[Excerpt] The Tragedy of Commonsense Morality

Part Of: Demystifying Ethics sequence
Content Summary: 1500 words, 15 min read.

Excerpts are not my writing! This comes from Joshua Greene’s excellent book:

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them

The book goes on to present an interesting solution to the below problem. Check it out!

The Tragedy of the Commons

The following parable – entitled tragedy of the commons – originates from Garrett Hardin’s 1968 paper:

A single group of herders shares a common pasture. The commons is large enough to support many animals, but not infinitely many. From time to time, each herder must decide whether to add another animal to her flock. What’s a rational herder to do? By adding an animal to her herd, she receives a substantial benefit when she sells the animal at market. However, the cost of supporting that animal is shared by all who use the commons. Thus, the herder gains a lot, but pays only a little, by adding an additional animal to her herd. Therefore, she is best served by increasing the size of her herd indefinitely, so long as the commons remains available. Of course, every other herder has the same set of incentives. If each herder acts according to her self-interest, the commons will be completely eroded, and there will be nothing left for anyone.

You may recognize the economic structure of this game from the Prisoner’s Dilemma. To win such a game, you must find the magic corner; that is, to accomplish cooperative outcomes despite the temptation of selfishness.

The problem of cooperation is the central problem of social existence. Fortunately, our brains come equipped with the following mechanisms, all of which foster cooperation.

  1. Concern for others. Two prisoners can find the magic corner if they place some value on each other’s payoffs in addition to their own.
    • Faculties: empathy, violence aversion.
  2. Direct reciprocity. Two prisoners can find the magic corner if they know that being uncooperative now will deny the benefits of future cooperation.
    • Faculties: punitive motivation, forgiveness, gratitude
  3. Commitments. Two prisoners can find the magic corner if they are committed to punishing each other’s uncooperative behavior.
    • Faculties: shame, guilt, loyalty.
  4. Reputation. Two prisoners can find the magic corner if they know that being uncooperative now will deny us the benefits of future cooperation with others.
    • Faculties: gossip, embarrassment.
  5. Assortment. Two prisoners can find the magic corner by belonging to a cooperative group, provided that group members can reliably identify one another.
    • Faculties: identity markers, tribalism

We have cooperative brains, it seems, because cooperation provides material benefits, biological resources that enable our genes to make more copies of ourselves. Out of evolutionary dirt grows the flower of human goodness.

The Tragedy of Common Sense Morality

To the east of a deep, dark forest, a tribe of herder raise sheep on a common pasture. Here the rule is simple: each family gets the same number of sheep. Families send representatives to a council of elders, which governs the commons. Over the years, the council has made difficult decisions. One family, for example, took to breeding exceptionally large sheep, thus appropriating more of the commons for itself. After some heated debate, the council put a stop to this. Another family was caught poisoning its neighbors’ sheep. For this the family was severely punished. Some said too severely. Others said not enough. Despite these challenges, the Eastern tribe has survived, and its families have prospered, some more than others.

To the west of the forest is another tribe whose herders also share a common pasture. There, however, the size of a family’s flock is determined by the family’s size. Here, too, there is a council of elders, which has made difficult decisions. One particularly fertile family had twelve children, far more than the rest. Some complained that they were taking  up too much of the commons. A different family fell ill, losing five of their six children in one year. Some thought it was unfair to compound their tragedy by reducing their wealth by more than half. Despite these challenges, the Western tribe has survived, and its families have prospered, some more than others.

To the north of the forest is yet another tribe. Here there is no common pasture. Each family has its own plot of land, surrounded by a fence. These plots vary greatly in size and fertility. This is partly because some Northern herders are wiser and more industrious than others. Many such herders have expanded their lands, using their surpluses to buy land from their less prosperous neighbors. Some Northern herders are less prosperous than others simply because they are unlucky, having lost their flock or their children to disease. Still other herders are exceptionally lucky, possessing large fertile plots of land, not because they are especially industrious but because they inherited them. Here in the North, the council of elders doesn’t do much. They simply ensure that herders keep their promises and respect one another’s property. The vast differences in wealth among Northern families has been the source of much strife. Each year, some Northerners die in winter for want of food and warmth. Despite these challenges, the Northern tribe has survived, and its families have prospered, some more than others.

To the south of the forest is a fourth tribe. They share not only their pasture but their animals, too. Their council of elders is very busy. The elders manage the tribe’s herd, assign people to jobs, and monitor their work. The fruits of this tribe’s labor are shared equally among all its members. This is a source of much strife, as some tribe members are wiser and more industrious than others. The council hears many complaints about lazy workers. Most members, however, work hard. Some are moved to work by community spirit, others by fear of their neighbor’s reproach. Despite these challenges, the Southern tribe has survived. Its families are not, on average, as prosperous as those in the North, but they do well enough, and in the South no one has ever died in winter for want of food or warmth.  

One summer, a great fire burned through the forest, reducing it to ash. Then came heavy rains, and before long the land, once thick with trees, was transformed into an expanse of gently rolling grassy hills, perfect for grazing animals. The nearby tribes rushed in to claim the land. This was a source of much strife. The Southern tribe proclaimed that the new pastures belonged to all people and must be worked in common. They formed a new council to manage the new pastures and invited the other tribes to send representatives. The Northern herders scoffed at this suggestion. While the Southerners were making their big plans, Northern families built houses and stone walls and set their animals to graze. Many Easterners and Westerners did the same, though with less vigor. Some families sent representatives to the new council.

The four tribes fought bitterly, and many lives, both human and animal were lost. Small quarrels turned into bloody feuds, which turned into deadly battles. A Southern sheep slipped into a Northerner’s field. The Northerner demanded a fee to return it. The Southerners refused to pay. The Northerner slaughtered the sheep. The Southerners took three of the Northerner’s sheep and slaughtered them. The Northerners took ten of the Southerner’s sheep and slaughtered them. The Southerners burned down the Northerners farmhouse, killing a child. Ten Northern families marched on the Southerner’s meeting house and set it ablaze, killing dozens of Southerners, including many children. Back and forth they went with violence and vengeance, soaking the green hills with blood.

The tribes of the new pastures are engaged in bitter, often bloody conflict, even though they are all, in their different ways, moral peoples. They fight not because they are fundamentally selfish but because they have incompatible visions of what a moral society should be. These are not mere scholarly disagreements, although their scholars have those, too. Rather, each tribe’s philosophy is woven into its daily life. Each tribe has its own version of moral common sense. The tribes of the new pastures fight not because they are immoral but because they view life on the new pastures from very different moral perspectives. I call this the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.

Five psychological tendencies tend to exacerbate intertribal conflict:

  1. Naked group selfishness. Human tribes are tribalistic, favoring Us over Them.
  2. Moral disagreement. Tribes have genuine disagreements about how societies should be organized, with different emphases on e.g., the rights of individuals versus the greater good.
  3. Authority question begging. Tribes have distinctive moral commitments, whereby moral authority is vested in local individuals, texts, traditions and deities that other groups don’t recognize as authoritative.
  4. Asymmetry capitalization. Tribes are prone to biased fairness, allowing group-level self-interest to distort their sense of justice
  5. Punitive escalation. The way we process information about social events can cause us to underestimate the harm we cause others, leading to the escalation of conflict.

Morality is nature’s solution to the Tragedy of the Commons, enabling us to put Us ahead of Me. But nature has no ready-made solution to the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality, the problem of enabling Us to get along with Them. And therein lies our problem. If we are to avert the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality, we’re going to have to find our own, unnatural solution: what I’ve called a metamorality, a higher-level moral system that adjudicates among competing tribal moralities, just as a tribe’s morality adjudicates among competing individuals.

Advertisements

[Excerpt] The Three Spheres of Culture

The Three Sphere Hypothesis

Most people agree that human societies operate in different contexts: markets, governments, and communities. The Three Sphere Hypothesis holds that this trichotomy is fundamental and exhaustive of social space. What’s more, these spheres interact. Neither markets nor governments nor communities can be analyzed thoroughly without understanding their dependence upon, and their effects upon, the others.

Relational Models_ Cultural Regime Dissociations (4)

[Excerpt] Intellectual History of the Hypothesis

Source: Wicks (2009). A Model of Dynamic Balance among the Three Spheres of Society

Social scientists – including economists – as well as journalists and others, often refer to “the economic, political, and social conditions” underlying any particular situation, but usually without any further analysis of what these terms imply, and how they relate to each other.

Apparent references to these three spheres pop up – in both popular and technical literature – almost everywhere. It can be a fun game, like “whack-a-mole”:

  • Where and how will the three spheres “pop up” in this or that text?
  • And, given any set of three social attributes that do “pop up”, can they be seen in some way as representing the three spheres?

Etzioni (1996:122) speaks of “three different conditions: paid, coerced, or convinced”; Etzioni (1988) explores motivations in the community sphere at length.

Personalist economics, based on Catholic theology, also recognizes three organizing principles: competition, intervention, and cooperation (Jonish and Terry, 1999:465-6; O’Boyle, 1999:536-7, 2000:550-51).

Hirschman (1992) referred to three social mechanisms: exit, voice, and loyalty. Though all three can apply in varying ways to each sphere, exit refers primarily to the market sphere where, in a competitive situation, one has unlimited choice of buyers or sellers, so can “exit” from any one. Voice might refer primarily to the political sphere, where one can attempt to influence results by persuasion, and loyalty to the community sphere – though one could argue the other way as well.

Streeck and Smitter (1985:1) refer to these “three basic mechanisms of mediation or control” (Ouchi, 1980) as spontaneous solidarity, hierarchical control, and dispersed competition.

Friedland and Alford (1991:39) refer to three domains with different “logics of action”: In the marketplace, we are more likely to base our actions on individual utility and efficient means; in the polity, on democracy and justice; and in the family, on mutual support.

Van Staveren (2001:24) asserts that “three values appear time and again in economic analysis: liberty, justice, and care. Markets tend to express freedom, states to express justice, and unpaid labor to express care among human beings.” She notes (p. 213) that Ayres (1961:170) asserted a similar set of core human values: “freedom, equality, and security”. Van Staveren (p. 203) also notes:

  • the form that these values take: exchange, redistribution, and giving;
  • the locations where they operate: market, state, and the care-economy; and
  • the corresponding virtues: prudence, propriety, and benevolence.

She further asserts that there are “distinct emotions and forms of deliberation as well”.

Mackey (2002:384) refers to “economic, political, and social problems” in Saddam’s Iraq; elsewhere (p. 181) she uses a different order, referring to “the new political, social, and economic paradigm” (an order which Rothstein and Stolle, 2007:1, also use); and yet elsewhere (p. 49) she notes that something “meant more socially, politically, and economically”. The order of expression doesn’t seem to matter, to Mackey or to most other authors, and one can easily find the other three permutations as well (e.g., Friedman, 2000:131; Giddens and Pierson, 1998:89; Sage, 2003).

But the community sphere is often ignored, and thus is sometimes considered third (Adaman and Madra, 2002). In political theory, the “Third Way” (Giddens, 1998) represents an alternative to either markets or governments, focused more in communities.

Waterman (1986:123) asserts “three freedoms: economic, political, and religious (conscience)”; and Hobson (1938/1976:52) refers to “the democratic triad of liberty, equality, fraternity”.

As some of these examples illustrate, a wide variety of words are used to refer to the three spheres, as in the title of the book (cited by Bennett, 1985) Mexico: Catholicism, Capitalism, and the State, or when

  • Mackey (2002:217) discusses “political, economic, and… cultural control”;
  • Bowles (1998:105) refers to “states, communities, and markets”;
  • Wright (2000:211) refers to “governance, moral codes, and markets”;
  • Mauss (1925/1967:52) refers to the “law, morality, and economy of the Latins” and to “the distinction between ritual, law, and economic interest”;
  • Yuengert (1999:46) discusses “free markets circumscribed within a tight legal framework, and operating within a humane culture”;
  • Polanyi (1997:140), in discussing “economic life”, refers to “freedom under law and custom, as laid down and amended when necessary by the State and public opinion”.

In The Foundations of Welfare Economics (1949:230), Little points out that “if a person argues that a certain change would increase economic welfare, it is open to anyone to argue that it would decrease spiritual or political welfare.”

This tripartite taxonomy has been used by economists since Adam Smith who, of course, had first written The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759/1982) about communities and social goods, then The Wealth of Nations (1776/1976) about markets, economics. But he was planning a third major work – which was never completed – on the political system (Smith, 1759/1982:342 and “Advertisement” therein).

Minowitz (1993) uses the same tripartite taxonomy twice (in varying order) in the title of his book: Profits, Priests, and Princes: Adam Smith’s Emancipation of Economics from Politics and Religion.

The English economist and theologian Philip Wicksteed referred to “business, politics, and the pulpit” in his book of sermons titled Is Christianity Practical? (1885/1920, referenced in Steedman 1994:83). In discussing Wicksteed’s work, Steedman (p. 99) also refers to “potatoes, politics, and prayer”. Similarly, Hobson (1938/1976:55) referred to “the purse, power, and prestige of the ruling classes in business, politics, and society”. Success itself is often defined as “wealth, fame, and power” (Bogle, 2004:1; Carey, 2006), or sometimes as “money, status, and power”.

A similar tripartite taxonomy – perhaps Marxian – of firms, social classes, and states, can easily be seen as referring to the three spheres.

According to Trotsky (1957:255), communism would demonstrate that the human race had “ceased to crawl on all fours before God, kings, and capital” (quoted by Minowitz, 1993:240).

A variety of sources also provide evidence of an apparently widespread belief that the three spheres are both fundamental and exhaustive of social space. Michael Novak refers to the “three mutually autonomous institutions: the state, economic institutions, and cultural, religious institutions” as “the doctrine of the trinity in democratic capitalism” (Abdul-Rauf, 1986:175; also Neuhaus, 1986:517).

Dasgupta (1993:104) notes “one overarching idea, that of citizenship, with its three constituent spheres: the civil, the political, and the socio-economic.”

Meyer et al. (1992:12) assert that “individuals must acquire the means to participate effectively in the economic, social, and political life of the nation.” In the same work, Wong (1992:141) makes it clear that these three spheres are considered exhaustive by referring to “all social domains… economy… polity… and… cultural system”.

Polanyi (1997:158) describes the Russian Revolution and the Soviets’ “project for a new economic, political, and social system of mankind”.

Shadid (2001:3) points out that “political Islam, or Islamism…suggests an all-embracing approach to economics, politics, and social life.”

Dicken (2007:538) says that “corporate social responsibilities span the entire spectrum of relationships between firms [and] states, civil society, and markets.”

 

[Excerpt] The Finite Price of Human Life

Content Summary: 1400 words, 7 min read.
Original Author: Scott Alexander

Price of Life

Recently on both sides of the health care debate I have been hearing people make a very dangerous error. They point to a situation in which someone was denied coverage for a certain treatment because it was expensive and unproven, and say: “This is an outrage! We can’t let ‘death panels’ say some lives aren’t worth saving! How can people say money is more important than a human life? We have a moral duty to pay for any treatment, no matter how expensive, no matter how hopeless the case, if there is even the tiniest chance that it help this poor person.”

All of these are simple errors. Contrary to popular belief, you can put a dollar value on human life. That dollar value is $5.8 million. Denying this leads to terrible consequences.

Let me explain.

On The Risks of Dying

Consider the following:

A man has a machine with a button on it. If you press the button, there is a one in five million chance that you will die immediately; otherwise, nothing happens. He offers you some money to press the button once. What do you do? Do you refuse to press it for any amount? If not, how much money would convince you to press the button?

What do you think?

If you answered something like “Never for any amount of money,” or “Only for a million dollars”, you’re not thinking clearly.

One in five million is pretty much your chance of dying from a car accident every five minutes that you’re driving. Choosing to drive for five minutes is exactly equivalent to choosing to press the man’s button. If you said you wouldn’t press the button for fifty thousand dollars, then in theory if someone living five minutes away offers to give you fifty thousand dollars no strings attached, you should refuse the offer because you’re too afraid to drive to their house.

Likewise, if you drive five minutes to a store to buy a product, instead of ordering the same product on the Internet for the same price plus $5 shipping and handling, then you should be willing to press the man’s button for $5.

When I asked this question to several friends, about two-thirds of them said they’d never press the button. This tells me people are fundamentally confused when they consider the value of life. When asked directly how much value they place on life, they always say it’s infinite. But people’s actions show that in reality they place a limited value on their life; enough that they’re willing to accept a small but real chance of death to save five bucks. And as we will see, that is a very, very good thing.

Insurance Example: Fixed Costs

Consider the following:

Imagine an insurance company with one hundred customers, each of whom pays $1. This insurance company wants 10% profit, so it has $90 to spend. Seven people on the company’s plan are sick, with seven different diseases, each of which is fatal. Each disease has a cure. The cures cost, in order, $90, $50, $40, $20, $15, $10, and $5.

We have decided to give everyone every possible treatment. So when the first person, the one with the $90 disease, comes to us, we gladly spend $90 on their treatment; it would be inhuman to just turn them away. Now we have no money left for anyone else. Six out of seven people die.

The fault here isn’t with the insurance company wanting to make a profit. Even if the insurance company gave up its ten percent profit, it would only have $10 more; enough to save the person with the $10 disease, but five out of seven would still die.

A better tactic would be to turn down the person with the $90 disease. Instead, treat the people with $5, $10, $15, $20, and $40 diseases. You still use only $90, but only two out of seven die. By refusing treatment to the $90 case, you save four lives. This solution can be described as more cost-effective; by spending the same amount of money, you save more people. Even though “cost-effectiveness” is derided in the media as being opposed to the goal of saving lives, it’s actually all about saving lives.

If you don’t know how many people will get sick next year with what diseases, but you assume it will be pretty close to the amount of people who get sick this year, you might make a rule for next year: Treat everyone with diseases that cost $40 or less, but refuse treatment to anyone with diseases that cost $50 or more.

Insurance Example: Probabilistic Costs

There is a similar argument applies to medical decisions that involve risk. Consider:

You have $900. There are four different fatal diseases: A, B, C, and D. There are 40 patients, ten with each disease. with four different fatal diseases. Each disease costs $300 to cure.

In this case, your only option is to cure A, B, and C… and tell patients with D that unfortunately there’s not enough left over for them.

But what if the cure for A only had a 10% chance of working? In this case, you cure A, B, and C and have, on average, 21 people left alive.

Or you could tell A that you can’t approve the treatment because it’s not proven to work. Now you use your $90 to treat B, C, and D instead, and you have on average 30 people left alive. By denying someone an unproven treatment, you’ve saved 9 lives.

Computing the Value of a Life

So, in the real world, how should we decide how much money is a good amount to spend on someone?

I mentioned before that people don’t act as if the lives of themselves or others are infinitely valuable. They act as if they have a well-defined price tag. Well, some enterprising economists have figured out exactly what that price tag is. They made their calculations by examining, for example, how much extra you have to pay someone to take a dangerous job, or how much people who are spending their own money are willing to spend on unproven hopeless treatments. They determined that most people act as if their lives were worth, on average, 5.8 million dollars.

Most health care, government or private, uses a similar calculation. One common practice is to value an extra year of healthy life at $50,000. So:

  1. If a treatment costs $60,000 and will only let you live another year, they’ll reject it.
  2. If a treatment costs $600,000 and will let you live 20 more years, then since 600000/20 = 30,000 which is < 50,000, they’ll approve it.
  3. If a treatment costs $15,000 and has only a one in ten chance of letting you live another two years, then since [(15000)/(1/10)]/2 = 75,000 which is > 50,000, they’ll reject it.

I’m not claiming I have any of the answers to this health care thing. I’m not claiming that $50,000 is or isn’t a good number to value a year of life at. I’m not saying that government health care couldn’t become much more efficient and save lots of money, or that private health care couldn’t come up with a better incentive system that makes denying treatments less common and less traumatizing. I’m not saying that insurance companies don’t make huge and stupid mistakes when performing this type of analysis, or even that they aren’t the slime of the earth. I’m not saying the insurance system is currently fair to the poor, whatever that means. I’m not saying that there aren’t many many variables not considered in this simplistic analysis, or anything of that sort.

I am saying that if you demand that you “not be treated as a number” or that your insurance “never deny anyone treatment as long as there’s some chance it could help”, or that health care be “taken out of the hands of bureaucrats and economists”, then you will reap what you have sown: worse care and a greater chance of dying of disease, plus the certainty that you have inflicted the same on many others.

I’m also saying that this is a good example of why poorly informed people who immediately get indignant at anything packaged by the media as being “outrageous”, even when their “hearts are in the right places”, end up poisoning a complicated issue and making it harder for responsible people to make any progress.

[Excerpt] An Unfortunate Dualist

Part Of: Philosophy of Mind sequence
Content Summary: 500 words, 5 min read

Once upon a time there was a dualist. He believed that mind and matter are separate substances. Just how they interacted he did not pretend to know-this was one of the “mysteries” of life. But he was sure they were quite separate substances.

This dualist, unfortunately, led an unbearably painful life – not because of his philosophical beliefs, but for quite different reasons. And he had excellent empirical evidence that no respite was in sight for the rest of his life. He longed for nothing more than to die. But he was deterred from suicide by such reasons as:

  1. he did not want to hurt other people by his death;
  2. he was afraid suicide might be morally wrong;
  3. he was afraid there might be an afterlife, and he did not want to risk the possibility of eternal punishment.

So our poor dualist was quite desperate.

Then came the discovery of the miracle drug! Its effect on the taker was to annihilate the soul entirely but to leave the body functioning exactly as before. Absolutely no observable change came over the taker; the body continued to act just as if it still had a soul. Not the closest friend or observer could possibly know that the taker had taken the drug, unless the taker informed him.

Do you believe that such a drug is impossible in principle? Assuming you believe it possible, would you take it? Would you regard it as immoral? Is it tantamount to suicide? Is there anything in Scriptures forbidding the use of such a drug? Surely, the body of the taker can still fulfill all its responsibilities on earth. Another question: Suppose your spouse took such a drug, and you knew it. You would know that she (or he) no longer had a soul but acted just as if she did have one. Would you love your mate any less?

To return to the story, our dualist was, of course, delighted! Now he could annihilate himself (his soul, that is) in a way not subject to any of the foregoing objections. And so, for the first time in years, he went to bed with a light heart, saying: “Tomorrow morning I will go down to the drugstore and get the drug. My days of suffering are over at last!” With these thoughts, he fell peacefully asleep.

Now at this point a curious thing happened. A friend of the dualist who knew about this drug, and who knew of the sufferings of the dualist, decided to put him out of his misery. So in the middle of the night, while the dualist was fast asleep, the friend quietly stole into the house and injected the drug into his veins. The next morning the body of the dualist awoke -without any soul indeed- and the first thing it did was to go to the drugstore to get the drug. He took it home and, before taking it, said, “Now I shall be released.” So he took it and then waited the time interval in which it was supposed to work. At the end of the interval he angrily exclaimed: “Damn it, this stuff hasn’t helped at all! I still obviously have a soul and am suffering as much as ever!”

(This parable was inspired by one written by Raymond M. Smullyan)

The Hiccups Of Your Inner Fish [Excerpt]

The annoyance of hiccups has its roots in the history we share with fish and tadpoles.

If there is any consolation for getting hiccups, it is that our misery is shared with many other mammals. Cats can be stimulated to hiccup by sending an electrical impulse to a small patch of tissue in their brain stem. This area of the brain stem is thought to be the center that controls the complicated reflex that we call a hiccup.

The hiccup reflex is a stereotyped twitch involving a number of muscles in our body wall, diaphragm, neck, and throat. A spasm in one or two of the major nerves that control breathing causes these muscles to contract. This results in a very sharp inspiration of air. Then, about 35 milliseconds later, a flap of tissue in the back of our throat (the glottis) closes the top of our airway. The fast inhalation followed by a brief closure of the tube produces the “hic”.

The problem is that we rarely experience only a single hic. Stop the hiccups in the first five to ten hics, and you have a decent chance of ending the bout altogether. Miss that window, and the bout of hiccups can persist for an average of about sixty hics. Inhaling carbon dioxide (by breathing into the classic paper bag) and stretching the body wall (taking a big inhalation and holding it) can end hiccups early in some of us. But not all. Some cases of pathological hiccups can be extremely prolonged. The longest uninterrupted hiccups in a person lasted from 1922 to 1990.

Our tendency to develop hiccups is another influence of our past. There are two issues to think about:

  1. What causes the spasm of nerves that initiates the hiccup.
  2. What controls the distinctive hic, the abrupt inhalation-glottis closure.

The nerve spasm is a product of our fish history, while the hic is an outcome of the history we share with animals such as tadpoles.

First, fish. Our brain can control our breathing without needing conscious effort on our part. Most of the work takes place in the brain stem, at the boundary between the brain and the spinal cord. The brain stem sends nerve impulses to our main breathing muscles. Breathing happens in a pattern. Muscles of the chest, diaphragm, and throat contract in a well-defined order. Consequently, this part of the brain stem is known as a “central pattern generator.” This region can produce rhythmic patterns of nerve and, consequently, muscle activation. A number of such generators in our brain and spinal cord control other rhythmic behaviors, such as swallowing and walking.

The problem is that the brain stem originally controlled breathing in fish; it has been jury-rigged to work in mammals. Sharks and bony fish all have a portion of the brain stem that controls the rhythmic firing of muscles in the throat and around the gills. The nerves that control these areas all originate in a well-defined portion of the brain stem. We can even see this nerve arrangement in some of the most primitive fish in the fossil record. Ancient ostracoderms, from rocks over 400 million years old, preserve casts of the brain and cranial nerves. Just as in living fish, the nerves that control breathing extend from the brain stem.

This works well in fish, but it is a lousy arrangement for mammals. In fish, the nerves that control breathing do not have to travel very far from the brain stem. The gills and throat generally surround this area of the brain. We mammals have a different problem. Our breathing is controlled by muscles in the wall of our chest and by the diaphragm, the sheet of muscle that separates our chest from our abdomen. Contraction of the diaphragm controls inspiration. The nerves that control the diaphragm exit our brain just as they do in fish, and they leave from the brain stem, near our neck. These nerves, the vagus and the phrenic nerve, extend from the base of the skull and travel through the chest cavity and reach the diaphragm and the portions of the chest that control breathing. This convoluted path creates problems; a rational design would have the nerves traveling not from the neck but from nearer the diaphragm. Unfortunately, anything that interferes with one of these nerves can block their function or cause a spasm.

If the odd course of our nerves is a product of our fishy past, the hiccup itself is likely the product of our history as amphibians. Hiccups are unique among our breathing behaviors in that an abrupt intake of air is followed by a closure of the glottis. Hiccups seem to be controlled by a central pattern generator in the brain stem: stimulate this region with an electrical impulse, and we stimulate hiccups. It makes sense that hiccups are controlled by a central pattern generator, since, as in other rhythmic behaviors, a set sequence of events happens during a hic.

It turns out that the pattern generator responsible for hiccups is virtually identical to one in amphibians. And not in just amphibians – in tadpoles, which use both lungs and gills to breathe. Tadpoles use this pattern generator when they breathe with gills. In that circumstance, they want to pump water into their mouth and throat and across the gills, but they do not want the water to enter their lungs. To prevent it from doing so, they close the glottis, the flap that closes off the breathing tube. And to close the glottis, tadpoles have a central pattern generator in their brain stem so that an inspiration is followed immediately by a closing glottis. They can breathe with their gills thanks to an extended form of hiccup.

The parallels between our hiccups and gill breathing in tadpoles are so extensive that many have proposed that the two phenomena are one and the same. Gill breathing in tadpoles can be blocked by carbon dioxide, just like our hiccups. We can also block gill breathing by stretching the wall of the chest, just as we can stop hiccups by inhaling deeply and holding our breath. Perhaps we could even block gill breathing in tadpoles by having them drink a glass of water upside down.

The Original Noachian Narratives

[Parent Article]

The Jahwist Version

YHWH saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. YHWH regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So YHWH said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of YHWH.

YHWH then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family,because I have found you righteous in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.”

And Noah did all that YHWH commanded him. And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood.  And after the seven days the floodwaters came on the earth. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights. Then YHWH shut him in.

For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits.

Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark. 

And the rain had stopped falling from the sky.The water receded steadily from the earthAfter forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark. Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.

Then Noah built an altar to YHWH and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. YHWH smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.

The Priestly Version

Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God. Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out.This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish.But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.”

Noah did everything just as God commanded him.

Pairs of clean and unclean animals, of birds and of all creatures that move along the ground, male and female, came to Noah and entered the ark, as God had commanded Noah.

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month—on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.

On that very day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, together with his wife and the wives of his three sons, entered the ark. They had with them every wild animal according to its kind, all livestock according to their kinds, every creature that moves along the ground according to its kind and every bird according to its kind, everything with wings. Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark. The animals going in were male and female of every living thing, as God had commanded Noah.

Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible.

And he sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. By the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry.

Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.”

So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.

“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind.
As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”

The Story Of Noah, With Sources Revealed

[Parent Article]

Genesis 6:5 – 9:17

YHWH saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. YHWH regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So YHWH said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of YHWH.

This is the account of Noah and his family.

Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God. Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out.This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish.But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.”

Noah did everything just as God commanded him.

YHWH then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family,because I have found you righteous in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.”

And Noah did all that YHWH commanded him.

Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters came on the earth. And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood. Pairs of clean and unclean animals, of birds and of all creatures that move along the ground, male and female, came to Noah and entered the ark, as God had commanded Noah. And after the seven days the floodwaters came on the earth.

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month—on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.

On that very day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, together with his wife and the wives of his three sons, entered the ark. They had with them every wild animal according to its kind, all livestock according to their kinds, every creature that moves along the ground according to its kind and every bird according to its kind, everything with wings. Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark. The animals going in were male and female of every living thing, as God had commanded Noah. Then YHWH shut him in.

For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits. Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.

The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky.The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible.

After forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark and he sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.

By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. By the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry.

Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.”

So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.

Then Noah built an altar to YHWH and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. YHWH smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.

“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind.
As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”