The first post tells why. It may be too little, but hopefully not too late.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

An obscure folio, evolution, and Islam

Rabbi Hillel first introduced the Golden Rule - in its negative and feasible form, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow" (Jesus, many years later, reportedly put the rule in its positive form). R. Hillel considered this main rule of social behavior to be as important as to summarize the entirety of the Torah. He also famously said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" (Pirke Avot, 1:14). As befits a true genius, these sayings have universal applicability. That is probably why they also apply to the half-selfish topic of this entry. It concerns a monograph, The Science, Treatment, and Prevention of Antisocial Behaviors (Vol. 2), published six years ago. The monograph is not advertised - there is not even an editorial review on Amazon.com (and it was not originally sold there) - because, as the publisher once explained to me, the book does not target general audience but is intended for policy makers, experts, etc. I am not sure whether this is the best policy even for the alleged target audience. The book ranks 3,163,794 in Amazon.com sales, which likely means that it sells less than one copy a year - and there should definitely be more interested  experts than that.

How do I know? Why should I worry? And how R. Hillel's maxims are relevant? It is obvious that antisociality contradicts the Golden Rule. As for Hillel's triad, I contributed a chapter to that book, and it's about time another couple of people found out about it. Admittedly, it is not popular science, but it is not a trigonometry textbook either, and some information in it may be of interest to an educated reader. 

The chapter (Chapter 4) has a vague, or rather too generic, title, Evolution, Genes, and Environment - Neurobiological Outcomes. It does deal, however briefly, with all these areas as pertains to antisocial behavior. What the title does not immediately reflect, however, is one of the sections, which is germane to the general direction of this blog. The section is titled Logic of Suicide, Mass Murder, and Altruism. In addition to the general issues relating evolution to these titular phenomena (it is not straightforward and requires some discourse, for instance, how suicide can be "beneficial" from the evolutionary standpoint), it includes a discussion of Muslim "martyrdom". The discussion addresses the role of the uniquely human function of the human brain, metaphoric thinking, truly amalgamated in the Muslim tradition with reality, in simulating reproductive benefits in the acts of self-destruction. Considering that this amalgamation results in the suspension of the powerful self-preservation instinct in shahids, the murderous "martyrs", it is not surprising that regular human sympathies are suspended as well. That point is highlighted by the scarcely noted in the media but telling story of how schoolgirls in Saudi Arabia were forced to die in fire by the "religious" police: the girls were pushed back into their burning school because they did not have a chance to put on their abayas, black robes worn over dresses. The text explains sex differences in suicidal terrorism and the mechanisms of xenophobic indoctrination. It compares the eusocial behavior of Hymenoptera insects (such as bees) and the boundaries of altruism in humans, relaxed to malignancy by both Islamic metaphors and material gains of the families of suicidal murderers. Some attention is paid to the contribution of the media in poisoning the information space with lethal misinformation that cannot in principle be remedied by truth even if it were to follow, which it seldom does. 

Despite the rather grim picture arising from this discussion, the conclusion is cautiously positive: "the history of cultural evolution leaves some hopes for the future of sociality. In particular, one of the trends that has expressed itself in the religious codes corresponds to the extension of inclusive fitness to the group, tribe, state and alliance levels. Torah in Leviticus (19:18) commands, “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself; I am the Lord”—the word “neighbor” covers all humans (Hertz, 1980). The same metaphor that allows inclusive fitness [the summary effect of all factors that promote or hinder reproduction of the individual's genes] to cover non-relatives in aggression and underlies xenophobia, can thus be turned into its [truly] prosocial form. This creates an opportunity for the fulfillment of Darwin's dream of humans' extending their “social instincts and sympathies” to “all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him,” and then to “the men of all nations and races” (The Descent of Man). We may soon find out whether this conclusion is too optimistic and a much darker evolutionary outcome is on the horizon.


  1. I don't understand how martyrdom or suicide can be beneficial from evolutionary standpoint?

  2. That's what I meant by saying that it's not straightforward. I'd be happy to expand on that, but it would take time: there is a whole section in that chapter that deals with this issue. Perhaps later. Alternatively, the book is available at the link provided or on Amazon.com.