Scared of Darwin for All the Wrong Reasons

Scared of Darwin for All the Wrong Reasons May 4, 2012

UPDATE: I’ve expanded a response to a commenter in a new post: “Have Humans ‘Won’ Evolution?”

Over at Patheos’s group blog on science and religion, Connor Wood is trying to explain why people have a visceral discomfort with evolution.  He sees natural selection as the ultimate example of “nature red in tooth and claw” — a rigged game that pits us all against each other and suppresses the better angels of our nature.  He writes:

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… 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.

He turns to religion in part because it is counter-Darwinian; the demands of a Christian life of self-sacrifice fly in the face of the evolutionary imperative he fears.  I’m excited by his impulse, and long to welcome him to the ranks of the transhumanists, but I’ve got some big problems with the way he’s thinking about evolution.

Wood seems to imagine Evolution as somehow akin to the Gamemakers in The Hunger Games.  It’s forcing us into a particular way of being, and it wants to bring us down.  The problem is that evolution isn’t directed toward any moral end in particular.  It’s only favoring behaviors that are stable and resilient.

So we see a blend of evolutionary strategies, even if we limit our sample to our closest relatives.  There’s everything from the courtship-by-infanticide of gorillas to the solving-problems-through-orgies of bonobos.  Most species, just like humans, have a blend of strategies; the only total egoists are Ayn Rand protagonists or psychopaths (but I repeat myself).

Evolution isn’t railroading us into anything, moral or immoral, and that fact might end up creeping Wood out a good deal more.  There’s a kind of relief in imagining Evolution as a malevolent force that only really pressures us in one direction.  Virtue becomes easy; it’s defined in opposition to this force (ok, so carrying out virtue is still hard, but it’s not hard to know what you ought to do).

The really scary thing is thinking you’re adrift in Harris’s moral landscape with no way to distinguish a local optima from the ideal you should actually be striving for.  You can’t react against evolutionary pressures as a way to bootstrap a metric for moral choices.  The moral law (the elevation in Harris’s landscape) has to be rooted in something else.

Yudkowsky has a short story (“The Sword of Good”) that does a pretty good job reminding you that you may have skipped over the really hard part of philosophy, the part that feels dangerous to think about.  How do we recognize and cleave to the Good, when our minds and traditions feel suspiciously kludged together?

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