June 05, 2003
Draft: Altruistic Punishment And Genetic Engineering Of The Mind

One of the recurring themes on FuturePundit is that the greatest danger from human genetic engineering will come from the ability to create minds that will be dangerous or simply not compatible with the kind of societies that most of us prefer to live in. At one extreme, imagine genetically engineered minds devoid of conscience or empathy and at the same time highly calculating and ruthless in the pursuit of their own desires. Or, at a different extreme, imagine minds that so desired to fit in and to serve that they'd make ideal members of a communist collective ruled over by personalities genetically engineered to lead the masses.

The Debate About Genetic Engineering As A Threat To Human Nature

A number of commentators voice worries about human genetic engineering. Those who are opposed to the practice are afraid that something vital about human nature will be lost by genetic engineering. Some are afraid that humans will be genetically engineered to be perpetually happy and that that this happiness will somehow leave humans spiritually impoverished and deviod of the capacity to understand the deeper meaning of life. Curiously, such critics rarely seem to offer examples of how humans could be made less able to respect the rights of others. I suspect this particular danger from genetic engineering is not cited more often because the idea that humans can be made to have wildly different moral capacities and behavioral tendencies undermines the model of humans as moral actors possessed of consciences and capable of judging right from wrong according to some universal God-given standard. Well, the day is approaching in 10 or 20 years time when it will become possible to do genetic engineering of offspring in such a way that they will have different behavioral tendencies and different innate conceptions of right and wrong. Therefore we can not afford to continue to avert our gaze from the biological basis of conscience, of the tendency to form moral judgements, and of the biological foundations of human values and normative beliefs. These basic attributes of human nature already vary considerably between humans already. Genetic engineering will make these attributes more mutable in ways that constitute a substantial potential threat to the continuation of human civilization.

It seems mostly likely that there are many genes which have variations in the human population that cause people to differ in their personality characteristics. Therefore the large number of different combinations of genetic variations found in human populations contribute to the large variety of personalities and behavioral tendencies also found among humans. Because of this large existing variety of personalities one could in theory create a human population much different in average behavioral tendencies from other human population without introducing either new genes or any new genetic variations that are not already found in humans. A large change in the average of human behavior could be accomplished just by increasing the frequency of some genetic variations while decreasing the frequency of other variations which influence cognitive processes. Because there are already fairly extreme outliers in behavior and personality in the human population and since in at least some cases part of the reason for their extreme desires and behaviors is genetic it will probably not be necessary to create new genes or new variations of existing genes to use in genetic engineering that would create humans that differ considerably from the vast majority of existing humans. To get a sense of just how radically the human population could be altered without developing new genes or new genetic variations one has to look no further than the most extreme differences already existing in the existing human population.

Psychopaths Demonstrate The Danger Of Existing Extreme Human Outliers

Consider more extreme deviations from the human norm. One of the worst form of deviations from human norms of behavior is found in psychopaths.

"The murdering psychopaths showed a much more positive association to violence. Psychopaths who were not murderers had a much more negative view of violence," Gray explained.

Unrestrained by the guilt that most humans would feel from harming others psychopaths do not even appear to have memory associations that categorize violence as unpleasant.

Normally, when shown a word on the screen, people take longer to figure out which button to press when non-related words -- such as "violent" and "pleasant" -- are on the same button, Snowden said.

However, psychopathic murderers responded differently, and completed the test "as if they do not associate violence and unpleasant," Snowden said.

Will it some day be possible to genetically engineer violent psychopaths? Why not? After all, a number of non-human predator species enjoy killing and in some species in some circumstances they even kill members of their own species. Surely these behavioral traits are somehow coded for by the genomes of these species. It may well be that there are genetic variations which influence personality that predispose the existing psychopaths to be psychopaths.

You might argue that very few people will want to choose genetic variations for their children that would increase the odds that the children will be psychopaths. True enough. But these outliers in human behavior and human cognition demonstrate just how far existing human nature extends without the use of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering will make it possible to create humans whose emotional make-up will differ substantially from what we see in most humans today.

Subtle Changes In Personalities Could Cause Huge Societal Changes?

Are there changes in human nature that at first glance might strike people as less extreme and less threatening than the creation of psychopaths that could still cause huge problems for the healthy functioning of human societies? Are there changes in personality and in behavioral tendencies that people might want to give their offpsring that would have profound and negative consequences if a sufficiently large percentage of the populace opted to do genetic modification of embryos?

An accurate answer to those questions would give us a better idea of whether the ability to do genetic engineering in the embryonic stage of our future progeny could lead to disastrous consequences for the future of human civilization. One way to attempt to answer these questions is to look for evidence of characteristics of human nature that are beneficial for society, which may be genetically based, which are not equally shared by all humans, and for which we could imagine why reasons at least some prospective parents would want to modify those characteristics in their future offspring. This brings us to the topic of altruistic punishment.

A Study Of Altruistic Punishment

Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich and Simon Gächter of the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland published an interesting study "Altruistic punishment in humans" in the January 2002 issue of Nature. This study has occasioned a great deal of discussion about the implications it holds for human nature. Fehr and Gachter showed that many people will pay to punish those who do not cooperate even though the the punishers derive no other benefit from punishing aside from the satisfaction of carrying out the punishment.

In an investment game with shared profits, players punish those who do not contribute to the group's good, despite the personal cost. The emotional satisfaction of dispensing justice seems to spur them on: "People say, 'I like to punish'," says Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich.

The punishment was doled out to people who the punishers knew they would not play again. The ability to dole out punishment caused people to cooperate to mutual benefit.

Investment climbed to four times the previous level as the threat of punishment encouraged cooperation.

Researchers said that anger was the reason the players handed out punishment, even though it cost them money to do so.

"At the end of the experiment, people told us they were very angry about the free-riders," said Fehr. "Our hypothesis is that negative emotions are the driving force behind the punishment."

These people doled out punishment at cost to themselves even though one rule of the game was that players never played with other players more than once. The punishment therefore did not benefit the punisher by causing the punished person to be more cooperative toward the punisher in future rounds of the game.

In a separate series of games that Fehr and Gachter conducted where it was not possible to inflict punishment the amount of cooperation quickly declined. However, in game series where it was possible to inflict punishment on non-cooperating free riders the amount of cooperation rose in successive rounds even though each person played a completely new set of people in each round.

"It's a very important force for establishing large-scale cooperation," Dr. Fehr said in a telephone interview. "Every citizen is a little policeman in a sense. There are so many social norms that we follow almost unconsciously, and they are enforced by the moral outrage we expect if we were to violate them."

People expected to be punished based on their previous experience and they adjusted their behavior accordingly. This expectation that others would punish them even though others had nothing to gain from doling out punishment was key to increasing cooperation in successive rounds of games.

You can read the full paper in PDF format.

Altruistic punishment took place frequently. In the ten sessions, subjects punished other group members a total of 1,270 times; 84.3% of the subjects punished at least once, 34.3% punished more than five times during the six periods, and 9.3% punished even more than ten times. Punishment also followed a clear pattern. Most (74.2%) acts of punishment were imposed on defectors (that is, below-average contributors) and were executed by cooperators (that is, above-average contributors), and punishment of the defectors was harsh (Fig. 1). For example, if a subject invested 14±20 MUs less than the average investment of the other members during periods 5 and 6, the total group expenditures for punishing this subject were almost 10 MUs. Moreover, the more a subject's investment fell short of the average investment of the other three group members, the more the subject was punished. The pattern and strength of punishment was also stable across time (Fig. 1). A Wilcoxon signed rank test of punishment in periods 1±4 versus periods 5 and 6, with 10 matched observations, yields z = -1.07, P = 0.285 (two-tailed). The same test for periods 1±5 versus period 6 yields z = 0.178, P = 0.859 (two-tailed).

Note that the most enthusiastic cooperators were also the ones most likely to punish. Those people who most enjoyed working in a cooperating group also had the strongest drive to make others cooperate as well. It may be that the anger that came from observing free rider behavior came as a response of being denied the joy humans experience from working in a cooperating team. Are there genetic variations that make people feel greater or lesser amounts of pleasure from working in cooperating groups? If there are (and this seems likely to be the case) then imagine how much human societies would change if a substantial portion of the population chose to give their offspring genetic variations that increased or decreased their desire to work in cooperating groups or to punish those who didn't.

There are probably a few different parts of the chain of cause and effect that lead to the infliction of punishment that are each separately variable from person to person. The participants in this study were motivated by anger. But in order to feel anger they first had to perceive unfairness. In order to do that they had to believe that people in a group have an obligation to cooperate for joint benefit. This desire to work together is an important human desire. Is there a genetic basis for just this desire? Well, look at other species. Some like to work together in groups. Others prefer solitary existences. Surely there must be a genetic basis for this inter-species difference in behavior.

The participants also had to be willing to act on their anger, pay a price for that action, and to act even when they standed to gain nothing personally from acting. Genetics likely separately influences a few parts of the response here. Though it is not clear just what those parts are.

Is Altrustic Punishment The Result Of A Lack Of Discernment?

Cooperation is encouraged by the ability of people to reward each other for cooperating. But what Fehr and Gachter found was that the ability to punish non-cooperators encouraged cooperation and, most important, most people are willing sacrifice to be able to punish non-cooperators. Those who elected to pay to punish must have derived satisfaction from the ability to punish those who angered them by acting in what the punishers saw as an unfairly selfish manner.

Why would altruistic punishment be selected for by evolution? One possible explanation is that in reality it was not selected for. In this view we are seeing it because humans are living under conditions which are far from the conditions in which we evolved. It is quite possible that historically humans were far more likely to benefit from punishing those who did not cooperate with any group they were part of because people were members of fewer groups and for longer periods of time per group. Anyone who was punished was someone who the punisher would have future dealing with. Therefore humans may not have been under enough selective pressure to become more discerning about who to mete punishment to. There wasn't as great of a need to be able to accurately judge when the costs of inflicting punishment would be a net benefit to the punisher. The willingness to mete out punishment to noncooperators probably didn't need to be complex enough to make humans draw distinctions between people they would or would not have future dealings with.

If you think that humans do not have traits that are expressed in ways that show insufficient use of cognitive processes to discern the appropriateness of an emotional response then consider sexual jealousy in human males. It was probably selected for in men so that men would have a motive to prevent their women from mating with someone else. A man unknowingly raising another man's child is wasting his own resources. Emotional responses that decrease the likelihood of that happening were selected for. But sexual jealousy happens in men who are in relationships with women who are incapable of having children. Why is that? Because the emotional response of jealousy was never selected for to use a cognitive process that is sufficiently discerning to be able to take into account mating with women that did not have the possibility to causing reproduction. That kind of mating is far more common today than it was in our evolutionary past. Also, people who are not going to reproduce are not going to pass along a greater or lesser tendency toward sexual jealousy and therefore there is not much of a mechanism available to even select for a more complex sexual jealousy response in the modern world.

Not everyone in the Fehr and Gächter study meted out punishments. There are, broadly speaking, two possible major reasons why some did not pay to punish. Some people may simply be less easily roused to punish uncooperative people in general. Some step in the process leading to the act of punishment may be harder to stimulate in them. Another possibility is that some may be far more discerning (either for genetic or environmental/educational reasons) in evaluating when paying to punish is worth it to them. It is likely that both of these factors cause differences in how people respond to non-cooperators and that genetic variability has an effect on both factors.

Change The Desire To Punish Free Riders Or The Ability To Discern One's Interests?

How does all this matter to the genetic engineering of offspring? Suppose genetic variations are discovered that affect how easily people become angered by a lack of cooperation in general. Imagine that some people choose to give their offspring genetic variations that decrease their tendency to be angered by noncooperation. Parents might decide they want their children to go thru life feeling less anger about perceived injustices in their lives. If that happened then future generations would less inclined than current generations to enforce cooperation. The results for human societies would be profound.

There is also the possibility that there are genetic variations that make a person more able to evaluate whether paying to punish someone is worth it. One can easily imagine why a parent would want to make their children more capable of subtle discernment of where their real interests lie. This ability would give their kids an edge in dealing with other people in business negotiations and in other settings. But that enhanced capacity to discern where one's own interests lie might come at the expense of making society function less well as a whole. In a society where people get less riled up when they are able to more accurately calculate their own self-interest then there would be less altruistic punishment doled out. This would effectively lower the amount of informal policing of norms in a society. Therefore people in general would be more willing to be uncooperative and to free load off the efforts of others. Again, the consequences would be profound and problematic.

The More General Desire To Punish Perceived Unfairness

A reluctance to cooperate in working toward a group goal is just one way that individuals can cause problems for others in a group. People can take the possessions of others, hurt others, and deceive others for a variety of reasons. These other types of perceived unfair behavior are all capable of eliciting an anger response and a desire to punish.

The desire to punish perceived unfairness is important. It causes behavior that is altruistic and that is necessary to maintain cooperation between members of groups. The desire to punish the unfair among us probably motivates police officers, prosecutors, soldiers, government and corporate whistleblowers, and a great many others as well. Imagine a society where either a smaller percentage of the population would feel angry enough to do punishment or where those who did it wouldn't want to do it as much. The resulting society might have more crime for a number of reasons. Llaw enforcement personnel might be less motivated. Fewer would be willing to work at the most challenging law enforcement jobs since one form of job satisfaction would be felt to a much lesser extent. Witnesses to crimes would be less motivated to come forward to testify or to intervene to stop a crime. An assortment of other behaviors should change in ways that reduced restraints on law-breakers.

A person making a purely selfish economic calculation would probably not choose to punish unfairness in cases where the bulk of the benefits of meting out the punishment would flow to other people. Witnesses to crimes, to unfair acts in the workplace, and to unfair behavior in general are frequently in the position where they have little at stake involving people they do not know often are willing to intervene or testify or otherwise pay a price to prevent or punish unfairness that is not directly aimed at them personally.

Another possible consequence of a reduction in the desire to perform altruistic punishment might be that governments would be more likely to abuse a small fraction of the populace because the rest of the populace would be less inclined to get angry about it and to make sacrifices to protest and oppose the government. On the margin a large number of decisions would be made differently in ways that would make a society function less well and a society whose populace was less motivated to dole out altruistic punishment might well become less free as a consequence.

Fehr and Gachter have uncovered a human behavior that is most likely the product of natural selection. The fact that people desire to punish others even though they have to pay to mete out the punishment suggests that the punishment behavior is deeply built into human minds. This desire to punish those who are viewed as unfair is probably an essential element of human nature needed to maintain a civilized society.

Fairness In Real Life Situations Is Harder To Judge And Open To Dispute

The desire to mete out justice is problematic because determining what is fair is difficult and open to dispute. Fehr and Gachter defined the rules of simple games that their experimental subjects played. The actions of each of the players were easy for the other players to understand. There was no uncertainty as to the number of players, the actions taken, or their ramifications. There was no dispute as to the legitimacy or interpretation of the game rules. There was no need for reference to events of previous days, months, years, or centuries. By contrast, real human societies have all these complications and much more.

In real life situations disagreements over what is fair and over what are the relevant facts in a given situation make punishment itself to often be seen as unfair. People can be and frequently are misled by others or by their own flawed cognitive processes into reaching false conclusions about who did what and why. The desire to punish unfairness can occur in situations where the real facts of the matter do not justify the response. Also, once the desire to punish becomes strong enough the response can become disproportionate to the original act that evoked the feeling of perceived unfairness. It is easy to see how that can get out of hand. For instance, if members of a nation, religion, or other grouping become convinced that they have been on the receiving end of a great injustice (e.g. the famous Nazi myth about being stabbed in the back by Jews in World War I which contributed to World War II) this can belief can be used to motivate them to commit all manner of violent acts individually and collectively. But incorrect beliefs in unfair treatment are just as common in school playgrounds, work places, and marriages. Surely, the impulse to punish unfairness is not an unmitigated benefit to the human race.

Still, in spite of all the problems that arise from the desire to punish a bigger problem would occur if people had a weaker desire to punish the unfairness of others. Societies absolutely need cooperation and the ability and desire to inflict punishment are essential to the maintenance of a sufficient degree of cooperation to make societies function well.

We Need To Understand The Genetic Basis Of Human Nature

The most important missing element in research on the intersection between economics and psychology is the genetic link. But at this point in time it is hard to make that connnection. The cost of DNA sequencing is still in the millions of dollars per person. It is too expensive to find connections between genetic variations and variations in behavior. Surely progress along that front is being made. But it would be far easier to do every experiment on human behavior could include complete DNA sequence information on each study participant. Then genetic variations could be compared with behavioral differences. The inability to effectively control for genetic differences when doing experiments is one of the biggest factors holding back the advance of a more accurate social and psychological science of human nature.

Once science starts to supply us with information about how genetic variations affect human nature the coming abililty to do germ line genetic engineering will cause a huge conflict between the desires of parents to give their offspring characteristics that the parents prefer versus the interests of the larger society in how members of future generations toward the rest of us. The ability to affect how and when future generations will act in altruistic fashions will be politically far more contentious than current issues such as abortion or embryonic stem cell therapy.

The problem with allowing parents alone to decide on what future generations will be like is that we all have to live with the consequences of their decisions. Currently the effects of decisions that people make over who to mate with can not be easily measured or predicted. Also, currently there are limits to how much a difference each person can make in the genetic make-up of their progeny because they can only pass down what they have. What is going to change is that much of the uncertainty will be eliminated and the degree of control on the outcome will rise enormously. This will allow much larger changes in distribution of behavioral tendencies in populations. Averages and extremes will shift in ways that we can only begin to guess at today.

If one wants to have a relevant debate about the dangers of genetic engineering of humans then the central issue must be genetic engineering of the mind. The biggest benefits and greatest dangers come from what people decide tol do to genetically engineer the minds of future generations.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 June 05 05:57 PM  Dangers Mind Engineering


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