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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Capsized ship captain tripped

Capsized ship captain tripped

Capsized ship captain tripped - Ship's captain: I ‘tripped’ into a lifeboat, While emergency crews continue to scour crashed Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia, details on why the liner’s captain allegedly abandoned ship are coming to ligh. In a freshly released recording, Captain Francesco Schettino’s tells the Italian coast guard that he “tripped” and fell into the safety of a lifeboat.

What makes someone a coward? Why would someone flee the scene of battle, abandon their post, leave their friends to fight alone – or jump ship, leaving passengers behind, after crashing into rocks?
The captain of the Costa Concordia, Francesco Schettino, does not admit leaving passengers to their fate. When his ship crashed and half-capsized, he found himself in a lifeboat, with a hundred or more passengers still on board and an irate coastguard bellowing at him to get back on the Concordia – but he denies fleeing, saying that he "tripped" on the listing deck and fell into the boat. It compares badly with the stoic self-sacrifice of crew and passengers aboard the Titanic, which my colleague Ed West details here.
Whether or not you find Capt Schettino's story plausible, his behaviour and that of the Titanic heroes requires explanation. Why are humans cowardly and brave? What inspires suicidal courage or craven self-preservation?
I'm going to annoy some people with this post, and I should address their criticisms as best I can before I continue. Evolutionary psychology is a deeply contentious subject – not, for once, because people think we were all created in a busy week 6,015 years ago, but because it is believed in some quarters a) to be unscientific and b) to validate views about gender roles and human nature which are politically uncomfortable.
Point b), of course, we can safely ignore. If it turns out that, says, female brains evolved differently to male ones, giving the two sexes, on average, different attitudes to sex or child-rearing or work, then so what? That doesn't give us a moral right to tell individual men and women how they should behave, only what strategies served their ancestors best in the struggle to reproduce. We do not see maximal genetic reproduction as a ethical good, so it's irrelevant; we should acknowledge the findings of evolutionary psychology, just like those of any other science.
Point a) has more weight to it. The suggestion is that it is unfalsifiable, that it fails Karl Popper's criterion of testability that underpins science. Dr Peter Etchells, a post-doctoral researcher in psychology at Bristol University, acknowledged this when I spoke to him: "The difficulty is that Evolutionary Psychology, capital-E capital-P, has a bad name. People have used it to explain aspects of human nature without any real evidence; behaviour X can be explained by evolutionary pressure Y. They're really Just-So stories. But in 'evolutionary psychology', lower case, as just a way of thinking about the brain in evolutionary terms, there's a lot of good work being done." I hope I have steered towards the latter.
Cowardice barely needs explaining. Obviously there are times when running away and not getting killed is in our evolutionary interest. We are all the descendants of an unbroken chain of ancestors who avoided getting killed at least long enough to have children. But self-sacrificing bravery, placing one's life at risk to save others, does. So here goes.
First, suicidal self-sacrifice is not somehow un-Darwinian or anti-evolutionary. As JBS Haldane remarked when asked if he would lay down his life for his brother: "No – but I would to save two brothers, or eight cousins." If a gene causes one of its copies to sacrifice itself, but saves two other copies in the process, it's up on the deal. Laurent Lehmann and Marcus W Feldman point out in their paper War and the evolution of belligerence and bravery, "Pre-state societies are characterized by small group size and limited gene flow between groups, which leads to significant genetic relatedness between members of the same group, a necessary condition for genetically based altruism to evolve". It's a wonderful paradox of the "selfish gene" that it has created selfless behaviour in animals.
Second, while death can still probably be considered a setback for an individual's reproductive fitness, it is rarely certain – or even likely – that one will die following an act of courage. Although on the Titanic a mere 20 per cent of men survived, in most cases one's odds of survival are still pretty good. And acts of bravery have, historically, improved men's chances of reproduction: among the Yanomamö, one of the few remaining groups of hunter-gatherers, men who have killed another man had on average three times as many wives and three times as many children as those who had not (although there are controversies over the research, carried out by Napoleon Chagnon). Obviously having killed does not automatically mean being brave, but it's a reasonable proxy. More broadly, as Henrich and Gil-White point out, prestige among one's peers leads to preferential treatment – almost by definition, really – and one way (one of many, of course) of gaining prestige in human societies is through risky, brave actions which demonstrate one's skill and nerve. It's probably too glib to compare it to the practice among antelopes of "stotting", showing off in front of predators to demonstrate fitness, but I'll do it anyway.
Is that what was going on in the Titanic crew's minds when they ushered the women and children into the lifeboats ahead of them? Of course not; we do not calculate these things – we have evolved emotions that work as rules of thumb for a hunter-gatherer society. Did it actually improve their genes' prospects? We don't know, obviously, but it sounds extraordinarily unlikely; the hunter-gatherer rules of thumb break down in our megacivilisations, where we are unrelated to almost everyone we meet. Is it purely genetic, rather than a product of the culture of the time or place? Of course not; it is (I confidently bet) a combination of the two, insofar as it's meaningful to separate them. Does it mean that bravery isn't really brave, that it's all programmed by our genes? No: your emotions are evolved, but the "strategies" of a bunch of acid molecules in your cell nuclei are not you. The fact that we can explain bravery does not mean that it is less praiseworthy, any more than the fact that we can explain a rainbow using optical theory makes it less beautiful.

If Capt Schettino did flee the sinking ship, then he failed his duty as a captain and a leader, regardless of the evolutionary background of our species. But more interesting is that others – tens of millions of others throughout human history – have not; have risked (and lost) their own lives for other people. We often criticise human nature as brutish, selfish or ugly, but it's not – or not always. The callous logic of natural selection has made us brave, moral and loyal as well.

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