Evolution and morality

Those who believe there’s some sort of debate going on between “evolutionists” and “creationists” are way off the mark.  In the public sphere, creationism barely registers, except as a foil to enlightened voices.  In the world of power politics, creationism may win a mention in a school district in Kansas, but the other side can humiliate and overthrow the president of Harvard.

As Ullica Segerstrale has shown, the real debate today is between those who believe in the power of natural selection over human behavior, usually called neodarwinists, and those who believe the human mind is a blank slate at birth, who tend to be Marxists or, what amounts to the same thing, postmodernists.

It was the latter group that forced Larry Summers into three public apologies before driving him from Harvard, for uttering a single statement supportive of a neodarwinist notion — that women and men may have evolved with different skill sets.

Neodarwinists like Richard Dawkins speak glibly of the “selfish gene.”  That kind of talk enrages the postmodernists, who consider it the glorification of individual selfishness, and thus a justification of white, male, capitalist oppression.  The debate is rich in ironies.  Postmodernists maintain that all cultural arrangements, including morality, are manipulations by the power structure.  Belief in selfishness is central to their ideology.

Most neodarwinists happen to be politically very liberal.  They tend to avert their gaze, uneasily, from the implications of their own theories.  Dawkins, for example, has become a famous bore on the subject of religion, yet can also say with a straight face, “I want to change the world in which I live in such a way that natural selection no longer applies.”

Because of these contradictions, the problem evolution poses for morality gets discussed only at the most cartoonish level.  The Larry Summers affair is one example:  he was punished for violating a sex taboo in academia.  Another is this article, which argues that neodarwinism (aka “sociobiology” or “evolutionary psychology” — no catchy names for this crowd) should be treated like sex education and not taught to young children, to avoid traumatizing their impressionable little minds.

To treat the matter seriously, we must begin with the facts.  The facts, I am convinced, support many of the neodarwinist contentions.  There is a sense in which genes can be said to exist simply to reproduce themselves.  The life of each person is, again in a sense, the sum of his genetic endowment and his environment.  Group selection, once the battle cry of social darwinists, has fallen into scientific disfavor.  Selection is said to occur at the level of the individual organism (though persuasive unorthodox opinions have not been lacking).

Some of the problems raised by this body of evidence are trivial.  Genes can be described as “selfish,” but their reproductory strategies could in theory be saintly.  In fact, neodarwinists have found altruism to be an evolutionary success story.  Equally, if men and women turn out be differently endowed, this won’t affect their essential equality, which flows from the moral and political plane.  We have right-handed people and left-handed people, high-IQ people and low-IQ people, but no one seriously suggests that one set is morally inferior to the other, and should be deprived of the vote.

The transcendent questions posed by evolution to morality are, first, whether we exist simply to survive and reproduce, and second, whether we have any choice in the matter.

If survival and reproduction are the highest good, then morality as we understand it has no place in human life.  Even if we succeed by the imitation of Christ, nothing need stop us, when a new strategy becomes necessary, from the imitation of Stalin.  Morality by definition is about shared constraints on behavior.  Otherwise it becomes a fraud perpetrated by self-centered persons to disadvantage the competition — precisely what the postmodernists contend.

For morality to become more than a game played by con artists on dupes, it must somehow connect to natural selection.  Evidence for this connection is plentiful.  A moral sense is almost certainly hardwired to the human genome, continuous with the inarticulate ideals of other social primates.  Deep feelings of rightness and shame enforce the moral sense, and the cumulative genius of the community, across history, has used these feelings as a lever to reorganize human existence toward  nobler goals than survival and reproduction.

No human being ever said to himself, “I live to have offspring.”  That is not delusion but reality at the human level — which differs from the selfish gene level as the latter does from the random atomic level.

In addition, many specific moral ideals have a genetic aspect, and are found in every human community:  the marital bond, for example, and the mutual love between parents and children.  Other ideals, like the brutalization of Spartan males, are local exaggerations, requiring intense habituation of the moral sense to extreme behaviors.

But there’s no blank slate.  The moral sense will stretch only so far, and it’s the height of futility to pine, like Dawkins, for a world in which “natural selection no longer applies.”

The question of choice has, in a way, already been answered, but it’s important to make that answer clear.  We have evolved the most complex set of desires of any living creature.  If those desires pulled in the same direction, we would become unfree, slaves to our own needs.

Demonstrably, our desires contradict one another.  The moral emotions contradict selfish drives.  Empathy contradicts indifference to the fate of others.  The yearning for a worthy place in the community contradicts the impulse to illicit pleasure, to cheat in stealth, or to abuse wealth and power.  In these contradictions — in this sacrifice of animal instinct on a cross of contingency and doubt — human freedom is born.

Our ancestors were selected for a range of behavioral possibilities.  We who are their heirs have choices in how we behave, but the choices aren’t infinite in number.  There are many behaviors we can’t systematically indulge in:  free sex, child murder, unrestrained violence, total deceit, and isolation from the community are but a few.  We can’t abolish our inheritance — we can’t, as Dawkins should know perfectly well, do away with selection, any more than we can flap our arms and fly.  But our ancestral biology has carved out of blind instinct a sphere of human choice, and within that sphere, we are free.

Evolution poses problems for morality, but none, I think, beyond solution.  Aspects of morality, in turn, are not accounted for by neodarwinist theory.  According to the latter, altruism must be based on kinship or reciprocity.  But human behavior everywhere refutes this notion:  the NYC firemen in 9/11, who rushed into certain death to help their fellow citizens, could have hoped for no reciprocal payoff.  The same applies to soldiers who face death in battle, and individuals who risk death to save a drowning stranger.

While these behaviors can be explained in ways congruent with evolution, they have not been viewed by the neodarwinists as a problem they need to solve.  Until they do, their theories will only be partial explanations of human behavior.


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