Friday, 16 May 2014

Driving Ethical Evolution

I realise they are only doing it so they can bask in that nice warm glow of smug self-satisfaction but when Christians and Muslims pretend to be baffled by why Atheists don't go around raping and murdering people because we don't believe we are going to answer for our crimes to their imaginary friend, I wonder if they realise how ignorant they appear. Surely they only need to take a quick glance at reality to see it doesn't equate to their idiotic assertion, don't they? Here's an everyday example which refutes them entirely.

I have already blogged about this subject a few time (see Xeno's Religious Paradox, Religion: An Abdication of Moral Responsibility and Why Morality Evolved) and tried to make the point that, just like evolved related species, human cultures have broadly similar morals and ethics serving broadly similar purposes, yet differ in detail, just as you would expect of something that evolved over time, diversifying in response to local conditions to form varieties, subspecies and species.

This was brought home to me when I was driving in Naples, Italy over the last few days. If you've never driven there, it's something of an experience to put it mildly. Basically, the traffic is chaotic. The road-markings are absent or indistinct and are mostly ignored anyway as are speed limits, pedestrian crossings and red traffic lights by the first half dozen cars. People live in tenement blocks with no off-street parking, so roads are lined with parked cars - in fact, for the average visitor, parking is almost non-existent. This makes all but the widest roads barely wide enough for two cars to pass and yet slowing down seems to be regarded as something for softies. Driving is competitive, so you will be overtaken on either side if there is room, raced away from traffic lights, cut up on junctions, and nine out of ten cars will be battle-scarred. Our nearly new hire-car picked up its first scrape in a carpark in Sorrento. Luckily, I was fully insured otherwise I would have been 820 Euros out of pocket.

Horns are used frequently and yet headlights are rarely flashed. On the one occasion I flashed a car with a short flash, which in the UK unofficially means, "Go ahead, I'm giving way to you", I got a stare that would have turned a cockatrice to stone. And yet road-rage is rare, if my experience is anything to go by and the Neapolitans are generally actually considerate and helpful people, or so I found. It took me a couple of days to work out what was going on. and then it became much easier to drive. When in Naples, do as the Neapolitans do.

In Naples, you expect a car to pull out of a turning or to turn across your path because they assume you will give way to them. It's a social norm which is taken so much for granted that no one thinks anything of it. It's a bit like the old rule of the road you still see quite a lot in France where you give way to someone pulling out from the right. You are expected to push into a small gap or overtake either side if there is room. It isn't meant to be aggressive and it isn't taken as such. In the UK what could easily end up as a road-rage incident is the norm in Naples.

On the other hand, flashing your headlights in Naples is a big no-no. That's the equivalent of a rude stare and is assumed to be aggressive. In the UK, it's a sign of courtesy unless you give a long flash, or flash from behind, then it's aggressive. We all know this and take it for granted. Short flash to give way; long flash to get out of my way.

And we hardly ever sound a horn unless it's in anger. In Naples, a short toot simply means take care. Normally given when you want to warn of your presence - as a courtesy more than anything (in fact what it should mean in the UK according to the Highway Code, except that no-one uses it that way) and with much less of the aggressive connotations it has in the UK.

So, in two European countries, both predominantly Christian and both of which have had the motor car for about the same length of time, two very different cultures have developed so far as driving, sounding horns and flashing headlights are concerned. And these two different sets of ethics have evolved in less than a hundred years and mostly in the last fifty. One uses the horn extensively, assumes the right to cross another car's path and hardly ever flashes headlights because that shows aggression; the other flashed headlights as a courtesy, only normally sound the horn in aggression and crossing another car's path unless given permission to is a big insult which may well get an aggressive retaliation.

It's fair to assume that these have evolved as extensions of the human voice for a horn and a stare for headlights. Clearly, they must have had different nuances pre-motorcar to have acquired different meanings in the context of driving today. And then there is the assumed courtesy of giving way in Naples which is mostly absent in Britain although it's okay when permission has been given and permission often is given.

Nowhere in this evolution of driving ethics is there anything in the Bible that wasn't basic to all human cultures already - like the Golden Rule - and nowhere has religion contributed to their development, never to my knowledge has the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury ever expressed an opinion on the use of horns or headlights and there is no theological doctrine concerning giving way at a road junction, yet we have evolved ethics, and two very different sets of ethics in such a short space of time. We even take driving on the right or the left respectively as absolutely basic, right and proper and assume it's based on some sound reasoning or other.

And I could probably write a similar comparison for every country I have driven in in Europe and North America.

How do the sanctimonious religious bigots who like to pretend to occupy the moral high-ground and the creationists who claim not to be able to understand why anyone would be good without threats and rewards explain this? How does this equate to the Craigite claim that morality couldn't have come from nowhere, in a thinly disguised plagiarism of the Intelligent Design frauds who claim life couldn't have evolved? For a biologist or sociologists who understands the evolutionary memetic nature of human ethics, there is no difficulty in explaining it, though the exact cultural origins of it and the forces which caused it to evolve would be a fascinating subject for a doctoral thesis.

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  1. I must confess I haven't thought of the development of driving ethics in that way. You've got a good point there, indeed! But promise me and other followers to drive carefully in foreign countries, because we want to read more from your sharp "pen" and, seemingly, brilliant brain and mind, Rosa.

    And yes, I definitely agree with you: Evolution can very well explain lots av behaviors (that creationists can't).

    BTW: Earlier today I read an essay with the same theme, sort of, as your blog article, Rosa. About how emotions evolved and came to be processed by the brain.

    Here are some appetizing paragraphs from that essay:

    The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio worked with patients who had damage in the communication system between the cognitive and emotional brain. The subjects could compute all the informational aspects of a decision in detail, but they couldn’t actually commit to anything.

    Without clear limbic values (that is, feelings), Damasio’s patients couldn’t decide their own social calendars, prioritise jobs at work, or even make decisions in their own best interest.

    Our rational mind is truly embodied, and without this emotional embodiment we have no preferences. In order for our minds to go beyond syntax to semantics, we need feelings. And our ancestral minds were rich in feelings before they were adept in computations.

    Our neo-cortex mushroomed to its current size less than one million years ago. That’s a very recent development when we remember that the human clade or group broke off from the great apes in Africa 7 million years ago. That future-looking, tool-wielding, symbol-juggling cortex grew on top of the limbic system.

    Older still is the reptile brain — the storehouse of innate motivational instincts such as pain-avoidance, exploration, hunger, lust, aggression and so on.

    Walking around (very carefully) on the Serengeti is like visiting the nursery of our own mind.

    SO I DARE SAY: Morality probably evolved in similar ways like (other) emotions once did.

    You can read the whole essay by clicking this link: .

    P.S. I think Antonio Damasio here above describes a disorder called abulia/aboulia; see: That's a disorder that you absolutely cannot suffer from, Rosa. Instead you seem to be as busy as a bee even when you are on vacation.

    1. Thanks. I'll check it out.

      Don't worry about me driving in foreign parts. I used to be an emergency driver so I've had a bit of practice. :-)

  2. I hadn't thought about driving etiquette in such a way either. Thanks again for stimulating postings. In this busy world of too many trivial distractions it is nice to take time out and think.


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