Today’s Papers,Sheik’s Thoroughbred Kingdom in Kentucky ,An Evolutionary Theory of Right and Wrong

An Evolutionary Theory of Right and Wrong

October 30, 2006    
Harry Campbell

October 31, 2006
Books on Science

An Evolutionary Theory of Right and Wrong

Who doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong? Yet that essential knowledge, generally assumed to come from parental teaching or religious or legal instruction, could turn out to have a quite different origin.

Primatologists like Frans de Waal have long argued that the roots of human morality are evident in social animals like apes and monkeys. The animals’ feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity are essential behaviors for mammalian group living and can be regarded as a counterpart of human morality.

Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard biologist, has built on this idea to propose that people are born with a moral grammar wired into their neural circuits by evolution. In a new book, "Moral Minds" (HarperCollins 2006), he argues that the grammar generates instant moral judgments which, in part because of the quick decisions that must be made in life-or-death situations, are inaccessible to the conscious mind.

People are generally unaware of this process because the mind is adept at coming up with plausible rationalizations for why it arrived at a decision generated subconsciously.

Dr. Hauser presents his argument as a hypothesis to be proved, not as an established fact. But it is an idea that he roots in solid ground, including his own and others’ work with primates and in empirical results derived by moral philosophers.

The proposal, if true, would have far-reaching consequences. It implies that parents and teachers are not teaching children the rules of correct behavior from scratch but are, at best, giving shape to an innate behavior. And it suggests that religions are not the source of moral codes but, rather, social enforcers of instinctive moral behavior.

Both atheists and people belonging to a wide range of faiths make the same moral judgments, Dr. Hauser writes, implying "that the system that unconsciously generates moral judgments is immune to religious doctrine." Dr. Hauser argues that the moral grammar operates in much the same way as the universal grammar proposed by the linguist Noam Chomsky as the innate neural machinery for language. The universal grammar is a system of rules for generating syntax and vocabulary but does not specify any particular language. That is supplied by the culture in which a child grows up.

The moral grammar too, in Dr. Hauser’s view, is a system for generating moral behavior and not a list of specific rules. It constrains human behavior so tightly that many rules are in fact the same or very similar in every society — do as you would be done by; care for children and the weak; don’t kill; avoid adultery and incest; don’t cheat, steal or lie.

But it also allows for variations, since cultures can assign different weights to the elements of the grammar’s calculations. Thus one society may ban abortion, another may see infanticide as a moral duty in certain circumstances. Or as Kipling observed, "The wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Katmandu, and the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban."

Matters of right and wrong have long been the province of moral philosophers and ethicists. Dr. Hauser’s proposal is an attempt to claim the subject for science, in particular for evolutionary biology. The moral grammar evolved, he believes, because restraints on behavior are required for social living and have been favored by natural selection because of their survival value.

Much of the present evidence for the moral grammar is indirect. Some of it comes from psychological tests of children, showing that they have an innate sense of fairness that starts to unfold at age 4. Some comes from ingenious dilemmas devised to show a subconscious moral judgment generator at work. These are known by the moral philosophers who developed them as "trolley problems."

Suppose you are standing by a railroad track. Ahead, in a deep cutting from which no escape is possible, five people are walking on the track. You hear a train approaching. Beside you is a lever with which you can switch the train to a sidetrack. One person is walking on the sidetrack. Is it O.K. to pull the lever and save the five people, though one will die?

Most people say it is.

Assume now you are on a bridge overlooking the track. Ahead, five people on the track are at risk. You can save them by throwing down a heavy object into the path of the approaching train. One is available beside you, in the form of a fat man. Is it O.K. to push him to save the five?

Most people say no, although lives saved and lost are the same as in the first problem.

Why does the moral grammar generate such different judgments in apparently similar situations? It makes a distinction, Dr. Hauser writes, between a foreseen harm (the train killing the person on the track) and an intended harm (throwing the person in front of the train), despite the fact that the consequences are the same in either case. It also rates killing an animal as more acceptable than killing a person.

Many people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction, Dr. Hauser says, a sign that it is being made at inaccessible levels of the mind. This inability challenges the general belief that moral behavior is learned. For if people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction, how can they teach it?

Dr. Hauser began his research career in animal communication, working with vervet monkeys in Kenya and with birds. He is the author of a standard textbook on the subject, "The Evolution of Communication." He began to take an interest in the human animal in 1992 after psychologists devised experiments that allowed one to infer what babies are thinking. He found he could repeat many of these experiments in cotton-top tamarins, allowing the cognitive capacities of infants to be set in an evolutionary framework.

His proposal of a moral grammar emerges from a collaboration with Mr. Chomsky, who had taken an interest in Dr. Hauser’s ideas about animal communication. In 2002 they wrote, with Dr. Tecumseh Fitch, an unusual article arguing that the faculty of language must have developed as an adaptation of some neural system possessed by animals, perhaps one used in navigation. From this interaction Dr. Hauser developed the idea that moral behavior, like language behavior, is acquired with the help of an innate set of rules that unfolds early in a child’s development.

Social animals, he believes, possess the rudiments of a moral system in that they can recognize cheating or deviations from expected behavior. But they generally lack the psychological mechanisms on which the pervasive reciprocity of human society is based, like the ability to remember bad behavior, quantify its costs, recall prior interactions with an individual and punish offenders. "Lions cooperate on the hunt, but there is no punishment for laggards," Dr. Hauser said.

The moral grammar now universal among people presumably evolved to its final shape during the hunter-gatherer phase of the human past, before the dispersal from the ancestral homeland in northeast Africa some 50,000 years ago. This may be why events before our eyes carry far greater moral weight than happenings far away, Dr. Hauser believes, since in those days one never had to care about people remote from one’s environment.

Dr. Hauser believes that the moral grammar may have evolved through the evolutionary mechanism known as group selection. A group bound by altruism toward its members and rigorous discouragement of cheaters would be more likely to prevail over a less cohesive society, so genes for moral grammar would become more common.

Many evolutionary biologists frown on the idea of group selection, noting that genes cannot become more frequent unless they benefit the individual who carries them, and a person who contributes altruistically to people not related to him will reduce his own fitness and leave fewer offspring.

But though group selection has not been proved to occur in animals, Dr. Hauser believes that it may have operated in people because of their greater social conformity and willingness to punish or ostracize those who disobey moral codes.

"That permits strong group cohesion you don’t see in other animals, which may make for group selection," he said.

His proposal for an innate moral grammar, if people pay attention to it, could ruffle many feathers. His fellow biologists may raise eyebrows at proposing such a big idea when much of the supporting evidence has yet to be acquired. Moral philosophers may not welcome a biologist’s bid to annex their turf, despite Dr. Hauser’s expressed desire to collaborate with them.

Nevertheless, researchers’ idea of a good hypothesis is one that generates interesting and testable predictions. By this criterion, the proposal of an innate moral grammar seems unlikely to disappoint.


Sheik’s Thoroughbred Kingdom in Kentucky

Michael Clevenger for The New York Times

Jonabell Farm in Lexington, Ky., purchased in 2001 by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, is expected to have 160 mares by next month.

Anwar Mirza/Reuters

Sheik Mohammed.

October 30, 2006

A Sheik’s Thoroughbred Kingdom in Kentucky

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Every hardboot here who makes a living breeding and selling horses knows that Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum is the ruler of Dubai, a desert kingdom on the Persian Gulf, which he has transformed into a tourist and business capital.

Most of them, however, know him as Sheik Mo, a horseman who for nearly 25 years has arrived each year at Blue Grass Airport by private jumbo jet and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on horses.

Although the sheik and the company his family controls encountered security concerns and had to abandon an attempt to run six United States port operations in March, he is treated like a fellow horseman here in Lexington, home of his thriving racing and breeding business.

In a relatively short time, Sheik Mohammed and members of his royal family have joined the ranks of the blue-blooded Phipps family and the more commercially driven Overbrook Farm as fabled names in horse racing in the United States.

On Saturday at the Breeders’ Cup in Louisville, Ky., the Maktoums are expected to send out eight horses, all contenders, in four races. They are led by the 3-year-old sensation Bernardini, who has won six races in a row, including the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico and the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

They are as impressive a collection of horses as any owner has taken to the Breeders’ Cup in its 22-year history, and could help the Maktoums capture as many as five Eclipse Awards, the Oscars of horse racing. Sheik Mohammed is in the running for his first Eclipse as the country’s top horse owner.

Out of equal parts self-interest and self-regard, quite a few denizens of central Kentucky will be rooting the sheik’s horses home. Not only has he been the leading buyer at the September yearlings sales over the past eight years, spending $245.6 million, but he has also built a commercial breeding and racing business here that is poised to rule the sport the way the legendary Calumet Farm did in the 1940s and 1950s.

"If one September that big old plane wasn’t at the airport, you would have a whole lot of hearts sinking around here," said Arthur Hancock III, who owns Stone Farm in Paris, Ky. He is a fourth-generation thoroughbred breeder from one of the Bluegrass’s most famous families.

"Beyond that, he has proven over the years that he is a passionate and knowledgeable horseman," Hancock said. "When the sheik comes here for the sales, he’s out in the barns examining horses and unlike a lot of owners, he actually knows what he’s looking at."

He moves among horsemen in jeans and a white T-shirt or windbreaker in the royal blue colors of his family’s stable.

"I tried to win the Kentucky Derby buying European-type horses, and it did not work," Sheik Mohammed told reporters last month at the Keeneland sales, after spending $60 million on yearlings. "So now we are doing it the right way. I am looking for the right horses. I see what American racing is about. So we learn, we learn every day."

In thoroughbred racing, Sheik Mohammed, 57, has combined one of his great interests with his burning ambition to turn Dubai into the Singapore of the Middle East, generating fascination and some criticism along the way.

In an episode last year closest to his interest in racing, the State Department rebuked the United Arab Emirates, which includes Dubai, for allowing young children to be held in captivity and used as jockeys in camel races. In June, the State Department cited improvements but said it was still keeping watch.

The sheik has had much success in his business and racing endeavors. Since 1995, he or his brothers — Sheik Hamdan and the late Sheik Maktoum — have been at or near the top of the owners’ standings in England with Godolphin stables. Godolphin is a sort of all-star team of horses owned by the Maktoum brothers.

By acknowledging that Dubai could not prosper on a diminishing oil reserve, the Maktoums set out more than 20 years ago to diversify the economy and become the financial capital of the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven sheikdoms that won independence from Britain in 1971.

"Horses and Dubai are his two loves," said John Ferguson, the sheik’s bloodstock manager. "He spends 98 percent of his time on Dubai, however, and 2 percent on horses. Godolphin has been the culmination of those two forces."

Godolphin, created in 1992, is based in Dubai to take advantage of a temperate winter climate and a state-of-the-art training center in preparing to compete in the most prestigious races around the world.

This strategy has worked in Europe and Asia, but has met with mixed results in the United States, most notably in Sheik Mohammed’s unsuccessful quest to win the Kentucky Derby.

So the sheik took a deeper interest in Kentucky breeding and racing in the United States. In 2001, he bought Jonabell Farm and, after the death of his older brother Maktoum in January, incorporated Gainsborough Farm into what is now called Darley America.

Sheik Mohammed has 160 employees — virtually all of them homegrown Kentuckians — and 11 stallions, including Holy Bull, the 1994 Horse of the Year. By November, he will have 160 mares, and soon after their foals, gamboling on a sprawling 4,000 manicured acres of bluegrass.

With Bernardini, the sheik’s new focus on the United States paid off immediately. Bernardini was bred in Kentucky; was entrusted to an American trainer, Tom Albertrani; and will be the favorite in the marquee race of the Breeders’ Cup, the $5 million Classic.

Bernardini, however, will have to dispatch Invasor, a colt that has won eight of his nine races. Invasor is owned by Sheik Hamdan, who is also a big-money spender at the sales and who has had a farm here since 1985.

Bernardini’s victories in this year’s most lucrative races are the primary reason Darley is atop the American owners standings with nearly $5 million in purse winnings. Still, the Darley stable is deep and developing, having won 54 races and finishing in the money 56 percent of the time with 247 starters.

In the $2 million Sprint, Henny Hughes is favored to win to conclude a perfect year and capture the Eclipse Award as champion sprinter. He is owned by Sheik Rashid, the 25-year-old son of Sheik Mohammed.

With commercial breeding operations and thousands of acres of land in seven countries from Europe to Australia to Japan, Sheik Mohammed’s extraordinarily deep pockets have been taxed by his investment in horses. His associates argue, however, that it is money well spent when put in the context of the sheik’s global vision for Dubai.

Among horsemen here, there is an adage: "Be happy with the money, not with the horse."

In the sheik’s case, however, the horsemen are happy with his horses.

"We’ve had a huge drain on our bloodlines between our great sires dying and being shipped overseas," said Rob Whitely, who breeds under the name Liberation Farm. "He is bringing back some of that quality blood to America and we need it. We also need horses like Bernardini to stay here, and that is what looks like is going to happen."



Today’s Papers

Missing Arms
By Daniel Politi
Posted Monday, Oct. 30, 2006, at 6:07 AM ET

The New York Times leads with a new federal report that reveals the U.S. military has not kept proper track of hundreds of thousands of weapons intended for Iraqi security forces. In addition, the American military has failed to provide spare parts and even manuals for most of the weapons given to Iraqis. The WSJ includes news of the report in the top spot of its worldwide newsbox, which is an Iraq roundup, and also mentions the renewed violence in the country, which killed 23 policemen. USA Today leads with a new review by the Army’s casualty notification office that indicates seven families were misinformed about how their relatives died.

The Los Angeles Times leads with the campaign spending by unregulated groups, known as 527s and 501(c)s, which so far has amounted to almost $300 million. Although this spending does not come close to the $600 million that was pumped into the 2004 campaign, these groups are responsible for many of the ads filling the airwaves in the last days before the Nov. 7 election. The Washington Post goes across the top of its Page One with news that the governing body of Gallaudet University, the nation’s premiere school for the deaf, gave in to months of protests and said Jane K. Fernandes would not take over as the university’s president next year. After learning of the decision, protesters in Gallaudet’s campus celebrated and burned an effigy of Fernandes.

The report, released by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, revealed the U.S. military never even recorded the serial numbers of almost half a million weapons it gave to the Iraqis. This means tracking the weapons has now become nearly impossible and raises the possibility the arms could have ended up in the hands of insurgents. Inconsistencies in the number of weapons purchased and those in Iraqi warehouses show that more than 13,000 weapons are, essentially, missing.

In its review of 810 deaths, which accounts for approximately 40 percent of those who died in Afghanistan and Iraq, Army officials discovered that in five of the seven cases, including former pro-football player Pat Tillman, families were not told friendly fire was to blame for the soldier’s death. The Army is now looking into all deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq to make sure there are no other mistakes. As part of the effort, the Army is also attempting to improve the way it notifies families of deaths. USAT takes a look at some of these efforts, which includes a new $800,000 video and more training for notification officers.

The NYT says on its front page that funds for research into energy technologies are falling, from both the government and the private sector. This decreases the possibility of finding viable alternatives to coal and oil. In the United States, federal spending for all types of energy research and development is less than half of what it was 25 years ago. In comparison, a revealing graphic accompanying the story shows how medical and military research has increased throughout the years.

Today’s NYT and WP both front stories that are similar to ones first published by the LAT, with slightly different angles. Yesterday, the LAT led with Karl Rove‘s role in the last days of the campaign cycle,and mentioned the way he uses government resources to give GOP candidates a boost. Today, the WP also takes a look at the involvement of the White House political mastermind before Nov. 7 and gives it a more inside-Washington twist. The Post mentions these midterm elections could redefine Rove’s influence and that he continues to be optimistic while some worry he might have some tricks up his sleeve. For its part, the NYT fronts a look at how many of the Democrats running for the House have conservative views that are more commonly associated with Republicans. Last Thursday, the LAT had a similar story on Page One, but today, the NYT focuses more on the tensions that could rise within the Democratic Party as a result of these candidates if they do win control of the House.

USAT goes inside with the story of Saba Al-Bor, an Iraqi town that illustrates the difficulties U.S. forces have in handing over power to Iraqi police. On Sept. 20, U.S. officials transferred control of the town to Iraqis and left. They had to come back 15 days later, after the town had descended into chaos, death squads roamed the town, and the majority of the town’s Iraqi police and residents had fled.

The WSJ fronts a look at how Paul Wolfowitz is increasing the World Bank’s presence in Iraq. This is seen in contrast to usual Bank policy of staying away from countries in conflict. The move by Wolfowitz, who was U.S. deputy defense secretary and is now heading the bank, is raising criticism from some who believe he is using the multilateral institution to carry out Bush administration policy.

The NYT reefers word that the missing American soldier in Iraq was secretly married to an Iraqi woman, whom he was visiting when he was kidnapped last week. None of this is confirmed, but the Times talked to some Iraqis who claim they are the soldier’s in-laws. If true, it would mean the soldier broke military rules, which prohibits active personnel from marrying local civilians. So far, the U.S. military hasn’t even released the man’s name, but search squads have shown his picture to local residents. No one in his alleged bride’s family knew he was an American soldier until after he was kidnapped.

The LAT fronts, and everyone else mentions, that federal police in Mexico used tear gas and water cannons to fight off demonstrators who had held Oaxaca’s central square for five months. The protest began as a teacher’s strike, but soon other groups joined and it escalated. President Vicente Fox ordered the raid after one American journalist and two Mexicans were killed on Friday. Although the police was able to take control of the square with much less violence than was expected, there were reports of a 15-year-old boy being killed, some claim as a result of a tear gas canister, and some say he was shot.

The NYT fronts a look at how Muslim Americans have become reluctant to donate to Islamic causes and charities out of fear that it could bring unwanted attention from the U.S. government.

Everyone mentions Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva won a landslide reelection victory yesterday.

The NYT publishes an op-ed piece co-written by Vaclav Havel, former Prime Minister of Norway Kjell Magne Bondevik, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, urging the world to pay attention to North Korea’s humanitarian crisis. The authors say the attention Kim Jong-il has gathered as a result of his nuclear tests should be used to shine a light on the way thousands of North Koreans suffer from malnutrition and human rights abuses. "It is clear that North Korea is actively committing crimes against humanity—against its own people," the authors argue.

Daniel Politi is a writer living in Buenos Aires, Argentina

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