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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  • Philosoraptor

    What is a transhumanist? What is transhumanism?

    • Joe

      I wonder that myself. If it means advancing to some stage called post-human how do we know we are not really moving towards something sub-human?

  • Joe

    How do you reject Gnosticism but still hold on to transhumanism? Isn’t the latter and expression on of the former?

    • SundogA

      Not necessarily.
      Transhumanism is a doctrine of utilizing technological and other progress to enhance and improve the human condition. It specifically rejects the concept of humanity being perfect in form, ideal or nature, and looks to enhance our capabilities with such concepts as cybernetics, biological implants, genetic manipulation, virtual and enhanced reality and advance learning/teaching programs.
      Posthumanism takes the idea one step further: That mankind is merely a larval form from which something ineffably superior can come. It rejects Transhumanism’s limiting doctrine (enhance what is human) and replaces it with “enhance beyond human”. I consider myself a Transhumanist, but I have serious reservations about posthumanism

      • Joe

        How do you justify your reservations?

  • We are here to spread our genes

    I think the problem he is assuming is that evolution “decided” this arbitrarily. The fact of the matter is that it’s no less arbitrary than gravity; we’re here to spread our genes because the ones (the genes) that didn’t do that are no longer around.

  • I disagree that indifference (amorality) is worse than maliciousness (immorality) when it comes to natural selection. In fact, quite the opposite.
    Natural survival-of-the-fittest strikes me as a necessity for progress where so-called “social Darwinism” strikes me as mundane viciousness with a thin layer of pseudo-science as disguise.

    Your concern seems to center around the implications of nature’s indifference on virtue morality however. I don’t seem to have the same concern. I trust my gut (i.e., my evolutionary legacy) that cooperation and fairness are the best method for my survival and my community’s progress. Species that cooperate are more successful, and choosing to confront the harshness of nature’s indifference as a compassionate, cooperating specie is, in my opinion, a hopeful sentiment. And a valid conclusion of evolutionary thought.

    • leahlibresco

      Re: “species that cooperate are more successful” I think there’s a citation needed. That’s certainly what we want to be true, but game theory shows us that there are plenty of stable non-cooperative strategies. Unless evolution is directed toward our good, there’s little reason to believe it would pull us out of a bad Nash equilibrium.

      • I suppose I am making assumptions. I’m making the assumption that humans are a cooperative species and then further making the assumption that because they’re “on top,” that it’s good to be cooperative. Which is a bit circular.

      • I did a cursory look around the google for any supporting links and was surprised to find nothing at a glance. A whole lot of shrugging that according to evolution as understood, altruism and cooperation seem to be something that would be selected against, and yet it’s prolific (not ubiquitous certainly, but common) in the animal kingdom, especially with primates. My gut still tells me there’s a core benefit to cooperation from an evolutionary standpoint, but without any supporting studies (other than those showing that certain species do cooperate, which isn’t really sufficient) I cannot justify my claim. Perhaps if I dig deeper, but I would’ve thought there’d be something readily available.

        • nazani14

          It look like you’re headed in this direction:
          Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved
          “Citing remarkable evidence based on his extensive research of primate behavior, de Waal attacks “Veneer Theory,” which posits morality as a thin overlay on an otherwise nasty nature. He explains how we evolved from a long line of animals that care for the weak and build cooperation with reciprocal transactions. “

      • M. Pru

        I’m not sure a citation is needed regarding “species that cooperate are more successful”. I think the statement needs to be restated as, “some species have been hugely successful by being cooperative”. Others, clearly, have done just as well going it alone. Otherwise, bravo. Loving the dialogue.

    • Kindly refrain from using “my gut tells me.” It reminds me of G.W.Bush and I’m about to have dinner. Thank you.

      • I am so, so sorry.

  • Daniel A. Duran

    Thank atheists and agnostics for widening the gulf between evolution and theism as well. Here’s another reason why Christians are scared of evolution: the stridency of many atheists that evolution somehow proves or makes it probable that there’s no purpose, goals in the world or that it makes it unlikely that there’s a God makes many people see the theory of evolution with suspicion.

    The notion that evolution shows or makes it probable that there’s no purpose or a God is, of course, a philosophical or metaphysical add-on that that goes beyond what evolution teaches but this metaphysical doctrine is repeated often and loudly by people that should know better (Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, I am looking in your direction).

    • Well, Darwin (and Chambers in his VESTIGES before that) did remove a very large barrier from belief in atheism in that they proposed a valid method by which something complex could grow out of something small—without needing, as Laplace said, “to make such an assumption” about the existence of any creator. Darwin’s insight, along with concurrent and subsequent scientific discoveries, provides a reasonable narrative for a godless universe and therefore its importance cannot be underestimated by any non-theist—pundit or otherwise.

      As for those notable members of the “new atheists” movement using this insight as a cudgel against the religious, they are being uncharitable sure, but worse, they’re being ineffective. Belief in gods will always run to the “gaps” in scientific knowledge anyway, so as far as theists are concerned, the validity of evolution would hardly be conclusive proof of a lack of a creator.

      The Theory of Evolution is incredibly important both generally and to promoting the concept of a non-theistic vision of the universe. It’s legitimacy and impact should be boldly expounded by atheist firebrands without concern about offending theists. However, it should NOT be made into a harpoon to be launched at the “white whale” of theism. I think that’s what you were saying, I just don’t want the takeaway to be “because theists might be offended, don’t point out evolution as evidence of a non-theistic universe.” It SHOULD be used to support a non-theist world view, but as for how you express that (I can’t resist) the devil’s in the details.

      • deiseach

        The problem is not so much with the strict science of the theory of evolution, it’s the populist use to which a cursory understanding of it is put. In the Victorian era, this was the “nature red in tooth and claw” doctrine of ‘social Darwinism’, whereby the idea was misunderstood as the ‘survival of the fittest’ meaning ‘the ones who survived are the fittest, that is, the best, that is, superior’.

        If you were a beggar starving on the streets, too bad! You had failed in the struggle of life, and society had no obligations to you, since nature taught us that only a ruthless struggle for existence where the weakest went to the wall was the rule and meaning of life.

        Nowadays, we get newspaper articles about “Why do men have affairs? Well, evolutionary psychology shows that they can’t help it – it’s in their genes to be polygamous!” and that makes me want to burn down a few newspaper offices – no, I mean, it makes me go “No, that’s not so. That doesn’t excuse adultery or promiscuity, anymore than a defence of ‘I couldn’t help it, it’s in my genes, because we evolved from creatures that struggled and killed’ to the charge of ‘why did you kill Joe?’ would be accepted as getting someone off the hook. Our hominid ancestors may (or may not) have bashed one another’s brains in with stone bludgeons, and the winner took the mates of the loser and spread his genes that way, but we don’t permit the defence of evolutionary psychology in court (as yet, anyway) that states since Pete is a descendant of a long line of victorious brawlers, he can’t help instinctively reacting by bashing his opponent’s head in with a brick when he gets in an argument.

      • Daniel A. Duran

        “without needing, as Laplace said, “to make such an assumption” about the existence of any creator…provides a reasonable narrative for a godless universe….The Theory of Evolution is incredibly important both generally and to promoting the concept of a non-theistic vision of the universe. It’s legitimacy and impact should be boldly expounded by atheist firebrands without concern about offending theists.”

        Thank you for illustrating my point; half of the things you are metaphysical assumptions that go over and beyond what evolution teaches. The sermon-like rhetoric was a nice bonus too.

        • “half the things”? I really only said one thing — that it removed a barrier from disbelief by providing a reasonable narrative for our development sans gods. The rest of my post talked about how to best discuss the implications of that, but doesn’t actually claim anything. Was that the half you didn’t like? Where I talk about politeness?

    • Hibernia86

      Evolution is important from a philosophical standpoint because it finally allowed the number of Atheists to increase beyond a very small minimum. Smart people like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin saw that Christianity had no proof supporting it, but they couldn’t get around the fact that they had no idea where life came from, forcing them to be Deists. With the discovery of evolution, that was no longer necessary and you started to see the spread of Atheism among scientists.

      • In the manner of a shell game, I think. Like pushing back the creation of life to the point of panspermia, or the creation of the universe by the speculation of a multiverse, or explaning away the ex nihilo objection as if nothing were really something.

        I’ll agree that evolution allowed the origin of life to be placed out of sight, allowing scientists to go out of their minds, but only rhetorically. Suppose all life evolved from a single cell. Where did that cell come from? From a chance combination of amino acids. Where did that come from? Where did that? Where did that? Eventually, we get to the point called Creation, where scientists cease to speculate as scientists and begin to write very bad philosophy.

        • Ash

          No, eventually we get to the point where no one has any answers and where it is not clear that we even possess the tools to ask meaningful questions. That’s the point where scientists write some very bad philosophy, philosophers write some marginally less bad philosophy, and theologians toss word salads.

          • That’s the point where scientists write some very bad philosophy, philosophers write some marginally less bad philosophy, and theologians toss word salads.

            Word salads? Am I missing something?

      • deiseach

        I think we stil have no idea of where life came from. We have an understanding of cell mechanics, and the properties of matter, and how chemical reactions come about, and we have some more-or-less well-supported theories as to howa self-perpetuating chain of reactions within an enclosed medium could have continued once it got going, but we’re still a bit shaky on how exactly a stew of chemicals turned from inorganic to organic matter.

        We use stomachers to mimic the process of digestion, but nobody would say that the mechanical method is the equivalent of organic processes. Life is still a very mysterious thing; if you’ve ever been at a death-bed, it’s so hard to think that (literally) one minute ago this person was alive and now they are dead. Why can’t we just swap parts as we do with machinery? Perhaps this is among the hopes of some, at least, of the transhumanists: one day we will understand the processes so well that it will just be a matter of taking out the old heart, putting in a new one, and getting it beating again, after we’ve kept the lungs going by ventilators etc. and the body is still warm.

        At the moment, we’re still in the (popular) understanding of how life arose something akin to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”: all the parts were assembled together, then hit by lightning, and it’s alive! it’s alive!!!!! The really fascinating science about, for example, cell organelles such as mitochondria actually being survivals of independent organisms that were absorbed and incorporated into larger organisms way back when is astounding and makes the notion of life even odder and stranger to contemplate how it ever got going.

        • anodognosic

          Deiseach, hypotheses on abiogenesis have come a long way since Miller-Urey. Despite severe limitations in terms of verification, very interesting, specific possibilities of how it happened have been suggested. Though all of them involve some element of chance, they also point towards replication and selection beginning before the existence of the cell, which goes a reasonable way towards climbing Mount Improbable, to borrow a phrase from Richard Dawkins, in abiogenesis.

          I think the problem with comparing the body to a machine so literally is that we humans make machines very differently from how the body is formed. For instance, each part of the body has to develop as a contiguous modification of one of three primordial layers of cells, so modularity goes out the window right there.

          Don’t get me wrong. It’s all amazing. I just don’t see that it’s amazing in a necessarily supernatural way.

    • Evolution says nothing about purpose, but it allows removing purpose from the cause of our existsnce. Some of us atheists disbelieve in purpose, but Darwin has little to do with that.

  • I think it’s awful damned hard to get Darwin’s critics to deal with anything he (or contemporary Darwinians) have to say. Darwin’s presence in their narratives is pure Satan on a Machine. He exists to create the problem they will then set about solving.

  • Evolution again? Yawn.

    • Hibernia86

      She doesn’t talk about evolution all that much, ubiquitous.

      • Perhaps I’ll read it later. But for the time being, CTRL + F confirmed my initial intuition. (If my impression came from jumping ahead to the comments, I readily apologize.)

  • Hibernia86

    By the way, Leah, I much prefer these commenting systems on Patheos. I remember when you were at your old website and I had to struggle with the website to get them to post any of my comments.

  • TR

    “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.”
    I read Wood differently here. I think he’s not afraid that evolution is forcing us to be immoral; rather he’s afraid that evolutionary psychology reveals that our moral reasoning is an illusion. Why demonstrate courage or kindness? To win brownie points in the herd and get more status. Not very inspiring.

    That said, I think your last paragraph takes it in the right direction. Given that we have these moral instincts bred into us, how do we distinguish what really is good?

    • anodognosic

      The fact that winning brownie points in the herd is not very inspiring is, itself, an aspect of our evolved natures. As long as you (read: pretty much everyone) insist on regarding our better natures as something apart from our evolved nature, you are misunderstanding what it means to have an evolved nature.

      • TR

        That’s an insightful comment, anodognosic. But let me bounce this off you. I understand that our kin/group selection evolved nature has given us cooperative instincts, so our better natures admire good behaviour – kindness, altruism, empathy, responsibility, integrity, and so on. But what makes that evolved ‘better nature’ really better?
        Maybe there isn’t really anything apart; we just prefer group instincts because that has proven to be a superior survival strategy. But that’s still rather uninspiring.

        • Ray

          “we just prefer group instincts because that has proven to be a superior survival strategy. ”

          I think this seems more uninspiring than it actually is because there are two ways to parse it.
          1)The correct way: The fact that group instincts have proven to be a superior survival strategy has led to the creation of beings that at their most basic level prefer group instincts.
          2)The way that reads most naturally: Our preference for group instincts is conditional upon it being a superior survival strategy — i.e. we have a deeper desire for the survival of our genes than for the well being of the group.

          We naturally gravitate towards reading two because, in common conversation, “I desire x because it causes y” almost always means that I actually want y.

          It is perhaps less misleading to say “we prefer the group instinct because it is in our nature to prefer the group instinct. And we exist with this nature, because our ancestors had a similar nature, and that nature helped them survive long enough to pass it on to us.”

          As far as what makes our better nature “better.” This is putting the cart before the horse. We invented the word “better” long after our better nature was in place. The word was invented because it proved useful to have a succinct way of referring to those things we already preferred. (This is somewhat of an oversimplification as the relationship between language and culture is quite complex, but the fundamental point is we invent words to serve our needs. We don’t invent our needs to serve words.)

          • TR

            Let me see if I understand you, Ray: just because the cause of our cooperative preferences are survival-focused genes, that doesn’t mean we actually just want survival – fortunately, the genes work, and so we really do prefer cooperative, “virtuous” outcomes!

            I agree that that lessens the dampening effect; we’re not unconscious hypocrites just because these noble instincts evolved for less-than-noble reasons. But I’m still a bit concerned. I’m looking for a reason these cooperative preferences are better than non-cooperative preferences. And if, as you point out, judging cooperative preferences “better” than non-cooperative preferences can only be done from the viewpoint of the cooperative preferences – then are they really better?

            Maybe I should just be happy that my cooperative preferences give me moral feelings that ratify those preferences.

          • Ray

            I think you catch my meaning.

            And don’t get me wrong. I understand the appeal of thinking there’s some fundamental feature of the cosmos that understands, better than I do, what I’m trying to ask when I say “is this really better?” But I also understand that this is the same impulse that leads people to bow down to petty tyrants who claim to rule by “divine right.” And whether I can point to something outside of myself to justify the sentiment or not (and who am I trying to justify it to, anyway?), I do not want to be one of those people.

          • TR

            So, if my moral feelings justify my cooperative preferences, but those moral feelings are also induced by those cooperative preferences, then we have a clear circularity. But you believe that the impulse to break that circularity, and to find something outside of myself to justify the sentiment and the virtue, (a) fails because that impulse is itself one of those moral feelings, and (b) can also lay me open to petty tyrants who claim to have the true, other-worldly basis of morality.

            Something like that? I realize that language is kind of strained, but I’m trying to be clear! I agree at least partly with both (a) and (b), Ray, but it’s the circularity that gets me. I like my moral feelings about my virtuous preferences, but knowing (or thinking) there’s no outside basis for them is what led to existentialism (looking into the void of human choice!). So even if we don’t really need to justify the sentiment, I think we have some major philosophical choices remaining, once or if we’ve decided there’s nothing in the cosmos to ground our moral choices. Which is a topic, probably, for another thread.

          • Ray

            Of course, circularity issues are fairly generic:

            What it seems like you’re trying to ground is the definition of the word “better.” Most of the time, we’re happy defining words by common usage, figuring that native speakers of the language have learned enough by imitation that they all use the word in pretty much the same way. We also have dictionaries as a crosscheck — defining more complicated words in terms of those that are presumably more reliably agreed upon. Failing that, though, supplying ones own definition for vaguely defined terms is usually considered a low stakes move as long as you explain what you’re doing in advance.

            But moral terms seem higher stakes, because there is the expectation that you want to do what’s “right.” This expectation cannot be met while conforming to common usage if your conscience militates against doing what the community considers “right.” Further, admitting that your definition of “right” and “wrong” is different from that of the community is an implicit act of rebellion, so there’s a tendency to avoid the obvious solution of just adding qualifiers to your moral labels, to distinguish your definition of morality from that of the community (assuming the community has a common definition — which is probably only true in rough approximation anyway.)

            Long story short, I don’t think the circularity in moral definitions is any worse than the circularity of definitions in language in general. So if you’re willing to admit that any correct beliefs can be stated in English, you shouldn’t have a problem with the logical aspects of morality. The problems unique to morality are more emotional issues of self image, social status within a community etc. But that’s only if what you really care about is the words and not, say, the knowledge that your actions have made those around you at least a little bit more satisfied with life than they would have been had you not acted.

            I don’t know if any of this actually makes you feel better about human nature, evolution, and life in general, but hey, it’s worth a try.

          • TR

            The Munchausen Trilemma is a fun link, and also very apropos. Something for me to think about more.

            I understand you to believe that definitions of “good” and “better” are simply terms we apply to already-formed preferences, and so are more or less arbitrary. So disputes over those definitions find problems where none need exist. That is in some ways a tempting hypothesis.

            I just want to register, briefly, a parting of the ways on your conclusion. I think there’s more at stake than departing from community norms and definitions; problems of self-image begin to approach the problem. The fact that we should care about “the knowledge that your actions have made those around you at least a little bit more satisfied with life than they would have been had you not acted” – that’s the fact to which this definitional issue applies.

            We care about that knowledge, and that fact presents a problem. Why care? If our moral feelings are simply artifacts of a cooperative survival strategy, then we don’t know what’s really good – we can see and feel something we think good, like an observably good result, but is it really? and if we don’t know, then why act?
            The definition of good, which involves questioning our instincts, presents an existential problem, which cannot be resolved as a question of language only.

            I realize you may disagree with the framing as I’ve presented it. But so far I still see a philosophical problem.

  • Incidentally, has anyone here seen the movie adaptation of The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists? Wonderfully demented and worth a look.

  • @b

    I suggest we’re resisting “primate evolution” to the extent that we’re personally uncomfortable with supplanting prior beliefs we’ve formed about humanity. So primarily -but not exclusively- some enumerable set of absorbed religious beliefs. Certainly our resistance is subconscious. So literally unbelievable. And an earthly fact none the less.

  • Well said. I think some Atheists cleave to Evolution simply as armor against religion even when they don’t understand Evolution themselves. (btw, I am an atheist too)