“Only animals can’t help what they are”

“Only animals can’t help what they are” June 30, 2010

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.

"I'd love to see a video of how it works. keranique shampoo reviews"

Welcome Camels with Hammers to Patheos!
"Logismoi (the plural of logismos) are a fairly simple concept; they are whispers from either ..."

Logismoi, Vampires, and Other Intrusive Thoughts
"I imagine I’ll do a lot more reading and pick a lot more fights over ..."

A little about the queer stuff
"You are part of a search and rescue for lost Catholics.Regular updates to the countdown ..."

I’m keynoting at a Con for ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Two quick things, I'll comment fully later:1.) Dawkins doesn't endorse genetic determinism as a basis for morality (see: The Selfish Gene, last chapter).2.) Kin selection / kin altruism ("hypothetical sociological models") is a well-documented phenomenon with evidentiary support going back as far as the 30s and has been well-developed since the 60s. See:http://www.jstor.org/pss/2458473JBS Haldane "Population Genetics" in New Biology 18 1955, 34-51.

  • Max Silva

    I think the point of evolutionary psychological explanations of moral behavior is to provide an explanation of the phenomenon of altruism which doesn't rely on a God-given conscience or some other mystical source which would contradict the materialist worldview. That is to say, I don't think the psychologists are doing ethics when they are doing psychology, and I don't necessarily think they think they are either.On the other hand, I'm basing this on what I took away from Gilmore readings, which may not be representative of the moral psychology field at large.

  • Leah has already capably shown that evolution is not congruent with any reasonable conception of morality. But the comments show that the point needs to be driven home.Stephen,Dawkins does use evolution as the basis for morality in The God Delusion. But he is honest enough to admit that it doesn't work, so he bizaarly talks about "blessed" (his word, not mine) mistakes in evolution. Sometimes you should do what is evolutionarily rational, other times you shold make "blessed" mistakes. The whole thing is frightfully incoherent.On kin selection, the implication then is "treat your own family with a higher moral regard than strangers." That is not moral. Morality means loving and caring for the strangers among us, not just flesh and blood.Max,Just to be clear, evolutionary psych shows that the following behaviors are rational self-interested evolutionary strategies: murder, rape, infanticide, genocide, adultery, domestic violence. For more see here

  • @Stephen,Justin is hitting my basic point, but, to briefly reiterate: evolution can explain how morality is useful but it cannot explain why it is good (unless you take 'good' to be the propagation of your own genetic material).EvoPsych is only descriptive, not prescriptive. Science can't tell us how to make moral judgments, though it can give us better ways to acquire the data that we use to make decisions or more options at a decision point.

  • Max Silva

    Exactly. Evolutionary psych shows us the range of motivations and tendencies which have been instilled – it explains how each action strategy got onto the palette of available strategies. That an act is on that palette is no reason to do it – the reasons to share with others and the reasons not to rape people are clearly not given by the fact that they are strategies which have evolved. Evolution is not meta-ethics. Can't derive an 'ought' from an 'is', Hume, blah blah blah. That was the point of my post.This does not mean that the evolution of morality is a useless topic, or that "evolution is not congruent with any reasonable conception of morality": it can teach us how things are, and how we can change them once we decide to change them. It is worth seeing just how not special we are within the animal kingdom in regard to having an impetus to act morally (even if our ability to do moral philosophy, or even just weigh different reasons, does separate us). This is an important thing to note in the same way that going about the nasty business of figuring out what mental phenomenons look like in terms of neural activity is important. Both tasks are philosophically irrelevant, in that materialism in philosophy of mind and secular ethics both require substantial philosophical wrangling and can't be solved by doing science experiments. However, we are incredibly stupid, and sometimes arguments sound good to us just because we have limited imaginations. Lots of people are dualists about the mind largely because they can't really imagine something as complicated as their mental phenomena being determined by brain states; being shown how much boils down to physical phenomena might make people less sure, and will at least focus our debate around the core issues [ie, making sure our intuitions are straight when considering the logical possibility of 'zombies,' copies of you with the exact same physical states which are not conscious]. In the same way, seeing that evolution produces moral as well as immoral desires, impulses, and strategies means we do not invoke God-given conscience as an explanation of moral behavior simply because we think that evolution would only have produced immorally self-interested behaviors.

  • Max Silva

    So that's the "how things are"/metaphysics part. The "how we can change them," the ethical significance of moral psych research, can be put this way: meta-ethics (why be moral?) and even normative ethics (what is the moral thing to do?) are like deciding that you should fix the car, and doing moral evolutionary psych research is like going to auto mechanic's school so that you know how to fix the car. Once we have sat in our arm chairs and determined, say, that we should donate to Oxfam, our next step is best informed by psychology. If we know, say, that the strongest altruistic instincts evolved in connection with parenting (I know that's hilariously basic but it'll do), then we should look up pictures of starving third world children so as to make us go "Aww!!" and feel more generous. In other words, once we see the causal factors which determine the morality of our behavior (given evolutionary drives), we can more efficiently and effectively trick ourselves and others into acting morally. Mutatis mutandi for immoral behavior, I suppose.So what in G-d's name is my point?? Well, Leah is absolutely right in saying that trying to say we should be nice to each other because we evolved to be nice to each other is really stupid. However, there are much better reasons to value evolutionary psych in ethics; these considerations show evolutionary questions to be no more and no less interesting in ethics than questions about what minds are and whether the universe is causally determined. And, from what I've read, I'm not sure that even the pop evolution writers make the mistake Leah says they make – or at least, if they do, they generally also do the things I said they ought to be doing, so I forgive them.Great paper from which I pretty much stole this comment: Sam Bagg, "The Fifth Way of Biologicizing Ethics: Science as the Engine of Moral Progress," Yale Philosophy Review, 2009. http://www.yale.edu/ypr/(Aristotle+Science=SamBagg)(Yes, shameless plug from the Language, Mind, and Logic Editor!! Yay! Come read for my committee Yalies!)Sorry I talk so much and so needlessly.

  • What Max said. He basically said everything I was thinking, but better.As for the Dawkins stuff: I don't remember the "blessed mistakes" line from TGD, but that's a moot point. You shouldn't base your understanding of Dawkins on TGD and his really recent public stuff alone because he's writing for a very different purpose (atheistic consciousness-raising, wherein the details of sociobiology would get lost in the larger point). The Selfish Gene, Chapter 11, right near the end handles the issue pretty well. Basically, what he argues is that human capacity for conscious foresight that allows for disinterested altruism / morality, which is basically in line with what Max said regarding the is/ought distinction. In any case Dawkins, at least to my knowledge (I haven't been keeping up with his very recent activity) doesn't think that biology can serve as a blueprint for answering "should" questions.And as for the kin selection stuff, it's not exclusively family lineage no, though most of the time it is. The way it works is that (incoming wonkish biology) genes seek to preserve copies of themselves in other individuals. This can happen a bunch of different ways but one of the more common ways is for a gene to give rise to a certain phenotype and simultaneously also give rise to an attraction to that phenotype — this is how a lot of sexual selection happens, including but not limited to peacock tails, fyi. So it's possible for certain population groups to have something like broad kin selection-based altruism if that particular gene is present. Hypothetically, it could be possible for all homo sapiens sapiens to have a certain gene that expresses a certain phenotype in this way that could give rise to broad disinterested all-humanity altruism (bear in mind this last sentence is just me speculating, but it'd be really interesting to do some research on this).

  • Max,I think we need a little more precision.(1) It is moral to act out of one's evolutionary self-interest. Conversely, it is morally bad to act against one's evolutionary self-interest.If premise (1) is true, then rape, murder, genocide, adultery, domestic violence, and infanticide are morally good.f we know, say, that the strongest altruistic instincts evolved in connection with parenting (I know that's hilariously basic but it'll do), then we should look up pictures of starving third world children so as to make us go "Aww!!" and feel more generous.That is not in your evolutionary self-interest (barring signaling games), thus doing so is morally bad. You still haven't answered the question "why by moral in a world without God?"Stephen,You shouldn't base your understanding of Dawkins on TGD and his really recent public stuff alone because he's writing for a very different purpose (atheistic consciousness-raising, wherein the details of sociobiology would get lost in the larger point)There is a word for that: lying. Dawkins is lying to make atheism look good.Also, your explanation of peacock's tail is wrong. It is a costly signal of genetic quality.Hypothetically, it could be possible for all homo sapiens sapiens to have a certain gene that expresses a certain phenotype in this way that could give rise to broad disinterested all-humanity altruismThere is research on this, and it shows that this would not happen. I'll quote from the linked post above since no one read it:claims about evolution for "the good of the group" were common. The downfall was when V.C. Wynne Edwards tried to make this intuition rigorous in his book Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behavior. By putting rigorous arguments on the table Wynne-Edwards made it easy to falsify the theory.That is precisely what George Williams did. He pointed out that evolution for the good of the group created what economists call the free rider problem. Suppose a group of animals is facing a particular tough environment. The moral thing to do is for all the animals to reduce their food intake. That will make the group stronger and the members along with it. But suppose a free rider lacked this moral gene. It kept eating at its normal food intake. At the end of the winter (or dry season, or whatever) it would be stronger and healthier than the moral animals. This would result in increased reproductive success. The immoral free riders would have more offspring than the moral animals. Soon the moral gene would go extinct.

  • Justin,//There is a word for that: lying. Dawkins is lying to make atheism look good.//Oh, come on. If you were writing a book for theologicians about apostolic succession or something, it would be very different and focus on very different things and phrase the consistent things in very different ways than a book for atheists on the same subject matter, right? Besides the fact that you're assigning an ontological truth-value to metaphorical signifiers. Is either statement precisely true? No. But we're not dealing with something that needs to be rigorously true to be understood and / or meaningful in a communicative aspect(hi, performativity!). The hounds of postmodernism are gnawing at the door and there's only so much I can do to hold them out.Re sexual selection: How do you think that mechanism works? The gene/genes that promote long tail length, when in females, render as a gene that promotes attraction to males with long tails. This would be how that gene propagates and why it's successful.And I said nothing about group selection. In case I wasn't clear, I was talking about the possibility of some gene common to the entire human species (of which there are a lot) that renders both as some minor phenotypic expression ("looking human", perhaps?) and as an attraction and desire to help the carrier of that gene altruistically (via kin-selection). This, as far as I know, hasn't been the focus of any explicit research yet. It's entirely genocentric. And if you think that Dawkins says *anything* positive about group-selection, then you've really misunderstood him.

  • Rek

    Justin,The critique of altruism is a bit naive. As has been observed among many group animals–e.g. bats, wolves, non-human primates, etc–part of evolutionary altruism evolves alongside a mechanism for the detection of cheating. It's rather analogous to a perpetual loop of the prisoner's dilemma. In bats, for example, when one bat decides to hoard resources and free-load off his peers, he is ostracized and his children are left to starve when resources become scarcer. The evolutionary reality is that all social animals (by which I mean animals that live in groups) have moral systems evolved so as to promote the continued existence of the group, and this comes with the ability to (generally) detect and punish cheating.That said, I'm perfectly aware that it does not answer your broader objection: (1) It is moral to act out of one's evolutionary self-interest. Conversely, it is morally bad to act against one's evolutionary self-interest.To my knowledge, no one is trying to argue that x is good because it is to our evolutionary advantage. Rather, I think most reasonable people (atheist or theist) concede that evolutionary psychology yields amoral, descriptive findings. It is neither moral nor immoral per se to act out of one’s evolutionary self-interest. We choose to behave morally (speaking meta-ethics here) because we find (or at least we think we do) some other value in morality. What is the real basis or source of morality? That is a complicated question about which much can be said, but that is but a necessary and pressing question. This brings me to the crux of the whole dilemma, as you chose to pose it: You still haven't answered the question "why by moral in a world without God?"I’m going to counter with a question I expect you foresaw, “Why be moral in a world with God?” What is morality, in your conception, such that I should care whether there is or is not a god? Am I to be moral because god in his “infinite love and mercy” will throw me into a lake of fire if I am not? Are you really prepared to argue that divine coercion is a sound or admirable basis for morality? If so, I object that your “morality” is abominable and horrid, and would find “justice” in someone yielding to rape in order to avoid death (a not uncommon occurrence in the Bible, but I digress). Are we to be moral because God will be sad? If so, I just don’t care; if God’s happiness happens to conflict with mine, then I choose mine. Are we to be moral simply because god said so? If that, then (to paraphrase that scoundrel Andrew Jackson) let him/her enforce it (which might take us back to the first question).I’m sure you have a much better answer than the simple ones I raised in the previous paragraph. But whatever your answer, I want to reiterate the Nietzschean meta-ethical dilemma: an individual agent must see a reason to behave morally. That is, there is necessarily something he thinks will be gained by doing adopting a set of actions and prescriptions that are dubbed “moral”. Either he loves his kids (in which case he gains the satisfaction of knowing they’ll be happy), or she wants security for her and hers, or he wants to avoid hell, or she wants to please someone (whether or not that other one cares), or any plethora of possible (perhaps contradictory) reasons.It seems to me that those who defend religion (just as those who castigate it) constantly do so on the basis of some implied (or explicit) transcendent moral standard that can be used to judge a religion every bit as much as any given secular system (e.g. communism or liberal democracy). This is all well and good, but it certainly cannot be used to pretend that the transcendent morality thus used is a facet of or based in any particular religion or ideological system. Rather, it seems these moral intuitions are just that—intuitive and are the bases of the societies that then come to apply them to the various ideas about the world that arise. And here we find ourselves back at evolutionary psychology.

  • Hi Rek,1. I think we can go to the endpoint of the debate: there are two types of species: the eusocial species and all the others. There are only about 20 or 30 eusocial species and they are the only ones for whom the group selection dominates. Everyone else is under individual or multilevel selection. Thus unless you are a eusocial species, and humans are not – the only eusocial mammals are the naked mole rat – selfish behaviors are rational. That is why we have such highly developed mechanisms to detect and punish cheaters. Anyone who didn't have them would be shark food.Moreover, even if we were a eusocial species, immoral behavior towards other groups is rational. That is why eusocial species like the leafcutter ants are also some of the most warlike.2. I'm merely asking you to apply the same epistemic standards to morality that you do to God. Arguments for atheistic morality are significantly weaker than arguments for the existence of God. You write that "We choose to behave morally (speaking meta-ethics here) because we find (or at least we think we do) some other value in morality". Does that mean morality is subjective? That Stalin's morality was just as valid for him as yours is for you?

  • Stephen,I might write about other topics, but I hope I'd never intentionally misrepresent the facts.Re sexual selection: How do you think that mechanism works? The gene/genes that promote long tail length, when in females, render as a gene that promotes attraction to males with long tails. This would be how that gene propagates and why it's successful.That is not how it works. For example, females who do not have the genes would outcome females with it because they could choose better mates. Spend some time reading about costly signaling theory and the handicap principle.

  • Justin,Grafen's ESS model of Zahavi's handicap principle:http://users.ox.ac.uk/~grafen/cv/hcapsig.pdf(There's a less-wonky and cleaner prose explanation of what's going on here in a footnote to Chapter 9 of the 30th Anniversary edition of Dawkins, The Selfish Gene.)Basically, what you're forgetting is that trust-of-male-signaling is not an intrinsic quality. There is a distributive gene "for" attraction of this sort (just as there are genes "for" disbelief of male signals and genes "for" assuming the opposite of male signals, and males have comparable genes). Even if the two aren't physically the same gene, they're still effectively linked by selection pressures and ESS.Resources on understanding ESS modeling:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionarily_stable_strategyhttp://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/jksadegh/A%20Good%20Atheist%20Secularist%20Skeptical%20Book%20Collection/Maynard%20Smith,%20Price%20-%20Nature%201973%20-%20Logic%20Of%20Animal%20Conflicts%20(Evolutionary%20Game%20Theory).pdf (JM Smith's paper introducing the subject)I'll provide others if you need.

  • Hi Stephen,I'm familiar with ESS's. I've blogged about them to show that the endowment effect is not a congitive illusion (or bias) but rather an efficiency enhancing ESS.Basically, what you're forgetting is that trust-of-male-signaling is not an intrinsic quality. There is a distributive gene "for" attraction of this sort (just as there are genes "for" disbelief of male signals and genes "for" assuming the opposite of male signals, and males have comparable genes). Even if the two aren't physically the same gene, they're still effectively linked by selection pressures and ESS.Correct, but you are backtracking from what you were saying upthread. On costly signaling, a female's best response given the costly signal of fitness is to mate with the male. A female who lacked the gene would choose unfit males and have unfit offspring. By contrast, on your model upthread, a female who refused to mate with a long-tailed male would be able to choose fitter mates.

  • Justin,The "long tails = fit" trait isn't intrinsic, either. For instance, and I'm sure you're aware, a good chunk of primates have a bone that supports the penis that aids in intercourse. Humans don't have it, except in very rare abnormal cases. This is one example of a handicap principle in effect (where boneless penises require resources, etc), but it's not common for every species.So like I said earlier, the complementarity of the two genes in ESS is a survivial mechanism for each of the genes. What I was in the above post was imprecise, for which I apologize. What I was talking about in the above post is more akin to a Green-Beard Effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green-beard_effect) than sexual selection, though some of the principles of the two are similar.

  • Hi Stephen,The "long tails = fit" trait isn't intrinsic, eitherQuite the contrary actually. Long tails are not fit, they are maladaptive. That is what makes them honest signals of (overall) genetic fitness. It is costly signals of genetic fitness that primarily drives sexual selection.

  • Rek

    Hi Justin,I’m not talking about eusocial animals, which is why I specifically named “bats, wolves, non-human primates, etc” in my prior comment. I went on in that comment to discuss the mechanism to detect and punish cheating, so your first paragraph seems only to repeat (and agree with) my first paragraph. I’m glad we’re on the same page.To be clear, in case you thought I was arguing otherwise, religions were (and to some degree still are) quite useful for encouraging the sort of in-group altruism (complete with the out-group hostility that you noted). To reiterate a prior point, religion was certainly once evolutionarily advantageous, and a major part of this would be its masterful manipulation of individual self-interest to promote altruism. I’m not making any normative claims here, only descriptive ones. Religion is perfectly compatible (generally speaking) with group animals.Your second point is a curious one, as I don’t see the two as having anything to do with each other. I thought I made this clear in my prior post. I do not believe, nor will you ever hear me claim, that morality exists out there somewhere in the world in a godlike (or Platonic Form-like) essence, waiting for us to “discover” it (or whatever term is currently in vogue). Morality is to some degree subjective, to some degree inter-subjective. Subjective morality is the radically contingent part—I like ice cream; I want to ride horses; I think killing animals is bad so I’m going to chop off my balls and crucify my tongue and become a vegan (in case you were wondering, I’m passionately not a fan of vegetarianism); I want to masturbate; I want to raise lions; I want to sleep with wo/men. There are legitimate things about which reasonable people can disagree and subsequently behave differently without threatening the fabric of society.Intersubjective morality is a bit more complicated. It is predicated on the needs of society and is based in the observable premise that much of what is necessary for a happy (or at least well-functioning) society is already in-grained throughout the group. We are social animals, so our entire self-conception—our ideas of self, happiness, fulfillment, justice, decency, propriety, morality, etc—are social constructs that only make sense in a social context. Thus, it is meaningless to talk about morality without talking about the relationship between individual (self-)interest and the needs of a functioning society. Indeed, the entire point of liberal democracy is to establish a society in which each individual’s selfish instincts can be harnessed for the mutual benefit of the group. Thus, the only “higher” power at work is our deep-rooted sense of belonging to the grand purpose of the group (be it our town, our school, our country, or humanity).(continued…)

  • Rek

    (continuing…apparently her comment page does have character limits. bummer)Why does the individual care about the group? For the same reason the bat or wolf or lion or bird does; their survival requires the group and so they are so oriented as to understand themselves—and their needs—in the group context. This is where evolutionary psychology meets ethical theory and moral discussion in the public sphere, but it does not imply that we (atheists or anyone else) are deriving morality from the mere fact that certain behaviors are (or once were) evolutionarily advantageous. We are so oriented such that we (generally) cannot be happy as solitary beings. Accordingly, we have an innate interest in the well-being of our fellows, and it is this instinct that people address when they endeavor to morally persuade others. It is thus not problematic to acknowledge the intersubjective nature of morality and use these precepts to condemn people like Stalin or Hitler or Andrew Jackson or Christopher Columbus or Pol Pot or Nero or Abraham or whoever the hell else. To be clear, I do not believe that anyone can establish morality to exist “objectively”, nor do I see how anyone can conveniently throw in god to help ground the question. (Again, why be moral in a world with god?) So, I am not applying any higher a standard to god than I am to morality. When we tried and condemned the Nazis, we quite visibly invented laws based on our common morality so as to punish them for heinous crimes against a system to which they never subscribed (yet which was an integral part of our self-conception). We defended this practice, rightly, on the basis of the requirements of a just society as we understood it (being based in our beliefs about individual well-being). This is the best we can possibly do.Returning to a previous comment, I noted how our criticisms of world-views—religious or atheistic—all presuppose some transcendent standard. It is this standard that is the moral code, as it were, that is part subjective, part intersubjective. When we thrust moral discussions into the public sphere, we find that we are generally able to reach broad consensus on a lot of things (a point many religious apologists love to point out). This consensus is quite sufficient and its existence is predicated in the very existence of the system. You might object that this consensus is weak and tenuous, but I would argue you greatly exaggerate the flaws of this reality. I want to emphasize that this state of affairs is a positive description of how our world actually works. Our societies work (at least in the West) because we agree enough (and are wealthy enough) to allow them to work. If things were different they wouldn’t work so well (as was the case not so long ago).Here we get to the problem of your 900 racists vs. 100 minorities, but I’ll answer that on that actual post.

  • Is there any point in getting involved, here? I'm so far behind.Leah: "Morality is not validated by its usefulness." Thank-you. I think everyone can agree on this (theists, nontheists, pantheists, apathetics, whatever), and I wish more would.Stephen Marsh: Speaking as an English major here, I feel we need to establish a basic literary fact. That is, whether or not an author said x in Book A does not change whether or not that author said not-x in Book B. I have not read Selfish Gene yet, so I shall concede that he says what you say he does. But having read The God Delusion, I can tell you that he does what Leah claims he does in that book. Dawkins' own opinions are a locked in an experimental black-box, and on top of that they are irrelevant (The Intentional Fallacy). The claim Leah makes is still valid: Dawkins, at some point in his literary career, prescribes a ethical system that derives moral imperatives from evolutionary imperatives, and that he was wrong to do so.

  • Christian, as a Lit major, you don't need to invoke the Intentional Fallacy with me. 🙂 But far be it from me to not raise as issue the other major works on authorial intentionality (Foucault and Barthes). Permit me to indulge:"Texts, books, and discourses really began to have authors (other than mythical, 'sacralized' and 'sacralizing' figures) to the extent that authors became subject to punishment, that is, to the extent that discourses could be transgressive". (Foucault, Qu'est-ce qu'un auteur?, p. 108)So what's going on here is effectively a reification of the principle that punishes perceived transgression (in this case, a materialist foundation for morality). So we can't quite push this away as something that falls within the Intentional Fallacy, because even Wimsatt and Beardsley would acknowledge that when the work and the author are bound up via the bounds of practical application, you can't dismiss intentionality on this sort of metaethical level, when the interpretive context here seems to disregard the difference between constructing a materialistic understanding and historicity for existing "moral" traits (in a descriptive sense) and deriving an applicable imperative structure from those descriptive claims.Besides the fact that, having read TGD and remembering it at least vaguely, Dawkins doesn't *assert* or *prescribe* a biological-imperative morality (he may *proffer* it, but the two things are very different in terms of purpose and epistemic weight). Rather, in the context of what is specifically an atheistic consciousness-raiser, he suggests a possible alternative to a religious morality. But I don't think he goes nearly as far as any of you seem to think he does.But, as you're an English major, I shouldn't have to warn you about the danger of both misunderstanding language-constructions on an inapplicable truth-basis and the dangers of privilege resulting from crosstemporal exclusion from canons, *especially* when dealing with something like this where you're specifically evaluating claims and imputing judgment based on presumed intentionality. Put simply: his argument in TGD is a rendering of claims he makes in TSG, modified for the sake of a different end and different sociohistorical context, but not discernibly different in interpretation, particularly when there exists comparative material to analyze.Il n'y a pas du hors-texte.

  • Haha! I haven't had a real literary-theoretical conversation in ages, and you are on your game.I can't claim to be overly familiar with Foucault, though that's an interesting point that you raise. I've often had a hard time disentangling Dawkins-as-author from conversations about The God Delusion, and I think it has more than moral judgement involved. He's become such an icon that his presense is almost inseperable from any of his writings, akin to Shakespeare.My concern, though, is reception. Whether or not his argument about morality in The God Delusion is a re-packaging of his ideas in The Selfish Gene, I worry that readers who have not read the first work will understand that chapter in The God Delusion to be preseciptive, whether he wants it to be that way or not and whether it is seen to be that way or not if taken with his works as a whole. Moreover, The God Delusion may lend itself to that reading, though if read carefully perhaps its intended meaning would become clear. Have you read Al Berger's Ways of Seeing? Where the close-up of Venus is just a woman, not a goddess at all? This seems to me to be a similar situation.Two further, if minor, points: If we're indulging in guessing Dawkins' intentions, then I don't think it's at all clear that atheist consciousness-raising was his only purpose in writing The God Delusion; I'm not really concerned, personally, about "imputing judgement based on presumed intentionality" more than imputing judgement on the work he produced, regardless of his intention.Which is to say, I still think Leah was right to chastize Dawkins, if only for saying something that could easily be (mis?)interpreted as prescribing evolutionary morality, but at the same time I may need to take The God Delusion out of the library again to look into this.But then, why do I worry about this? I'm not atheist, so such in-atheist discussions are only academic to me. Further, it seems like disputes about literary theory are usually intractable, so wading through it over something that matters little to me is maybe a bit futile.