Sunday, January 23, 2011

Morality, Biology and Writing

I've been writing about evolution for a while now. I'm going to depart from it somewhat and talk about somethings I've been thinking about writing. Of course, biology (and evolution) will enter into it. Hopefully, I'll be able to make some sense out of the the combination.

Most writers, I think, have a structure within which they work. I don't mean a world or a style. I mean a point of view they are coming from. A mechanism, if you will, from which they attempt to make sense out of things. The result of that effort is the work: the story, the novel, etc. This point of view of the author on things is what informs the work.

This one is going to wander around a bit.

Biology has always been a part of that structure for me. This does, inevitably, mean the biology of living things and how that penetrates science fiction: aliens, fantastic creatures and human adaptation among other things. It's not surprising that a significant majority of my work involves these things. However, those are the expressions of my view of biology, not the view itself.

I tend to think of things in general within a biological metaphor. We have cats and one in particular, Grover, is quite neurotic. He is frightened inconsistently by odd things. If the temperature drops outside it makes him scared of actions on the sofa. He likes to "fire worship"-- sit in front of the wood stove and watch the flames. This is easily explainable by the warm air coming from it. But after a while, when he is the toastiest, is when he comes over to the sofa for comfort.

I find myself wondering what's going on in there. Grover is not human. While there is common ground between us, our species have been separate for a long time. Felidae appear to have originated about 25 million years ago. They are a subgroup of Carnivora, which originated in the Eocene that lasted between 56 and 34 million years ago. The oldest known primate fossil is dated to 56-68 million years in the late Paleocene. So whatever common ground has to predate that. The division between our two species is deep and broad. Evidence shows that cats pre-adapted much as dogs did but unlike dogs cats have changed very little. So whence comes this bond?

Thinking within a biological metaphor.

The other part of my own personal point of view on writing has to do with what I call moral decisions. This is probably even more integral to my work than the biological metaphor. I always knew this was interesting but I didn't realize it was central to what I do until fairly recently-- specifically, when I was putting together my stories to go up on Book View Cafe.

Every one of my stories has to do with moral decisions. These are specific decisions as I define them. They are choices between alternatives and a moral context and a sacrifice. A moral decision where there is no sacrifice is no moral decision at all. A decision to choose between vanilla and strawberry ice cream or to choose between losing a right or left hand is not a moral decision. A decision to lose your right hand or save your son is.

Apparently, I'm obsessed with these things. Every story I've written is about what leads up to a decision, the consequences of a decision, the character of a person who might make such a decision, the justification of a decision, the regret of a decision. Often there's a central choice to be made but not always. In other stories, such as The Crocodiles, which came out relatively recently, the story revolved around the fact the protagonist felt the moral decision was already made and need not be revisited. The first story I ever wrote that I felt counted (never published) was about a boy's first sexual encounter, the decisions he made because of the experience and the subsequent regret of those decisions.

Other people might be interested in what it means to be human or how technology will change humanity or the exploration of an interesting environment. For whatever reason I'm interested in these moral decisions, large and small, thin and wide.

So, of course, once I twigged to that I started thinking about biological moral decisions, decisions that have consequences to the biological nature of the organism.

E. O. Wilson is convinced, as am I, that who we are morally reflects who we are biologically. (There is a beautiful article about this in The Atlantic by Wilson here. Go read it.) Our history of decisions have made us the moral animal we are today-- successful moral decisions, that is, where success is measured in evolutionary terms. We're separated from our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, by only a few million years. Do they have a moral sense? Do they make moral decisions?

I think the jury is out a bit on this one. It's clear the concept of fairness in transactions between individual primates is common. That's been shown in rhesus monkeys. A monkey doing a task for a stick of celery will go on strike if a cohort is given a grape (a much more precious reward) for the same task. Hominoids (Hominids along with the other great apes) diverged from the rest of the old world monkeys about 30 million years ago. So the concept of fairness in primates goes back at least that far.

Do other mammals share this trait? Do dogs? Do cats? Does Grover? I'll never know about Grover. Whatever goes on in that tortured little mind masks any behavior I could use to determine that. Besides, cats and dogs have a special place with us. We've modified them a fair amount either biologically (as we have with dogs) or culturally (as we have with cats) to the point that their original behaviors may well be lost or at least be suspect. In addition, it's as hard for humans to objectively look at their pets as it is to look at themselves.

Would a wolf perceive fairness? Moral decisions? They have rules for behavior-- not as plastic as human beings. While w have an innate moral sense it is marked by the diversity of moral positions. We know it's there because it always shows up in human cultures but we can't point to any one set of behaviors that is always considered moral. In different cultures adultery, murder, genocide, torture have been considered the proper behavior. In our own culture all of these behaviors have been voiced to be the Right Thing to Do under the Right Circumstances.

Which brings me back to my own point of view, blending biology and moral decisions. What is moral biology? What would it look like? What would it smell like? Could canid evolve it? A cat? A cephalopod? If they did, what would the nature of their decisions be? What would alternatives would they be choosing between?

Clearly, I have to write a story about it.

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