Darwinism: It’s true. But it ain’t pretty

Darwinism: It’s true. But it ain’t pretty March 23, 2012

Connor Wood

Dangerous lionFor the scientifically literate, few things are as confusing as the persistent, even rabid refusal of millions of Americans to accept the theory of evolution by natural selection. How, the science-minded want to know, can these blubbering know-nothings ignore the vast body of evidence that supports Darwinism? How is it possible for them to trust a millennia-old Hebraic tribal legend over the hardworking efforts of countless brilliant scientists? Are they simply that stupid? The viscerally satisfying answer to that last question might be “yes.” But as a researcher, I believe the reality is far more complicated.

Instead of citing historical examples or quoting famous writers, I’ll use a personal story to show why. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, I was exposed to quite a bit of evolutionary psychology. Granted, evolutionary psychology is a controversial discipline, and its conclusions are often oversimplified or spurious, sometimes even irresponsibly so. But I was, and still am, convinced that its basic project is sound: to associate human behavior with (hopefully testable) evolutionary underpinnings.

However, there is a major problem. Once you start looking at evolutionary reasons for human behavior, you very quickly run aground on some very uncomfortable ideas. These can be summed up in a simple formula: we are not here to love one another. We are here to spread our genes.

This means that, whatever aspirations we have, whatever loves we think we cherish, whirring beneath the entire mechanism of human social life is a bleak drive to win life’s game. This, in turn, implies that there all of life is ranked in order of how successful it is at this game. Attractive, sexy people are more likely to win life’s game. And so attractive people are valued more.

Rich people have access to lots of resources that make their families more likely to thrive.  And so they are valued more.

So, who’s valued the least in this Darwinian arena? That’s easy – the losers. The homeless bums you see downtown. The really ugly girl no one wants to talk with at the party. The poor. The sick. The dying.

Darwinism is not kind to losers.

As an impressionable undergraduate, I was severely shaken by this grim vision of the world. It didn’t help that the more I looked around myself, the more it seemed to be true. Good-looking people certainly seemed to make friends more easily than ugly ones, for instance. Kids from wealthy families used large-screen televisions and other flashy toys to gather merry parties of comrades around themselves, while poor, hunted-looking kids hurried to and forth from class alone. Queasily, the entire world began to look like a kind of vast sorting mechanism, a heartless machine for separating the beautiful and talented from the mediocre, charmless, and wretched.

Yes, I probably needed therapy. But Darwin would also agree (with a sigh) that this dark picture of evolution was basically accurate: it is a monstrous algorithm for sorting the successes from the rejects. It doesn’t care that those abstract columns are filled with living, breathing beings, because it doesn’t care about anything.

What’s more, seen from the perspective of Darwinism, an awful lot of human behavior begins to make sense. Our love of money and status, for example – which often seems so utterly ridiculous to songwriters and poets – is actually a cunning evolutionary strategy. Imagine the prototypical financially successful, balding, middle-aged guy cruising in a top-down convertible; he may look silly, but his cringe-inducing midlife crisis is perfectly reasonable. The more resources we have access to, the better our chances of wooing (perhaps many) attractive mates, of winning Darwin’s game. And if we want potential mates to know we have those resources, we’d better show them off. The dude in the car is a player – in the biological sense.

I don’t want to oversimplify things. Evolution isn’t just a dog-eat-dog battle; there are also incredibly complex arrangements of cooperation and symbiosis. The late biologist Lynn Margulis, for instance, famously convinced the scientific establishment that the mitochondria in cells were originally separate organisms, and that eukaryote life forms are actually cooperative amalgamations of different sub-organisms, winning life’s game by helping each other out.

At the human level, more research is produced every day showing that cooperative social groups fare better and last longer than selfish ones. Being cooperative is often a very good evolutionary strategy for humans.

But this cooperation is still happening in the context of Darwin’s game. And it’s not always the best strategy for every circumstance. Not everyone cooperates all the time, anyway – the history of human beings, cooperative and altruistic as they sometimes are, is rife with extraordinary selfishness, violence, and predation. I’m convinced that when we pan out, take in the entire spectrum of human history, we find that many of the most unfortunate patterns and tendencies of human nature find their roots in our drive to reproduce and fill the world, blindly, with our genes.

Curiously, many academics, especially in the humanities and social sciences, turn up their noses at this use of Darwinian theory to explain human behavior. There are some complicated political reasons for this, but this distaste for pondering evolution’s effects brings many leftist academics uncomfortably close to the camp of their natural opponents: creationists and religious fundamentalists. Interestingly, despite their massively different social roles and ideologies, I think leftists and religious reactionaries alike are motivated to reject Darwinism, explicitly or de facto, by what I believe is the only appropriate response to Darwin’s vision of the world: revulsion.

Why revulsion? As the evolutionary viewpoint slowly penetrated into my undergraduate consciousness, I actually found myself trusting people less. Did my friend compliment my new shirt because he liked me, or because he was hoping to use me to meet a girl I knew? Was my love for my girlfriend real, or was it just the product of a series of steely calculations regarding her hip-to-waist ratio? Did anyone really care about anyone?

Bookish 21-year-olds everywhere indulge in paranoid self-questioning. But it must have been a bit more than a phase for me – I ended up dedicating my life to studying the interactions between religion and science. And I’m not alone. I’ve seen many friends, acquaintances, and colleagues fall full tilt into  “Darwinian depression.” It’s quite a serious condition, characterized by a sinking feeling that the point of life really is to spread our genes, and that our worth as beings is completely determined by our success or failure in the Darwinian arena. The ancillary symptoms of Darwinian depression are referencing Richard Dawkins a lot, succumbing to existential despair, and drinking.

The long and short of it is that, once you start really pondering the implications of Darwinism for human life, the world – even a town as beautiful as Madison, Wisconsin – starts to look pretty dark awfully quickly.

But the story doesn’t end there. I think we can respond to this dark picture provided by evolution, and that’s where religion, in my view, comes in.

Think about it this way. What sin does the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) most warn against? Aside from religious idolatry, hoarding wealth might be a top contender. The Hebrew prophets castigate the Israelites for radical social inequality, while Jesus famously admonishes a rich young man that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven (Matthew 19:24). Meanwhile, Muhammad in the Qur’an constantly warns his followers against getting fooled by the worldly goals of money and children.

These seem like reasonable admonishments. But if you were a coach who specialized in helping people realize their maximum genetic fitness, what would you advise your clients to do? Exactly the opposite of what Jesus and Muhammad advised, of course – you’d advise them to get rich.

In other words, it’s often precisely the goals encouraged by the Darwinian economy that the religious values of Western culture most reject – at least as Darwinian evolution is described in most media. There is, then, a basic conflict in value systems. In an important sense, a good Darwinian adviser is a very bad Christian or Muslim.

I strongly suspect that evolutionary theory makes people so uncomfortable, not because it disagrees with Genesis (lots of things contradict Genesis), but because it presents a vision of a natural world whose “values” are fundamentally opposed to those of our religious cultures.

Still, Darwinism a good scientific theory. It makes us uncomfortable precisely because so many of its predictions seem to be  accurate. We really do manipulate one another for hidden social ends, rich and attractive people really do have an easier time of it on planet Earth, and much of our behavior is subtly motivated by our deep-rooted drive to produce children – to win life’s game.

But in realizing this, I began to suspect that many religious communities throughout history had been a step ahead of me all along.

Muhammad knew, just as clearly as any modern-day evolutionary psychologist, that people are basically motivated by sex, children, money, and status, and that they will kill, harm, lie to, and manipulate one another to get those things. But unlike evolutionary psychologists, Muhammad offered an alternative. He inspired his followers to imagine and then live their lives by a different set of criteria – to play a different game. Instead of the greatest good being children and wealth (the trump cards in Darwin’s game), Muhammad insisted that the greatest good was submission to the will of Allah, and Allah was far greater and more beautiful than the melée of evolutionary life – even if “evolutionary life” wasn’t the phrase Muhammad would have used.

And what is Allah, in this context? Well, in part Allah represents a decision to reject evolution’s standards for our own value. In evolution’s eyes, the poor are losers. They will die and be eliminated, period. In the eyes of Muhammad or Jesus, the poor might very well be more valuable than their superiors in the Darwinian ranks. Allah, or God, represents a different set of criteria for valuing ourselves and each other, an orthogonal standard for judging worth.

And that, I think, is the difference. Religion can offer a proud and defiant response to evolution, but it cannot offer scientific competition. Not a rejection of evolution’s objective truth, but a repudiation of its values.

Religions like Christianity, Islam, and others often suffer from tribalism, institutionalized prejudice, and out-of-date epistemologies. They can be infuriatingly error-prone and philosophically naïve. But nestled within all their weaknesses and exasperating conservatism is something we need: an acknowledgement that biological life is not all sunsets and daisies, that our legacy as living animals really is one of shocking greed, death, and selfishness. While Darwinism tells the very same story, it gives us no tools to build on top of it, to carve meaning out of that madness. In fact, it seems to whisper that the value of a life really is determined by its biological success or failure. What we need is to know that, even though we live in a Darwinian world, that world does not need to determine our value. We are more valuable than our genes. Religion, flawed as it is, can be a powerful way of trying to show exactly that.

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