For an explanation of what Weatherwax Wednesdays are all about, read the introduction post.
This week’s Weatherwax quote is also from Carpe Jugulum. This exchange occurs between during the denoument as Granny Weatherwax confronts the leader of the vampire family that has invaded the kingdom of Lancre.
“We are vampires. We cannot help what we are.”
“Only animals can’t help what they are,” said Granny.
The rallying cry of the transhumanist movement is “To be human is to be more than human.” In this passage, Granny rebukes the vampire villain for trying to hide behind the idea that biology is destiny.
A disturbing trend I’ve seen in some atheistic writing is the desire to ground morality in evolutionary psychology. Richard Dawkins was certainly guilty of this in The God Delusion and I’ve seen a lot of other prominent atheists fall into the same trap. Desperate to avoid the accusation that some particular moral precept seems to be in conflict with evolution, they construct hypothetical sociological models to explain why altruisim might be winning reproductive strategy.
A quick look around at the rest of the animal kingdom makes it clear we can’t expect to find the dictates of genetic pressure lining up so neatly with our moral intuitions. Gorillas demonstrate dominance by committing brutal acts of infanticide, grabbing a baby gorilla from its mother’s breast and dashing its brains out on a rock. Fifty percent of the mating among orangutans in the wild are acts of rape (note: rape is obviously a difficult standard to apply to animals. In the case of orangutans, the ‘rape’ is accomplished when the male sneaks up on the female, throws her to the ground, pummels her as she tries to escape, and, in some cases, bites her and breaks fingers). Many more examples of how abusive behavior can be a winning evolutionary strategy can be found in Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence by Richard W. Wrangham.
Morality does not optimize us for survival. It has turned out to be at least a semi-sustainable solution for our species, but, from a purely evolutionary perspective, there is no reason why the brutal strategies of the gorilla or orangutan could not serve equally well. Morality is not validated by its usefulness. Atheists who cling to group selection as a way to explain kindness are as misguided as the pick up artists who claim their conception of ‘game’ is merely an acquiescence to the laws of nature.
We can’t look to evolutionary psychology as a way to justify our behavior. The real power of this kind of study is our ability to map our blind spots and limitations as a species, and seeing if we can find a way to work around them. When we read about the Asch conformity experiment, we ought to learn to watch out for that particular weakness, not throw up our hands and accept that we are the slaves of evolutionary forces. To cede the battle is to cede our humanity.