POST 21 – 24-11-2014

For on-line version go to



Convoluted tree at Port Macquarie


Ethics, morals and law are all human inventions. One thing that appears to us to be distinctly human is the experience that we have the ability to make choices which arises from our ability to have preferences. The preferences we express are based on the value we give to the things chosen. We see things as having a value somewhere on a spectrum from very, very good, through neutral to very, very bad.

The question arises – Do these things have inherent value or do we merely construct a set of values. Numerous historical sources may influence this human construct including many religions, cultures, some books and some strong personalities. Our biology also exerts pressures on the behaviours we decide to be acceptable. In the end however we, collectively, are responsible for choosing what behaviour is acceptable. It is part of our social contract and develops as part of the civilising process.

The biologist in me looks at physical and biological systems that evolved before us to see if our predecessors had a value system from which ours might have evolved.

Survival is the most basic response to change by any physical or biological system. It really matters to still be there after events have intervened and time moves on.

The word “preference” suggests some active process and thus may have some applicability to living things but can hardly be appropriate for non-living things like the growth of crystals, convection in fluids, heat exchange etc.

I wonder if benefit an appropriate word to describe what happens when a change occurs and some variation is preserved after the change?

Was preference exercised by the earliest beings such as bacteria or is it more correct to say survival results from actions by these living things? To exercise a choice (make a decision) between competing demands would require the bacterium to place a value on the presenting choices. This may not be a value as we see it in human terms but the organism needs to survive so a choice needs to be made either actively or passively. There is room for a comparative study of the selfishness of genes and that of bacteria as both are subject to forces they have no control over but to survive seems imperative.

Bacteria may not make “choices” but have “choices” forced upon them.

From the earliest life form there had to be an ability to react in a variety of ways to various stimuli. Some things are food and others are non-food or may be harmful or, at least, neutral. The living thing had to respond to each in a different way even if the responses were quite passive. Food is digested. Neutral items are indigestible and must be excreted. Toxins have to be avoided or detoxified. Items in the environment have different meanings to the organism. There is a battery of possible responses and the organism has a preferential response to each stimulus it receives. In plain English we say that the organism has a preference and chooses an appropriate response. There may be no choice but there are options and selection among those options has consequences for survival, for development and for reproductive fitness.

Later evolved plants and animals show something that looks more like making choices than that expressed by bacteria but hardly approach that exercised by humans.

When we get to human responses to stimuli we see something that may be called free will. We need to distinguish between what some philosophers mean by free will and what we experience as we decide something such as whether or not we will get married.

The decisions we make result in benefit or harm or may be neutral in their consequences. Are we attracted to things or stimuli that benefit us or at least benefit our close associates, our family or our tribe or our “crowd”?  The situations we create as a result of our decisions may lead to something that survives or fails. There is some resemblance between this survival and that of a gene. The story of the gene’s survival and the similarity of that process to that of the “meme” is well covered by Dawkins (1976). Memes are ideas, behaviors, or styles that spread from person to person within a culture. Our concept of “acceptable behaviour” is a “meme”.

In order to choose between competing stimuli the organism must have had a memory of some sort in order that each stimulus could be compared with others. Kandel (2006) has a great tale to tell of the neurology of memory from the sea snail Aplysia to humanity. Changes in the chemistry of nerve cells serve to store “memories” of events in the organism and recall those stored memories or memorised patterns as needed.

Scale this up to, say a seagull or a pigeon, and the element of choice is clear. These birds are scavengers in parks or at the seaside. They will approach a scrap thrown before them and usually after a quick look, or at least after a quick peck, each of these species can tell whether it has been offered an orange peel or a crust of bread. The first is rejected while the second is eaten. The bird may also choose to reject the crust if it is already full of food. This demonstrates choice. In the human case there is a further choice. You might refuse to eat some foods, though very attractive, because you are determined to prevent obesity, or refuse to have another glass of booze because you are driving.

We have developed an approach to this matter of choosing between competing items into a field called ethics which seems to be about arguing for behaviours that meet norms accepted by our society.

Harris (2010) has proposed that science has a critical role in ethics. I suggest that he is making a fundamental (and common) mistake in making science into some sort of a reality. He is wrong. Science is a human invention and does not have an independent existence any more than “evil” of “good” or “religion” or “culture”. Science is not sacred. The scientific method is what matters.

Sam Harris has proposed that the single acceptable base for ethics is that of “the well being of conscious creatures”. I propose that there is a prior source shared by each of us.

Acceptability or appropriateness of behaviour varies of course but it is a moveable feast despite the efforts of those who would have it set by edict of a group, a religion or a particular authority or even a particular book.


Each family, each suburb, each social class, each culture, each age and each religion has its ethical or moral standards. Conform to, rather than stand out in, your group seems to be the basic idea. We each pick out what is expected of us when living in a group. We may question some of these expectations but usually conform to the general theme of that group.


As we get a bit older some people question those expectations and many rise up against them. Whether this uprising is a token or a serious revolution varies with circumstances such as the spirit of the times or the spirit of the people involved.


There is no benchmark other than that of human experience. History therefore has many lessons but we need not be bound by humanity’s experiences. The present stage of humanity’s progress through history allows us to re-examine the ethical situation and look anew at improving the lot of humanity. We now have the cyber age to help manage information and calculation and we have in some places the available leisure needed to manipulate mental images in creative ways.


Evaluation of the options available to the organism is important. As complexity developed in the nervous system of organisms the complexity of options increased or rather was seen to have increased and thus a complex system for assessing the choices had an evolutionary advantage.


Ability to assess the likelihood of the success of a particular choice in a complex situation also became an evolutionary advantage.

Actions have consequences. Action occurs as a response to change and may result in further changes. c.f. Newton’s law  – To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Darwinism is the paradigmatic example of the preservation of change but the underlying process must have had a precursor, perhaps less elaborate, and successors which might be more or less elaborate (or complex).


Dawkins, Richard (1976). The Selfish Gene

Harris, Sam (2010). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

Kandel, Eric R. (2007). In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind




There is a fascinating recent SMH article about the effects of the great economic disparity that operates in our advanced economies. It quotes from a scholarly article whose first sentence is:

Rising income inequality is now universally acknowledged as a critical economic, social, and political issue, not confined to a particular group of countries or region.” I refer you also to a 2009 book called The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. This spells out the effect of inequality between nations and between US states. The bad effects of the disparity is evident there five years ago and now it appears to be accepted as true.


I sent a comment to Amazon about this book and it has been included in their website. The author has recently thanked me for my “generous review” which reads as follows:

This book comes as an answer to my dreams. The first sentence promised me an abundance of reward. “The major theme of this book is the claim that information and knowledge are prerequisites for physical existence …”. The author’s definitions of “information” and ‘knowledge” must be understood clearly to grasp the significance of the theme he presents. I have been exploring Darwinism for the past few years following my exposure to its implications as a poultry veterinarian where two topics, genetic variation in infectious disease agents (and vaccines against them) and the intense genetic selection of high producing poultry breeds, demonstrated in a real way the power of the Darwinian process. I had progressed through other literature, especially that by Daniel Dennett, to see that the process described by Darwin applies to other substrates including the nervous system, the immune system and the propagation of memes through the culture. John Campbell’s book extends this to the whole are of the emergence of complexity in low entropy systems. He also extends it to the role of Bayesian inference in the accumulation of scientific knowledge. The algorithm he describes certainly applies widely. I would add two elements to his treatise and hope his future work addresses them. Firstly, the process he calls Universal Darwinism also applies to the journey of nervous impulses, which I call “nemes”, and the complexes they form, which I call “nemeplexes” in my own blog. Each meme originates as a nemeplex (or “preme” – the precursor of a meme) inside an individual’s mind before it can be launched into the culture. Secondly, while he considers the importance of environmental feedback to the process, I feel that insufficient attention is given to the role of human intervention at each stage of the three-piece process. Just as human intervention can affect the rate of replication of genetic information, the incidence of errors and the intensity of selection pressure in poultry breeding or vaccine virus selection, so also the neme and meme processes can be so affected. The human interventions in these processes can include both intended and unintended interventions. There is a process that operates whether we intervene or not and so we have a responsibility for monitoring such processes to ensure their integrity. Our value judgements and actions, both of omission and commission, will have effects. I do sincerely hope that John Campbell or other scholars will extend this field of study.



Stopping the spread in West African countries is the only way to go at present but the eventual solution lies with vaccine so susceptible people can be protected. There has been a promising development.

A multinational team including individuals from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Okairos (a division of GlaxoSmithKline) recently identified a potential vector, ChAd3, based on its low neutralization by human sera and lack of replication in recipients.


Tests in macaques resulted in complete protection when they were challenged with a lethal dose of Ebola virus 10 months after vaccination. This vaccine is now undergoing human trials and may be available soon.


Now there is a bright idea.

For a great foreign aid invention and it is open sourced – see Liter of Light – day and night


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s