Neodarwinism is a nihilism

Neodarwinism maintains that the basic unit of life is the genome, and that individual organisms are simply vehicles seeking the reproduction of their genes.  Patterns of behavior are interpreted as “strategies” for gene survival.  Such strategies, neodarwinists insist, must be understood to be hardwired — the legacy of ancestral interactions between a host of individuals and a fluid environment.  The neodarwinists, who once favored the brain-computer analogy, still like to speak of behavioral “algorithms.”

Composed entirely of English speakers (and writers), the neodarwinists are a brilliant crew, articulate and persuasive.  They know their subject but are free with their opinions.  The group includes Richard Dawkins, who first wrote of the “selfish gene,” entomologist Edward Wilson, who coined the term “sociobiology,” cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker, who took on the blank slate theory of human behavior, philosopher Daniel Dennett, and many other authors and scientists.

Much of the neodarwinist program is supported by persuasive evidence and careful theoretical work.  Clever research has been conducted to analyze our moral sense, vindicating Hume and Jefferson.  Human “universal” or transcultural traits have been identified, presumably anchored in our common genetic inheritance.  The neodarwinists take great pleasure in trampling on some taboo subjects of academia — the differences between men and women, for example, or the impossibility of a blank-slate brain.

Yet they are skittish about the moral and political consequences of their theories.  Their writings portray a bleak universe of mechanistic forces, with self-deluded organisms obeying the selfish commands of immortality-seeking genes.  In person, however, the neodarwinists are virtually all liberals, and most are academics:  they wish to affirm a humanist worldview.  The conflict between the world of their theories and that of their ideals is never resolved, and induces a kind of schizophrenia in neodarwinist utterances.

Most pathological, because most extreme in both directions, is Dawkins.  The world according to Dawkins is a cold, purposeless, joyless place.  “In a universe of blind physical forces and blind genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, some people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice,” he writes in River Out of Eden.  Elsewhere in the same work he asserts that “nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent.  This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn.  We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous — indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.”

The scientist in Dawkins has labored diligently — one is tempted to say, purposefully — to teach humanity this harsh lesson.  Another side of the man has taken on the moral consequences.

One might expect him to engage in a Nietzschean revaluation of all values.  What, after all, can the good life mean, in an environment with “neither good nor evil,” “indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose”?  A possible model might be the life of Genghis Khan:  he killed and destroyed at will, but reproduced so successfully that today at least 16 million individuals have been found to carry his genes.

Certainly, one would expect Dawkins to treat human foibles and delusions with scientific detachment, if not sympathy.

He has instead chosen the opposite approach.  Indulging in an all-too-human pattern, Dawkins has grown angrier as he has aged.  The conventions of society have come to enrage him, the many failings and contradictions of our species earn his withering contempt.  His tone has waxed carping and inquisitorial.

Today Dawkins is a veritable Torquemada of scientific moralizing — blasting religion as “the root of all evil,” President Bush for being “Bin Ladin’s dream candidate . . . an idiot. . . also sly, mendacious, and vindictive,” our country for the “grotesque mismatch” between the American electorate and our “elite intelligentsia,” and disbelievers in evolution as “either ignorant, stupid or insane.”

The good life gleaned from Dawkins’ writings, far from Genghis-like, suspiciously resembles that of an aging Oxford don of liberal views.  His politics are orthodox left:  anti-Iraq, anti-Israel, anti-religion, anti-tradition.  His positive statements remain  exceptionally vague, and are anchored to science or rationality rather than the neodarwinist universe of blind physical forces.

He’s quite liable to blurt out this sort of thing:  “If death is final, a rational agent can be expected to value his life highly and be reluctant to risk it.”  Besides taking no account of the content of the life in question, it’s an old man’s creed.  Young Achilles would choose a short but glorious existence.  And in a world devoid of meaning or purpose, what claim does rationality have on our behavior?  Dawkins never connects the harsh world of River Out of Eden to the gentle assumptions of Oxford.

At times, he seems to demand the imposition of Oxford on nature.  He has said, “I want to change the world in which I live in such a way that natural selection no longer applies.”  I find this to be an astonishing statement, but it’s standard Dawkins fare.  “I am comfortable that we can override biology with free will,” he stated elsewhere.  When pressed to explain what power, in a universe of blind physical forces and blind genetic replication, could render this possible, he offers evasive answers, a typical one being that most prized quality in academia, “big brains.”

But this will not do.  The question is:  granted Dawkins’ pitiless universe, can there be an alternative to moral nihilism?  Callow assertions about changing the world or invocations of free will are not serious answers.

At the opposite end of the neodarwinist spectrum stands Stephen Pinker.  In manner and substance, Pinker genuinely reflects the humanist ideal:  he seeks to persuade rather than condemn, and his writings trace an attempt to understand our humanity, our human nature, in evolutionary terms.  Yet the world according to Pinker poses as many problems for morality as does that of Dawkins — and, like Dawkins, Pinker has persistently skated around the implications of his work.

In The Blank Slate, Pinker attempts to refute the charge that Darwinian theory leads to moral nihilism.  In far less virulent tones, he repeats Dawkins’ criticism of religion and humanistic assessment of life:  “Would life lose its purpose if we ceased to exist when our brains die?  On the contrary, nothing invests life with more meaning that the realization that every moment of sentience is a precious gift.”  He then makes a distinction between ultimate and proximate causes.  Genes, ultimate drivers of behavior, act selfishly in seeking to reproduce.  Individual human beings can, and often do, pursue the immortality of their genes by acting unselfishly.

The existence of unselfish behavior, or altruism, poses a problem for neodarwinists.  If we are individually driven by self-replicating genes, why should any individual sacrifice even a moment in time to help another?

In seeking to answer this question, the neodarwinists have made some of their most interesting contributions.  They observed that kin altruism fostered the survival of one’s genes by indirect means.  They identified hardwired mental mechanisms, including a “cheating detection device,” promoting reciprocal altruism in human groups (and in other species as well).  In both cases, individuals respond to the high probability of (genetically) doing well by doing good.

Relying on the language of David Hume and the work of Jonathan Haidt, Pinker musters persuasive evidence in support of a “moral sense” undergirding human altruism.  While we don’t know in detail how this innate faculty works, it’s clear that powerful emotions drive moral judgment.  Sympathy, anger, gratitude, disgust — these, rather than reason, are the only guides we possess for telling right from wrong.  The moral experience isn’t cognitively empty.  A complex matrix of reasons and explanations usually follow from (say) the anger experienced when observing a child being abused.  But emotion is  foundational and necessary:  lacking that, there’s no moral life.

Pinker explains this with his usual light touch.  He then warns of the fallibility of the moral sense.  It is, he writes, “a gadget, like stereo vision.”  Fair enough:  every sense is prone to distortions and illusions.

Pinker’s favorite illustration of moral error, used in The Blank Slate and repeated in this NYT Magazine piece, is Leon Kass stating that “repugnance” may be the best argument against human cloning.  Calling this the “shudder test,” Pinker observes:  “People have shuddered at all kinds of morally irrelevant violations of purity in their culture: touching an untouchable, drinking from the same water fountain as a Negro, allowing Jewish blood to mix with Aryan blood, tolerating sodomy between consenting men.

These examples are problematic.  Why shouldn’t people shudder at touching an untouchable?  “The difference between a defensible moral position and an atavistic gut feeling,” Pinker declares, “is that with the former we can give reasons why our conviction is valid.”  But what makes a given reason valid or invalid?  Hindus give reasons for avoiding untouchables, as did Nazis for abominating Jews.

It seems to me that Pinker has fallen into the very trap he is warning against.  He’s a rationalist and a humanist, therefore he supposes, without giving reasons for it, that rationalist and humanist reasons trump all others.  The logic leads to an infinite regress, but I think something else is at work here, which lies at the heart of the neodarwinists’ schizophrenic utterances.

Both Pinker and Dawkins are scientists.  As such, they think in terms of materialistic determinism.  The purposeless universe and gadget-like moral sense express this aspect of their thinking.  But Pinker and Dawkins are also rationalists.  Without explicitly admitting it, they assume a Kantian realm of ideas, ineffable but real, in which reasons can be found which are good for everyone, everywhere, for all time.

The two perspectives are irreconcilable.  Not surprisingly, the reasons produced by both men when they stray from scientific topics favor personal predilections over professional method.

Pinker is a master at explaining how morality works, and how natural selection may have shaped our emotions and desires, in part at least, toward altruism.  He evidently believes  such an explanation is enough to refute the charge of nihilism.  “If we are so constituted that we cannot help but think in moral terms. . .,” he argues, “then morality is as real for us as if it were decreed by the cosmos.”

But we are actually not constituted to think in terms of “morality,” but rather of specific content that is judged right or wrong.  The question isn’t how morality works, but why, in any given instance, it should.  In the infinite regress of reasons, there must be a stopping-place, or we slide into nihilism.  Pinker delivers an enormous volume of fascinating information about human nature, but he ellides past the problem — in part, I suspect, because he’s unaware it exists.


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