Thursday, November 16, 2006

Of course, if you're a regular reader here you knew that already . . .

David P. Barash, professor of psychology, reflects here on some of the problems with the Darwinian explanation of social behavior (HT: Corner). Just to remind you of my posts on the topic, here and here. Some choice bits:

Although the study of evolution is, in my opinion, one of the most exciting and illuminating of all intellectual enterprises, there is at the same time, and not just in my opinion, something dark about the implications of natural selection for our own behavior.

. . . the individual- and gene-centered view of life offers, in a sense, a perspective that is profoundly selfish; hence Richard Dawkins's immensely influential book,
The Selfish Gene. The basic idea has been so productive that it has rapidly become dogma: Living things compete with each other (more precisely, their constituent genes struggle with alternative copies) in a never-ending process of differential reproduction, using their bodies as vehicles, or tools, for achieving success. The result has been to validate a view of human motivations that seems to approve of personal selfishness while casting doubt on any self-abnegating actions, seeing a self-serving component behind any act, no matter how altruistic it might appear.

Enter sociobiology. With its increasingly clear demonstration that Hume, Freud, Brecht, and Nietzsche (also Machiavelli and Hobbes) are basically onto something, and that selfishness resides in our very genes, it would seem not only that evolution is a dispiriting guide to human behavior, but also that the teaching of sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology) should be undertaken only with great caution. The renowned primatologist Sarah Hrdy accordingly questioned "whether sociobiology should be taught at the high-school level ... because it can be very threatening to students still in the process of shaping their own priorities," adding: "The whole message of sociobiology is oriented toward the success of the individual. ... Unless a student has a moral framework already in place, we could be producing social monsters by teaching this."

Which seems open to all the objections C.S. Lewis discussed in The Abolition of Man: to Drs. Barash and Hrdy, as for the writers C.S. Lewis discussed (long before the concept of the selfish gene, by the way) moral training is in some sense conditioning, and to that degree deceptive.

He tries to conclude with some good news, like that altruitic actions at least are part of our basically selfish purposes.

For one thing, a deeper grasp of the evolutionary biology of altruism reveals that even though selfishness may well underlie much of our behavior, it is often achieved, paradoxically, via acts of altruism, as when individuals behave in a manner that enhances the ultimate success of genetic relatives. Here, selfishness at the level of genes produces altruism at the level of bodies. Ditto for "reciprocity," which, as Robert Trivers elegantly demonstrated more than three decades ago, can produce seemingly altruistic exchanges and moral obligations even between nonrelatives. Yet genetic selfishness underlies it all.

He also tries to get out of this by completely detaching our ethics from any concept of nature:

the real test of our humanity might be whether we are willing, at least on occasion, to say no to our "natural" inclinations, thereby refusing go along with our selfish genes. To my knowledge, no other animal species is capable of doing that.

This doesn't seem very convincing. A morality that can't answer "why," is morality based on irrationality. Some concept of the Fall, that we are not as we were created to be and that hence morality is both difficult and natural at the same time, is essential for making any sense of our own moral condition.* And what Dr. Barash is trying to say is that he can't see any way in which "modern biology" can agree with that idea.

*You can find this even in some form even in non-theistic religions such as Buddhism. You can rephrase it thusly: somehow we are out of tune with the way things at a deep level are, but that through moral training we begin to become in tune with the way things are. Of course Buddhism resembles Christianity in finding the relation of morality to liberation/salvation as being paradoxical, rather than straight forward.

UPDATE: Mario Loyola at the Corner finds that Dr. Barash is off base. On the other hand, the basic issue revolves around sincerity шка , and when the issue is sincerity of belief, a guy who wrote this is not a very reliable authority.

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