Your Inner Fish & The Moral Molecule

Neil Shubin

Neil Shubin

Notes of H3A, Non-fiction Reading Group Meeting
Thursday 10 January 2013

Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin
 The Moral Molecule by Paul J Zak

Your Inner Fish, according Amazon, reveals the secrets of our biology: why, if we want to understand our limbs, we should take a close look at Tiktaalik, the first fish capable of doing a push-up; why, if we want to know why we hiccup, we should look at the way fish breathe.

As for Neil Shubin, he describes his book thus:

“This book grew out of an extraordinary circumstance in my life.  On account of faculty departures, I ended up directing the human anatomy course at the University of Chicago medical school.  Anatomy is the course during which nervous first-year medical students dissect human cadavers while learning the names and organization of most of the organs, holes, nerves, and vessels in the body.  This is their grand entrance to the world of medicine, a formative experience on their path to becoming physicians.  At first glance, you couldn’t have imagined a worse candidate for the job of training the next generation of doctors: I’m a fish paleontologist.

“It turns out that being a paleontologist is a huge advantage in teaching human anatomy.  Why?  The best roadmaps to human bodies lie in the bodies of other animals.   The simplest way to teach students the nerves in the human head is to show them the state of affairs in sharks.  The easiest roadmap to their limbs lies in fish.  Reptiles are a real help with the structure of the brain.  The reason is that the bodies of these creatures are simpler versions of ours.

“During the summer of my second year leading the course, working in the Arctic, my colleagues and I discovered fossil fish that gave us powerful new insights into the invasion of land by fish over 375 million years ago.  That discovery and my foray into teaching human anatomy led me to a profound connection. That connection became this book.”

Paul J Zak

Paul J Zak

As for our second book, again according to Amazon, The Moral Molecule reveals the secrets of our behavior.   Is morality universal?  Why are men less faithful than women?   Why do some businesses succeed while others collapse?  If we have a natural impulse to empathize and care for each other, why are there psychopaths?  The answer to these questions is the chemical driver of our behavior that neuroscientist and economist Paul Zak has researched for ten years…

We chose these books because they followed on from our recent reading, namely Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution and Jonah Lehrer’s  The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes up its Mind.  And we found that they followed on very well indeed, helping us to round off the knowledge we had gained previously with regard to evolution and human behavior respectively.  The group was impressed by the fact that both Shubin and Zak had multi-disciplinary backgrounds. As noted above, Shubin is a paleontologist and an anatomist and Zak is an economist and a neuroscientist.  We thought this helped both authors tremendously, as the authors themselves remark, giving them insights not wholly available to those trained in a single discipline.  Worth noting also is that most of the group thought Shubin’s work better than Dawkins’ in so far that it did not pick on the God-fearing many as its enemy, simply laying out its evolutionary findings for the reader’s benefit in both clear and entertaining prose.

One member remarked further on the simplicity of the language in both books, which made them not only entertaining but more importantly also comprehensible. According to this member, the fact that they seemed to be written as if to a child was in actuality a boon. This is the way science should be presented to the lay person, without cluttering the narrative with alternate spurious arguments as for instance the BBC is forced to do to comply with its charter. The member went on to point out that what is fine in politics is not necessarily good for science because views based on contrary evidence are hard to find, resulting in people with an axe to grind to gain unwarranted air time.  Nonetheless some members thought that with regard to Shubin’s work and perhaps more so Dawkins’, it was a pity we did not include an intelligent creationist as more people in the US, for instance, believe in the virgin birth than in evolution.  A member with an intelligent creationist acquaintance related that their argument seems to be based on the complexity of creation – such complexity cannot be by chance. This prompted the group to give examples from Shubin’s book before turning to specific aspects of it.

One reader remarked that Shubin’s book put him in mind of the fact that the moon is moving away from the earth at roughly three centimeters a year, so that when it was much closer to the earth the tides are thought to have been as much as six times a day and much higher, possibly facilitating the transition from water to earth.

Another remarked that given the amount of time Dawkins spends in identifying the difference between a hypothesis and a theory, as well as discussing at length the difficulties involved in proving hypothesis in the natural sciences compared to mathematics, it was remarkable that Shubin and his team had gone in search of a specific fossil from a specific age and found it, proving conclusively that evolution is not just a theory (or rather a hypothesis).

Some members admitted to finding the concept of a gene kit difficult to understand. This raised the question of any similarity between the coding of software and the genetic kit. It was remarked that in software, besides decision boxes, the programmer also can set switches that make chunks of code redundant.  More importantly, however, software almost always has bugs in it.  So that when you correct a bug, once again almost always you make some code redundant because it is nigh on impossible to check through every eventuality – in short, ‘redundancy is OK as long as it does not get in the way’, rather like the way junk genes seem to function.  If code gets in the way it has to be done away with or fresh code (a patch) has to be written to get around it.

This led to a broad discussion of why some reactions, such fight or flight have remained in our make up when the development of society over the last ten thousand years or more has made this and other reactions more and more redundant and therefore stressful.

This moved the discussion to Zak’s The Moral Molecule.

A member noted that as an economist he found Zak’s idea of trust as a tool of economic well-being highly potent in that without the rule of law contracts are not enforceable, making Nash’s ideas of selfishness as the basis of economic activity redundant.  In contrast another thought the very presence of lawyers in any business venture negated Zak’s thesis. This brought up discussion of the trust tables in the book, particularly in how far trust has fallen in the US and how low it is in Turkey.  It was noted that while this may be so in the public domain it did not follow that people in the US were distrustful at home or in church.  Examples were cited from Zak’s book and compared to behavior reported among Masons in Bodrum and in Jewish communities in the US during the aftermath of the financial crash of 2007/8.  One objection to Zak’s point that religion made people have more empathy for others was that 80 per cent of the world is religious so that, given the corruption and poverty in those very areas where religion is strong, can this be really true?

It was pointed out that before lawyers an Englishman’s word was his bond, something that historians also tell us held fast throughout Islamdom in medieval times, not to mention among nomadic pastoralists along the Silk Route, supporting the argument that trust is essential to commerce.

Another member remarked that the Turkish law had not protected her investments but rather complicated them, which might explain the miserable 5 per cent of trust found in Turkey.  Another member suggested that perhaps it was not the robustness of the law that was in question but rather the lack of professionalism in its application. The reason, therefore, trust is at a miserable 5 per cent may be due more to the incompetence of Turkish judges, lawyers and the experts they pass the buck to than the laws they profess to uphold. This led members to remark on the extraordinarily levels of trust present in everyday dealings in Turkey by citing personal experiences.

This led to a discussion on how trust can be engendered or lost and to the question if women are more able to trust due to their privileged biology – oxytocin, the moral molecule, being directly linked to childbirth.

Aziz Başan

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