briefly is the relationship between self-deception and war.  Now war, in the sense of battles between large numbers of soldiers, is an evolutionarily very recent phenomenon.  A raid, where you run over to another group, kill off a number of individuals, and run back, is something we share with chimpanzees.  And that has a long history and is much more likely to be constrained by rational considerations. 

But warfare as we experience it now is a ten thousand, (plus or minus a few thousand) year old phenomenon.  Not an awful lot of time for selection.  And not much selection necessarily on those who start the wars.  There may be a lot of selection in the civilian population or the soldiers, but it's not necessarily true that those who start stupid wars end up with as as great a decrease in surviving offspring (and other kin) as one would have wished. 

Wars also tempt us easily to self-deception for other reasons.  There is often very little overlap in self-interest between your group and another group, in contrast to activities within the group.  There is also low feedback from members of an outside group.  There's greater ignorance. 

And so war is a particular situation where self-deception is expected to be both especially prominent and especially harmful in its general effects.

Let us use the most recent war—the current war launched by my own country, the United States in 2003 against the country of Iraq—to see one simple illustration of how deceit and self-deception is a useful concept in thinking about war. It has been said that the first casualty of war is the truth, but we know regarding the Iraq war that the truth was dead long before this war started.  We know the thing was conceived and promulgated based on a lie.  The predator, the U.S., saw an opportunity to leap on a prey, and decided almost immediately, within days of 9/11, and certainly within a couple of months, to prepare and launch this war.

Now what's the significance of that fact?  Well, one significance of it is, psychologists have shown, very nicely I think, for 20 years now, that when we are considering an option—whether to marry Susan, or to go to the University of Bologna instead of Barcelona, or whatnot—we are much more rational, we weigh options, and we are even, if anything, slightly depressed.  But once we decide which way to go, we act as if we want all the cells in our body rowing in the same direction.  If it's Susan we're going to marry, we don't want to hear about Maria or some of Susan's less desirable side.  If it's Barcelona we're going to, that's the best university to go to and to hell with Bologna. 

Now the point about this war is that there was no period of rational discussion of the pluses and minuses. The United States decided—at least a small cabal within it, including the President, decided—to go to war almost instantaneously. They immediately went into the implementation stage—your mood goes up, you downplay the negatives—after all, you have made your decision—and you do not wish to hear contrary opinions. Especially you do not wish to hear contrary opinions if the real reasons for going to war can not be revealed and the whole public pretense is a lie.

Thus, all planning for the aftermath was dismissed because it greatly increased the apparent expense and difficulty and suggested greatly diminished gains from the endeavor. This, of course, implicitly called into question the entire enterprise, so rational planning was dismissed. And witness the dread effects, a continuing bloodbath unleashed on an innocent population.

One other comment: self-deception can not only get you into disastrous situations, but then it gives you a second reward and that is, it deprives you of the ability to deal with the disaster once it's in front of you.  And what could be more dramatic than what happened in the first month after the U.S. arrived in Baghdad—the complete looting of the country, 20 billion dollars of resources destroyed, priceless cultural heritage destroyed—all of that and the U.S. sat around and sucked its thumb.  Did nothing to deal with it.  And has been dealing with an escalating disaster ever since.  A blood-letting of dreadful proportions, and still blind about what to do.

Well, I'll just summarize these thoughts by saying that there's good news and there's bad news.  The good news is, we do have it in our grasp at last to develop a scientific theory of deceit and self-deception, integrating all kinds of information, but at least sticking this phenomenon out in front of ourselves and studying it objectively.  The bad new is that the forces we're dealing with—that is, of deceit and self-deception—are very powerful.

ROBERT TRIVERS' scientific work has concentrated on two areas, social theory based on natural selection and the biology of selfish genetic elements. He is the author of Social Evolution, Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers; and coauthor (with Austin Burt) of Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements. He was cited in a special Time issue as one of the 100 greatest thinkers and scientists of the 20th Century.

Robert Trivers's Edge Bio Page

...there is a deep relation between Einstein's notion that everything is just a network of relations and Darwin's notion because what is an ecological community but a network of individuals and species in relationship which evolve?  There's no need in the modern way of talking about biology for any absolute concepts for any things that were always true and will always be true.


(LEE SMOLIN:) I'm a theoretical physicist, and I'm here to talk about natural selection and Darwin.  The main thing that I'll have to communicate is why somebody who thinks about what the laws of nature are has something to say about Darwin and the impact and the role of Darwin in our contemporary thinking over all fields. 

But as a way of getting into that, I want to say something—and you're going to hate me for this—about John.  When John talks about the Third Culture, what he has done, besides create the idea, is create a group of people.  I don't know if it's a community, there are very close friendships in it, many of which—in my case they are with people whom I met through John.  This conversation that he talks about is a real conversation, which, at least as far as I know, was not happening and would not be happening were it not for John. 

I think it is not so usual that John appears with the people whom he talks about and writes about and it is wonderful to be here with him.  So I wanted to say ‘thank you' publicly because when I started to think about Darwinism, I didn't know any biologists and I didn't know any psychologists—the academic world is very narrow—and I didn't know any artists or digerati.  It is because of this involvement that I met many of the people I admired and whose work has inspired me. 
Now I want to make a claim and my claim is that while Darwin's ideas are certainly completely absorbed and verified within biology, the whole impact of Darwin's ideas is as still yet to be absorbed and felt and the impact is going to happen in my field of theoretical physics and cosmology and I see it happening in other fields –mathematics, social fields, and so forth.  Also I want to make a hypothesis about why—and I'll speak about my field because I don't have any rights to speak about another field, but I think the resonances and the similarities are there. 

In my field, two things happened in the 20th century that we're absorbing.  One of them is Einstein and the revolution of physics started by Einstein, both relativity theory and quantum theory. And I'm going to claim in my brief time—I'm not going to have time to fully justify—that the main development and the main meaning of Einstein's contribution is closely related to the main meaning of Darwin's contribution.  At least I'll say why in a few minutes.

The other thing that's happened in my field, and this has been accelerating really for the last five years—I can't see the audience, so I don't know if any of my friends who are physicists here in Barcelona are here in the audience, but I think they will agree that a very strange thing has happened to our field, which is that we used to think that the purpose of theoretical physics was to understand what the laws of nature are—to learn the laws of nature—and we're not done with that.  But what we've discovered on the way is that we really have to answer a different question—and for our field a very new question—which is, why these laws and not other laws? 

I don't actually believe it's going to work all the way through, but the most successful approach to putting all the laws together and unifying physics is string theory and in the last few years we've learned that there are an infinite number of these theories, and the best we can do looking for a unified theory so far is to have an infinite list of theories, one of which might describe our universe.  So the question has gone from, what are the laws? to, why these laws and not other laws?  Now I think that the only rational way to approach that question is through Darwin's thinking, that is, through evolution by natural selection. 

If  I had been an educated person rather than a narrowly-educated person in science, I would have known the quotation that I'm going to read to you, which is from the 1890s from the American philosopher Charles Pierce, who was one of the founders of the philosophical school called ‘pragmatism.'  Already in the 1890s he was worrying about the question of, why these laws, which shows that sometimes philosophers really are a century ahead of the scientists. 

He wrote—and I'll read it slowly so that a translator can get it:

"To suppose universal laws of nature capable of being apprehended by the mind and yet having no reason for their special forms but standing inexplicable and irrational is hardly a justifiable position."  He's saying, it's not enough to know what the laws are, you want to ask why these laws, and just to say ‘these are the laws, tough,' is irrational and unjustifiable. He says: "Uniformities are precisely the sorts of facts that need to be accounted for.  Law is par excellence the thing that wants a reason."  And now here his thesis is this: "The only possible way of accounting for the laws of nature, and for uniformity in general, is to suppose them the results of evolution."  By which, from the context, we know it's evolution by natural selection because he was fully absorbing the impact of Darwinism and that's a lot of what his philosophy and the American Pragmatists' philosophy was about.

In my own work, I began to worry about this problem about 15 years ago—why these laws and not other laws—and I went looking for a method to attack that problem because there's another side to that problem, which is that the laws we happen to have are very special.  The laws we happen to have have a number of free constants that can be freely adjusted and about 25 years ago, Martin Rees and colleagues—these are great cosmologists and astrophysicists—began to realize that if you varied these numbers—these numbers refer to things like the mass of the elementary particles, the mass of the electron, the mass of the proton, the strengths of the different forces—the world we live in would fall apart. 

Imagine that the universe can be set up by a dial—by a machine with a set of dials where you dial these constants.  If you go away—in any direction—from the settings of the dials that we have, there's no more stars, there's no more hundred-something nuclei which are stable, there is just hydrogen. There's no structure, there's no energy, the world is just dead internal equilibrium. 

So the fact that we live in a world which is as complex as it is, which has stars that live for billions of years, which enables life to evolve on planets, which is a process that takes hundreds of millions to billions of years, is due to these constants being finely-tuned—the dials being precisely tuned.  They were worried by that and most of the people who found it are sort of liberal British Anglicans, and they have an answer that vaguely has something to do with God, or is something which is logically equivalent to God.  And I was disturbed by that, and was looking for an alternative which would be a scientific explanation of how the dials got turned. 

At about that time, somebody gave me a book by Richard Dawkins and I started to read it and it opened up my eyes to the kinds of explanations which are possible in biology. I copied it and I made a little cosmological theory that I don't have time to tell you about, but I might in the discussion discuss, in which these dials get tuned by a process which is just like natural selection. 

It works better than the theory that it was made by God or is logically equivalent to made-by-God in that—and I think that this is characteristic of biology and Darwinian thought/Darwinism—The process of natural selection produces not just what we see, but a whole very complicated set of interrelations among the different species and among the individuals of the species which leads to predictions that these guys can test.  Similarly, the style of Darwinian thought and cosmology and physics has led to predictions that we could test.  That impressed me very deeply and I started to look into it more and, as I started to look into it more, I began to see a connection with what really was the field I was trained in, which is relativity and quantum theory. 

Roughly speaking the connection is the following—and I'm just going to say some key words and define them and key statements and then, if people want, I can elaborate on it—What did Einstein do, in one sentence?  Before Einstein—and what this has to do with is the nature of space and the nature of time—physics, which was based on Newton's physics, was formulated the following way: there's a fixed absolute space, it's eternal, it goes on forever, it was always there, and particles come and move around in this space, and they have all their properties defined with respect to that space. 

The space never changes.  Similarly, time is absolute, flows whether anything's happening or not, the same way: in a certain sense, space and time are outside the phenomena that we observe and prior to it.  And Newton believed that for a good reason, which is, he believed that space was really God's way of sensing his creation. These were really theological ideas for Newton and they became how people did science.

Einstein replaced that with another idea, which is much more common-sense, which is that what space is is a system of relations amongst things in the world.  Where this pen is in space is not some absolute thing that only God can see, it's where it is relative to the glass, the bottle, Mark here, and so forth.  So space has no meaning apart from a network of relationships and time is nothing but change in that network of relationships.  And that was an idea that some philosophers—of course we scientists don't pay attention to philosophers, I said—but some philosophers, like Leibnitz and Mach had been arguing for against the success of Newton's physics.

But it was Einstein who first took these ideas and made them into science, and made them into science which, as far as we know, is true, is much better science than the previous Newton science. So the changes from a world in which things exist against an absolute preexisting framework to a world which is nothing but a network of relations, where change is nothing but change in those relations.

Now here's something that's fascinating: we draw pictures in our work—when I work on the theory of space-time and quantum space—we draw pictures which are networks of relations and how they change in time and our pictures look just like pictures of ecological networks that these people study.  Or the Internet.  Or networks of people in interaction, in social interaction.  And we began to notice that: why do our pictures look the same as these pictures from biology and social theory and the Internet and so forth?  I think the reason is that there is a deep relation between Einstein's notion that everything is just a network of relations and Darwin's notion because what is an ecological community but a network of individuals and species in relationship which evolve?  There's no need in the modern way of talking about biology for any absolute concepts for any things that were always true and will always be true.

That what I think is important about Darwin and, again, why I think that it's closely related to Einstein's ideas.  It's just the start of what I hope is a conversation.

Let me close by saying what's the scariest idea for me because these are really revolutionary ideas and that means that they're scary to those of us who think about them. We look forward to the generation to whom they will not be scary, which will mean that the revolution is over and we can go and have fun—not that we don't have fun, but they can take over. 

The scary thing is that if the laws evolve, what does that really mean?  If what we're used to thinking of as laws which are absolutely true, true for all time—the phrase 'God-given' comes to mind because that's how the founders of modern physics like Newton thought about them. If laws instead become, as Pierce said, explainable through a process of evolution, then that means time is very real, in a way that it is not in other representations of physics. 

But it's also very scary because we're used to thinking of laws as absolute and if laws evolve, then at least I and the people I work with get very confused.  What does it mean?  Is there nothing? What is guiding the evolution?  Are there just other laws, which you guys don't have to worry about because you have our laws to hold things steady, but when our laws start to evolve, is there anything under anything / everything?  Or is it possible that people in the future, when this revolution that Einstein started is over, will be perfectly comfortable living in a world described the philosopher Pierce in which there is nothing to laws but this temporary momentary result of an on-going process of evolution.

LEE SMOLIN, a theoretical physicist, is the founding member and research physicist at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo Canada. He is the author of The Life of The Cosmos, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, and the recently published The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next.

Lee Smolin's Edge Bio Page

...what I'm interested in is how science can fuse with and energize moral philosophy to create some powerful new ideas and findings at the interface.  This is not to say that science will take over philosophy.  It this new enterprise works at all it will be through a deep collaboration, working to find out the origins of our moral judgments, and how they figure in our ethical decisions and moral institutions.


(MARC D. HAUSER:) I want to echo one of Lee's comments about John, and say thanks for a slightly different, but related reason. What I believe John has allowed many of us to do, which is exciting, is to communicate our passion to a broader audience, escaping academia to exchange with interested professionals and others from a broader slice of mental life.  This not only enriches understanding at a broader level, but also allows for a more interesting dialog. So thank you John.

Today, I want to engage you in a game that I hope will bring to life my thinking in the last few years.  Here is the game: I want you to turn to your neighbor and pair up into a team—okay, you're a pair now.  Please pair off with somebody.  One of you will be designated the donor in this game and the other person is the receiver.  Please chose a role, either donor or receiver.  Please pair of as  I really need your data, I'm an experimentalist.  Okay, here is the game.  It's going to be played once.  I'm giving— play along with me—each donor ten euros. The game starts in the following way: the donor is going to turn to the receiver and offer some proportion of that ten euros—one, two, up to ten.  The receiver will respond by either accepting the offer or rejecting it.  If the receiver accepts, he or she gets what was offered and the donor gets what's left; if the receiver rejects, nobody gets any money.  So now, donor, make an offer to the receiver, and receiver, respond.

Okay.  Let me collect some of the data by asking you to raise your in hands in the following way: of the donors, how many offered between one and three euros?  Raise you hands.  How many offered between four and six euros?  How many offered between 7 and 10?  Only a few very generous people, and most of you offered in the four to six range.  Now, how many of the receivers rejected their offers?  Keep your hands up—of those with your hands up, how many of you got offers of one to three euros?  One to three euros?  Small numbers?  Small offer?  How much were you offered?  Uno.  Okay, good.  Now what I want you to do with me is, think through the logic of the game as if you were an economist.  If you were trying to maximize your returns, donors should have given the lowest offers possible, and they should have been thinking that the receivers should accept any offer, because one euro is certainly better than zero euros.  You didn't have anything to begin with, so one's better than nothing; two's better than nothing; and so is three.

But it turns out that when this game is played, in many many different countries, the typical offer is exactly in the range seen here: about 4, 5, or 6 euros—it's much more than if you were trying to maximize your own returns.  And yet we seem to make this calculation very quickly, spontaneously, almost without thinking.  That's example number one. Keep in mind.

Here's example number two. I want you to imagine that you are watching a train moving down a track, out of control.  It's lost its breaks.  If the train continues, it will hit and kill five people.  But you are standing next to the train tracks, and you can flip a switch and turn that train onto a sidetrack, where there's one person.  Now the train will kill that one person.  Here's the question: is it permissible—morally permissible—for you to flip the switch, causing the train to kill one but save five.  If you think yes, raise your hand.  If you think no, raise your hand. Ok, most of you think it is permissible.

Now, second example: here comes that train again, it's going to kill the five if it keeps going. You are standing next to a very heavy, fat person, and you can throw them onto the tracks, killing them, but the train will stop before the five.  Is it morally permissible to throw the fat person?  Yes?  We've lost half of you!  Or more.  Okay, what happened?  Why do so many of you switch from a permissible to a forbidden judgment?

Here is the idea that I want to give you tonight, in the next few minutes.  There has been a long history—a very old tradition—about the sources of our moral judgments.  Where do they come from?  Many moral philosophers, legal scholars, think that the way that we deliver a moral judgment, like you just did, comes from reasoning. It comes from thinking about the principles, maybe utilitarian (more saved is better than less saved).  You work through the principles in a conscious, reasonable, rational way.  This was certainly a view that someone like Kant was very much in favor of; how you deliberate with your moral judgments.  Now opposing that view — diametrically opposed — was a view that dates back at least to Hume, which is that when we give a moral judgment, we do so based on our emotions. It just feels wrong, or it feels right, to do something, and that's why we do it, that's why we say it's morally right or morally wrong.

What I want to argue for you today is that both of these views, which have dominated the entire field of moral philosophy, are wrong, at least in one particular way.  What you just did tonight is an example of why it's wrong.  You delivered those moral judgments quickly, probably without reasoning, and without consciously thinking about principles.  And if I were to ask you, as I have asked literally thousands of people, on the Internet, in small-scale societies like the Mayans and hunter-gatherers of Africa, people deliver exactly the same judgments that you did tonight, but are incapable of justifying why.  Typically they say it’s a hunch or a gut feeling.  So for example, let me illustrate by telling you about my father’s response to these cases.  He was a distinguished physicist. But I am not picking on the physicists.  When I first presented him with these moral dilemmas, the ones you just answered, he said, yes, you can flip the switch, turning the train onto the side track; he said, yes, you can push the fat man on to the train.  I said, but Dad, really?  He answered "Of course, it's still five versus one."  He was following good utilitarian guidelines. 

And now I give him case number 3.

You are a doctor in a hospital and there are five people in critical care.  Each person needs an organ to survive.  The nurse comes to the doctor and says, doctor, there's a man who has just walked into the hospital, completely healthy, coming in for a visit.  We can take his organs and save the five.  Can you do that, Dad?  He immediately replies "No, you can't just kill somebody!" I then say  "But you killed the fat man five seconds ago." He then volleys back  "Okay, you can't kill the fat man."  "But what about the switch?" I say.  Defeated, he replies "Okay, not the switch either."  And the whole thing unravels because there is not a consciously accessible set of principles that people can recall and use to justify what's going on.  And it's not based on emotion.  It's based on a calculus—that the mind has, that it evolved to solve particular kinds of moral dilemmas.  And it's not learned, either; it's there in place early in development.

If I have been sufficiently clear this far, you may have already figured out where I am going, and the connections I wish to make with another discipline.  The core of my argument for moral judgment derives from an argument that the linguist Noam Chomsky developed almost 50 years ago concerning the nature of language, its representation in the mind and its normal functioning in every human.   The idea here in a nutshell is that the way our moral sense works is very much like the way language works.  There is a universal set of moral principles that allows the establishment of a set of possible moral systems.  In this sense, perhaps this provides some convergence with what Lee said just a few seconds ago.  In the same way that you might want to ask about possible universes, I want to ask the question about possible moral systems—that the mind is constraining the range of possible variation. 

So the deep aspect of Chomsky's thinking about language, which I think is directly translatable into the way we think about morality, and the way we do the science, is by imagining that humans are equipped with, born with, a set of universal principles.  What culture can do is change things locally—like a parameter—there are switches. Once you turn something on, things can change.

Let me try to give you a concrete example of some work that a student of mine just recently did.  There's a population of people in Panama, Central America, called the Kuna Indians.  There is one part of their range that is very remote, and this is where we worked.   They live in a quite simple type of society, including small scale agriculture and fishing.  We went there recently and gave them moral dilemmas exactly like the ones you just answered.  They weren't about trolleys, they were about wild animals.  So in one example, there are crocodiles coming to eat five people in the river; you're in a canoe, you can move those crocodiles off to where they will kill one.  Is it permissible?  The Kuna said it was, virtually every single person we asked.  Here’s the second case: you can throw somebody into the river so that the crocodiles will eat him, and save the five.  Is that permissible?  No.  They're showing the same parallel system of psychology where an intended harm—using someone as a means to a greater good is less permissible than a foreseen consequence that causes the same harm.  So in the switch case of a train, you foresee the consequence, but you are not intending the harm as a means to the greater good.  The Kuna are sensitive to this distinction, but here's where the cultural aspects move in to make this case more interesting: the Kuna Indians are much more willing to say that it's permissible to throw the fat man in front of the crocodiles than we are in our society.  They have an unstated policy—a social behavior of high levels of infanticide.  Killing, as a part of society, is much more common.  And that's the way in which culture can potentially change the dynamics of how the judgment gets made.  In other words, we will see a universal principle such as the means versus side effect distinction, but culture can change how much more impermissible the means based harm is when contrasted with the foreseen side effect.

At this point this is still looking relatively abstract and theoretical and what I'm interested in is how science can fuse with and energize moral philosophy to create some powerful new ideas and findings at the interface.  This is not to say that science will take over philosophy.  It this new enterprise works at all it will be through a deep collaboration, working to find out the origins of our moral judgments, and how they figure in our ethical decisions and moral institutions.  Let me end with a few more cases to make this all a bit more concrete.

Consider a disorder that people are aware of, acutely aware of, in many societies.  It's called psychopathy—people who are known for massive killings.  They kill, often with no regret: they don't feel guilt, they don't feel shame, and they don't feel empathy.  Now people have described that as a problem of lacking any moral sense.  I think that's completely the wrong interpretation.  What psychopathy is, is a case where they have completely intact moral knowledge.  They would judge the cases I just gave you like everybody else in the room.  What makes them moral monsters is that they lack the kinds of emotions that we have to prevent them from doing horrible things. They don’t have braking emotions. On this view, emotions don’t dictate our moral judgments, but they do guide our moral behavior, how we act. We are now engaged in a collaborative project, working to actually test psychopaths, to see whether that is in fact the case. It is too early to tell, but stay tuned.

The second part of the story is to use, as John mentioned a few minutes ago, some of the modern techniques in the neurosciences where you can image the brain, attempting to understand which parts of the brain are active, how they are engaged when we come to our moral judgments, and how they resolve conflict. 

To sum up, we're in an extremely exciting phase now where a set of questions that were forever the providence of moral philosophy and law are now coming directly into contact with the sciences.  This is exciting because both areas are working together and it may have direct implications for the law, and the extent to which formal institutions like law and religion penetrate our evolved moral sense.

MARC D. HAUSER, an evolutionary psychologist and biologist, is Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Biological Anthropology, and Organismic & Evolutionary Biology, and Director of the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory. He is the author of The Evolution of Communication, Wild Minds, and the recently published Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.

Marc D. Hauser's Edge Bio Page