Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In Praise of Erasmus

I’m aware that I risk derision and worse by saying, with attempted insouciance, that I have just been reading Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, but never mind that; he has rather wonderful things to say about ‘those who court immortal fame by writing books’:

“But people who use their erudition to write for a learned minority and are anxious to have either Persius [the learned] or Laelius [the not-so-learned] pass judgement don’t seem to me favoured by fortune but rather to be pitied for their continuous self-torture. They add, change, remove, lay aside, take up, rephrase, show to their friends, keep for nine years, and are never satisfied. And their futile reward, a word of praise from a handful of people, they win at such cost – so many late nights, such loss of sleep, sweetest of all things, and so much sweat and anguish. Then their health deteriorates, their looks are destroyed, they suffer partial or total blindness, poverty, ill will, denial of pleasure, premature old age, and early death, and any other such disasters there many be. Yet the wise man believes he is compensated for everything if he wins the approval of one or other purblind scholar.”

I get a little comfort from knowing that the literary world was as crabby and self-obsessed five hundred years ago. But even then they had their Dan Browns:

“The writer who belongs to me [Folly] is far happier in his crazy fashion. He never loses sleep as he sets down at once whatever takes his fancy and comes from his pen, even his dreams, and it costs him little beyond the price of the paper. He knows well enough that the more trivial the trifles he writes about the wider the audience which will appreciate them, made up as it is of all the ignoramuses and fools. What does it matter if three scholars can be found to damn his efforts, always supposing they’ve read them? How can the estimation of a mere handful of savants prevail against such a crowd of admirers?”

Punishment is different in China

[This is my latest Muse article for Nature News. I have the feeling that I’ve encountered guanxi several times in a personal context, and it certainly is hard for a Westerner to figure out what is really going on.]

Doing business abroad is not like doing it at home. A tough, no-nonsense approach will get results in New York but may be seen as rude and aggressive in Tokyo, where business negotiations are a mixture of ceremony and courtship designed to avoid direct confrontation. In Japan, an apparent ‘yes’ can mean ‘no’, and there are sixteen ways of avoiding having to say ‘no’ directly [1]. So negotiations there are long-winded, ambiguous and, to outsiders, plain baffling.

Traditional economics makes no concessions to such cultural differences. Its models tend to adopt a ‘one size fits all’ view of human interactions, in which choices and strategies are based on the cold logic of ‘utility maximization’: whatever gets you the best deal. But behavioural economics, which sets out to investigate how real people conduct their decision-making, is undermining that picture. Now a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA reports that Chinese people respond quite differently to Americans in transactions that contain the threat of punishment for uncooperative behaviour [2].

Yi Tao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology in Beijing and his coworkers have looked at how Chinese university students play a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. This is the classic model system in game theory for studying two-person interactions that include a temptation to cheat. The game awards points according to whether the two players decide to cooperate or ‘defect’. Two defections – the players both try to cheat each other – elicit a low payoff, while both players are better rewarded if they cooperate. However, if player 1 cooperates while player 2 defects, then player 1 is the sucker, getting the worst possible payoff, while player 2 does best of all.

The ‘logical’ way to play this game is always to defect, because that gives you the best payoff whatever your opponent does. Yet if the game is played repeatedly, players realise that they can both score more highly if they agree (tacitly) to cooperate. Thus cooperation can arise from self-interest.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD) – which was devised during the Cold War in a US think tank but was anticipated in the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau – has been used to show how altruism can develop in animal communities and human society. This kind of game theory is also central to economic analysis of competitive markets.

It’s generally necessary for PD players to encounter one another repeatedly before the long-term benefits of mutual cooperation become apparent. That’s why, the theory suggests, we cultivate good relations with our neighbours and local shops. But in 2002, behavioural economists Ernst Fehr and Simon Gächter in Switzerland showed that cooperation may also emerge without repeated encounters if there are opportunities to punish defectors [3]. In those experiments, groups of players were given a sum of money to invest in a project, and the group was jointly rewarded according to the level of investment. Freeloaders can enjoy the group reward without investing. But if such selfish behaviour can be punished with fines, it is suppressed. Punishment is typically used insistently: players will do so even at a cost to themselves.

Gächter and his coworkers have investigated whether attitudes to punishment in this ‘public goods’ game differ across cultures [4]. They compared the amount of expenditure on punishment for players in 15 different countries, including the US, China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. They found that the cooperation-enhancing effect of punishment, and cooperation overall, was strongest in democratic countries with a long tradition of market economies.

The behaviours in this case were similar in the US and China. But Tao and his coworkers show this doesn’t mean American and Chinese people regard or employ punishment in the same way. The participants in their study played the straightforward iterated PD, but with the added provision that each player could opt to punish rather than to cooperate or defect. Punishment deducts several points from the other player, but also costs the punisher. Ill-gotten gains from defection can be cancelled by being punished in the next round.

This might be expected to promote cooperation – and when other researchers tested the game on US students last year, that’s what they found [5]. But in China, punishment made virtually no difference to the amount of cooperation: it was, if anything, slightly lower than in control games without that option.

Tao’s team says this probably reflects the fact that, in China, individuals conduct transactions by cultivating so-called guanxi (literally ‘closed system’) networks of two-person relationships based on empathy and mutual understanding. That might sound chummy, but in fact guanxi is a delicate dance in which feelings of friendship, obligation and guilt are patiently probed and manipulated to reach the desired goal. Since the rules of the PD-with-punishment allow for nothing of this sort, there’s nothing to link cooperation to punishment.

All the same, reputations are important to guanxi networks, so in the public-goods game [4] where reputation (for reciprocity, say) may come into play, punishment is restored as an operative force – making the US and Chinese behaviours more similar, although for different reasons.

One implication is that it’s dangerous to extrapolate from lab tests of behavioural economics to evolutionary questions – for example, to ‘explain’ the adaptive role of punishment in human society. Economic behaviour too can evidently depend on the ‘culture’ in which it happens. For example, economists are divided on the issue of how incentives affect productivity, because real-world experience sometimes seems at odds with what behavioural tests imply. But that’s no longer surprising if behaviour varies according to the system of norms within which it is enacted. It’s a reminder that a search for economic and behavioural ‘first principles’ may be doomed to fail.

1. D. W. Hendon, R. A. Hendon & P. Herbig, Cross-Cultural Business Negotiations (Quorum, Westport CT, 1996).
2. Wu, J.-J. et al., Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 10.1073/pnas.0905918106 (2009).
3. Fehr, E. & Gächter, S. Nature 415, 137-140 (2002).
4. Herrmann, B., Thöni, C. & Gächter, S. Science 319, 1362-1367 (2008).
5. Dreber, A., Rand, D. G., Fudenberg, D. & Nowak, M. A. Nature 452, 348-351 (2008).

Friday, September 25, 2009

Darwin on screen

For a limited time only, I can be heard on BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves talking about the new Darwin biopic Creation. The film is worth watching, but don’t expect any revelations. New Scientist got a bit hot under the collar about the use of ‘supernatural’ imagery – Darwin’s dead daughter Annie, it says, returns as a ghost. Well, not really: there’s never any doubt that this is Darwin’s mind talking to itself. It’s fanciful, perhaps even sentimental in the end, but hardly an affront to reason. It’s a fairer complaint, though, that this ‘makes for a cartoon account of the writing of On the Origin of Species’, especially given that the book was published 8 years after Annie died.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Truly wonderful

It’s official, then: the Royal Society Science Book Prize goes to The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. The decision was announced yesterday, and the Guardian is apparently going to put online a podcast of the press conference at which my fellow judges and some of the shortlisted authors discussed science books and science writing in general. I almost felt sorry for the other candidates being up against a book as good as Richard’s: it was a wonderful shortlist, but The Age of Wonder left us all awestruck in its erudition, imagination and – despite what you might imagine from the subject and the size of the book – its readability. It is a glorious read, with something to enjoy on every page (and don’t skip the footnotes!). I was slightly nervous that the other judges might deem it too ‘historical’ to count as a science book, but happily they had no such qualms. The book looks at several strands of science that emerged in the early nineteenth century, all of which allied themselves with the Romantic spirit of wonder, awe and the sublime: for example, the geographical journeys of discovery by Joseph Banks, Mungo Park and others, William Herschel’s telescopic observations, Humphrey Davy’s chemical inventiveness, and the origins of hot-air ballooning. One of the very special attributes of this book is that it makes science sound breathtakingly exciting – not only then, but still.

Both Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and Jo Marchant’s Decoding the Heavens have received well deserved praise elsewhere (here and here) (as the other two Brits, they were the other shortlisted authors present at the ceremony). But I’d like to put in a shout for all the other three candidates too, and especially for Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, which we all agreed was exquisite, making a tricky subject (evo-devo) very accessible and engaging. The memory of being confronted with three boxes stuffed full of books is now fading, and I’m left feeling lucky to have been involved in this process.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The soul and the embryo

Perhaps you noticed this article in the Guardian last year by David Albert Jones, a bioethicist at St Mary’s College, part of the University of Surrey. I didn’t, but plenty did, judging from the feedback.

But it came to my attention after having just read Jones’ 2004 book The Soul of the Embryo, as research for my next book. It’s a very interesting survey of how this issue – whether embryos have souls, when they get them, where they come from, what happens to them – has been debated in Christian theology throughout the ages.

It is also an unintentionally revealing portrait of the mixture of bad logic, warped and misrepresentative argumentation that seems to pervade the Catholic rejection of embryo research. In the language of the Telegraph reader: I am appalled.

Oh, there are the little deceits, such as his insinuation without evidence that IVF clinics routinely seek to overproduce embryos so that they have plenty for research purposes. (For one thing, no embryos can be used in research without the permission of the donors.) Or the sudden switch, when we reach the modern discussion of abortion, from the almost universal use of ‘embryo’ and ‘fetus’ earlier in the book to ‘unborn child’ – or even just ‘child’.

But far worse is the perverse logic and the unprincipled cherry-picking of facts and arguments. Now, I can fully understand how someone might reach the conclusion that, from the moment of fertilization, an embryo is a human being and is entitled to the basic right of being allowed to live – and that abortion is therefore murder, as is discarding of human embryos in any form. It’s a point of view, so to speak. If you believe that the embryo has the same status as a newborn child, and that killing is always wrong, then that’s a consistent position.

It means, as a corollary, that you are an unconditional pacifist, and must consider that papacy wrong and unethical not to share this position. That, somehow, does not seem to be Jones’ view.

Ah, so perhaps you feel that, no, one can’t simply say one should never in any circumstances kill, but that one should not in any circumstances kill something as small and weak and vulnerable as an embryo. So OK, we can now get into an issue of relative merits: there are circumstances in which it is alright to kill, but this isn’t one of them. Then you can no longer take refuge in absolute prohibitions, and must instead be ready to place things on the balance. Why is it wrong to prevent the further development of a ball of cells that might or (more probably, as IVF statistics make clear) might not implant in a womb (even though it is never going to have the opportunity to do so anyway) in order to find a way of alleviating some extreme human suffering? What is the ethical calculus that leads you to this position? Not only does Jones fail to explain it, he fails even to consider it. The only mention he makes of the medical potential of embryo and stem-cell research is to say that it has been exaggerated by its supporters. This man is said to be a bioethicist, remember.

But OK, he is opposed to the destruction of any embryo. It must follow that he opposes the attempted production in IVF of any more embryos than would be implanted – which means two, in the UK. This would, at a stroke, cause IVF success rates – already pretty low, at 20-30 percent – to plummet. But that would of course be a pretty unpopular course, and so Jones keeps quiet about it. After all, it would seem a bit harsh, wouldn’t it – and he is very keen not to appear harsh or unfeeling.

Now, you might have spotted that all of this takes no account of the soul. Indeed, for there is absolutely no reason why it should. But for Christian readers, all the arguments seem likely to carry so much more weight if we can get the soul in there as soon as possible. Give the embryo a soul, Jones seems to imply, and it is ethically unassailable. And so he marshals arguments for why Christian theology supports the notion of ‘ensoulment at conception’.

The problem is that the Bible is all but silent on the issue of when, how or to what degree ensoulment happens during embryogenesis. So the story must be constructed by indirect inference. This is where the façade of logic really starts to unravel. I can’t go through all the reasons for that – they are too plentiful – but here’s a taste.

One of the key arguments rests on the example of Christ as an embryo. To some theologians (Jones downplays this), the image of Christ in the womb was unsettling, particularly if it meant we were forced to regard him as a developing embryo (even in ancient Greece it was clear that embryos acquire their form gradually). So some considered Christ to have been created fully formed – as a kind of homunculus – at the moment of the Immaculate Conception, and just to have grown bigger. Jones, on the other hand, is prepared to contemplate an embryonic Christ, but stresses that the Bible emphasizes his humanity and rules out the notion that Jesus could ever have been a less-than-fully-human embryo. But souls are always possessed by humans, and so if, as the Bible says, Jesus was as fully a human as any of us, then we too must be fully human, and thus in possession of a soul, from conception. This insistence on Jesus’s humanity rules out the possibility that there could have been something exceptional about his embryonic status – indeed, this whole argument hinges on being able to make the case against this exceptionalism, so that what is true of the embryonic Jesus is necessarily true of us. (I know what you’re thinking – is this a modern theologian, and not some obsessive medieval scholastic debating angels on pinheads? Bear with me.) But the problem with that is that it overlooks a few other things that do seem to rather set the embryonic Christ apart from your run-of-the-mill embryo:
1. He is the son of God
2. He is in a virgin’s womb
3. He was created without human sperm
Oh yes, he was different like that, but otherwise, you know, just like us.

Oh, souls. They’re amazing, once you start to think about them. One common objection to the ‘ensoulment at conception’ notion, says Jones, is that some embryos become twins. Where does the other soul come from? He admits this is a bit tricky: does the old soul die and two new ones get added to the two embryos (but then where is the ‘dead’ being from which the old soul fled)? Or does one embryo get to keep the old soul, and the other get given a new one? Or maybe God knew that the embryo would split, and so added two souls in the first place? ‘The problem with twinning seems less our inability to tell a ‘soul story’ and more the inability to judge between these stories’, says Jones. ‘Until more is known empirically, it is difficult to know what sort of story to tell.’ No, that is not the problem. The problem is that it is transparently obvious that you will indeed inevitably end up doing just that – telling a story. In other words, once the ‘facts’ are known, Jones is confident that a story can be tailored to fit them. I’ve no doubt that is true – and equally, no doubt that any theological justification for it will be a masterpiece of post hoc inference. That’s to say, any such ‘story’ will be not only scientifically untestable (we’re talking about souls here, after all), but also theologically unverifiable In the process, incidentally, it seems likely to turn God’s supposedly mysterious creation of beings into high farce: ‘Oops, looks like we need another one of those souls over here.’

(Note also that, while the twinning issue seems like a minor wrinkle to the debate, it played an important role in swaying the opinion of some people involved in the debate around embryo research in the British Parliament between the Warnock Report in 1984 and the HFE Bill in 1990. They were not so ready as Jones to sweep it under the carpet.)

It was with growing dismay that I realised, as I read on, that Jones was not merely exploring changing ideas about what the soul is and where it comes from; he felt he was telling us some literal truths about this, just as if explaining the origin and evolution of species. What this means is that he pursues some arguments with the fine-toothed rigorous logic of the philosopher, but quickly moves on or changes the subject as soon as some gaping flaw in the logic presents itself. Some theologians, says Jones, have worried about the idea that, if all embryos have souls, then most of the souls in heaven are those of embryos that never developed further. What are they like? And what form do their bodies take in the Resurrection? ‘This is not an easy question’, he admits, and leaves it there. But is it a question at all?

Jones suggests that the soul of an individual being is in some ways synonymous with that individual’s life. That makes it easy enough to argue that it’s in the embryo from conception, which is arguably the moment that a ‘potential new life’ appears. But it also forces him to slip out the fact that plants too must have a soul – though not the rational soul of humans, naturally. Presumably God puts them there too. So when does a cutting acquire its new soul? Given that it is a clone (literally), does it need a new one? Hm, no answer.

Or take this, from an article by Jones in Thinking Faith, the online journal of British Jesuits on why the latest Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill (now an Act, of course) is such a terrible thing:
“It is more difficult to know what to think about ‘true hybrids’ which are the most extreme kind of human-animal embryo permitted by the Bill. True hybrids are made by mixing sperm and egg from different species and would be 50% human and 50% of some other species. This raises the issue about whether there is something wrong with crossing the species barrier. This is easiest to see if we ask what would be wrong with bringing a half-human half-chimpanzee to birth. The primary issue here is not how much protection to give to a ‘humanzee’, it is whether we should allow scientists to create humanzees in the first place (this was actually attempted by soviet and other scientists in the 1920s but happily none succeeded). The act of creating true hybrids seems to be inhuman. It fails to respect our humanity.”

I agree with Jones that making a fully developed ‘humanzee’ (if it were possible) would not do a lot for our dignity, and I can think of no reason why it would be desirable. But I wonder what kind of soul Jones thinks God would give it. Or how God would decide the issue. Or how we might decide how God would decide the issue. Better to evade the matter by saying that scientists shouldn’t do it in the first place.

I don’t object to the fact that, in bringing a Christian perspective to these bioethical issues, one has to accept that the issue of souls might arise. That goes with the territory, just as one would have to accept that in other contexts Christians may want to invoke notions of heaven, resurrection and so forth. But if, say, the latter were to happen, I think we might reasonable expect now that we would not be forced to contemplate such questions as how big heaven is and where it might be found. I think we can hope that theologians have moved beyond this sort of medieval literalism. But Jones’ view of souls has not – they are still entities (albeit immaterial) that have to be injected into living beings at some point in time, and accounted for in quantitative terms. To many people, the idea of a soul does seem to carry some valuable meaning, perhaps bound up with notions of individuality and human dignity. I can live with that. But once you start trying to make ‘soul’ a precise concept, it seems you’ll inevitably end up with this sort of absurdity.

This matters partly because people like Jones are the sort who will get their voices heard in these bioethics debates. But it rankles me most of all because he ends up cloaking his position in the seductive mantle of Christian compassion for ‘the least of these little ones’, while – as so often in these cases – refusing to think compassionately about the other side of the coin: the compassion in treatments for disease and infertility (not to mention any consideration of the role and experience of women). In other words, ideological principles before people.