Thursday, April 19, 2007

Darwin, David Brooks, and Mass Murder

David Brooks’ column on the status of Darwinism in Western culture appeared in my local paper the day after Cho Seung-Hui murdered thirty-two human beings in Blacksburg, Virginia—a record for campus slaughter that surpassed the mark set by Charles Whitman at the University of Texas in 1966. In his piece Brooks touts the prevailing biological orthodoxy that “human beings, like all other creatures, are machines for passing along genetic code” and that we “are driven primarily by a desire to perpetuate ourselves and our species.”

Brooks then says that the “logic of evolution explains why people vie for status, form groups, fall in love and cherish their young. It holds that most everything that exists does so for a purpose. If some trait, like emotion, can cause big problems, then it must also provide bigger benefits, because nature will not expend energy on things that don’t enhance the chance of survival.”

Like many columnists (including secular soulmate, George Will) Brooks occasionally dabbles in academic topics. But the above remarks illustrate his philosophical naivetĂ©. A committed evolutionist and Academic Dean at a prominent La Jolla prep school once gratuitously announced at a faculty meeting, “Evolution is ateleological”—a statement that means the process has “no purpose.” (The Dean proceeded to suggest, incomprehensibly, that evolution’s lack of direction should serve as an educational model.)

In addition to lacking “purpose,” nature, for evolution professionals, is constantly expending energy on things that don’t “enhance the chance of survival.” When, however, its random products don’t survive, evolutionary theory declares them “unfit.” Dinosaurs, for example, were “fit” for a while; then nature “selected” against them. Put otherwise, the species died out. Strictly speaking, “fitness” and “currently existing” are virtual synonyms for real, as opposed to romantic, evolutionists.

The “purpose” that Brooks mentions in his column is really a product of theoretical hindsight—not of intention. One must slip a personifying image of Mother Nature through an intellectual back door to make the term mean what Brooks implies in his paean-of-sorts to Richard Dawkins’ “Blind Watchmaker.”

These analytical comments bring me back to Virginia Tech and mass murder. I don’t think Brooks would be willing to employ even his prettified Darwinism to explain the “purpose” of that slaughter. (Keep in mind that all “benefits” of “trait(s), like emotion,” that “can cause big problems” must refer to the propagation of genes.) Certainly, the cosmic purposelessness espoused by Dawkins would be a word untimely spoken at last Tuesday’s memorial convocation.

On the topic of emotion I add my own quizzical lines to those of the Hokies’ poet in residence:

How understand sweet love
beneath this meta-Physical model?
A means of species propagation?
A lucky hit?
Are tears to be reduced to adaptations
in the pointless quest for life?

In short, the language of sociobiology doesn’t comprehend what humans consider most important—like the heroism of Holocaust survivor and Professor Liviu Librescu, who gave his life that others might live. To reduce the poignant irony of Librescu’s sacrificial act to a function of genetic compulsion is to embrace a blindness as great as the blindness that confuses being alive with the purpose of living.

Brooks declares that Darwin has replaced Freud, Marx, and earlier, the Bible, as a unifying Western cosmology. Like Marx and Freud, however, Darwin has no language that takes seriously individual acts of good and evil. Instead, good and evil become epiphenomena generated by impersonal forces that lie beyond good and evil. This fatal flaw trivializes, and continues to spawn, acts of horror in Brooks’ “postmodern” West.

5 comments:

maurile said...

Many of the statements about evolutionary theory in the column by Brooks are, to be charitable, oversimplifications. I'll limit my comments, however, to Mr. Kirk's own essay.

These analytical comments bring me back to Virginia Tech and mass murder. I don’t think Brooks would be willing to employ even his prettified Darwinism to explain the “purpose” of that slaughter.

I hope he wouldn't be. Some aspects of evolutionary theory may be relevant to human psychology in general and to the formation of homicidal and suicidal impulses in particular. But explaining the "purpose" of what happened at Virginia Tech in terms of evolutionary theory would make no more sense than explaining the horrors of World War II in terms of the theory of gravity.

Certainly, the cosmic purposelessness espoused by Dawkins would be a word untimely spoken at last Tuesday’s memorial convocation.

Of course it would. Lots of true statements would be inappropriately said at a funeral.

In short, the language of sociobiology doesn’t comprehend what humans consider most important—like the heroism of Holocaust survivor and Professor Liviu Librescu, who gave his life that others might live.

I'm not sure of your point here. Whether sociobiology can or cannot account for Liviu Librescu's heroism says nothing about the usefulness or accuracy of sociobiology in general. The theory of gravity has little to say about Liviu Librescu's heroism, either. Moreover, sociobiology may well have plenty to offer in explaining why people are willing to sacrifice their own lives to save others.

Like Marx and Freud, however, Darwin has no language that takes seriously individual acts of good and evil.

Darwin spoke the Queen's English, and his autobiography describes plenty of individual acts of good and evil that he took seriously.

You may justly criticize others when they treat evolutionary biology as it if were a philosophy rather than a science. But I think you make a similar mistake yourself when you charge it with "spawn[ing] acts of horror." (Does the theory of gravity spawn acts of horror?)

RKirk said...

Maurile, thanks for initiating a dialogue on matters of philosophical importance.

The most significant observation I would make in response to your comments is that they fail, in my view, to distinguish between discrete scientific theories (like gravity) and a comprehensive theory that is accorded the philosophical status of explaining all life on earth--including human activity. That is the assertion, after all, that is put forward with apparent approbation by Brooks in his article--an assertion that echoes the all-inclusive sociobiological views of Dawkins et al. and coincides with the "Genes Uber Alles" explanatory template regularly employed by the mainstream media. In this regard Darwinism is (as Brooks suggests) like Freudianism and, more directly, Marxism.

That a presumably all-inclusive philosophy must be silent at a memorial service--an event that falls under the rubric of "what humans consider to be most important"--is a fact that bears pondering.

My belief is that sociobiology and "philosophical evolutionism" are "reductionistic"--a concept loathed by materialists like Stephen Pinker and Richard Dawkins. For them the "ultimate" explanations for things (including the emotions on display at the VT memorial service) are inevitably material. I believe, with Whitehead (Science and the Modern World et al.) that this point of view dogmatically ignores evidence that can't reasonably be reduced to its terms--specifically, consciousness and notions of good and evil. C.S. Lewis provides similar comments on this subject in THE ABOLITION OF MAN.

When I said that Darwin "has no language that takes seriously individual acts of good and evil," I was referring to Darwin's intellectual construct. Within the framework of Darwinism, one can only comment on matters of "viability." When acts of good and evil are broadly viewed as functions of genetic compulsion, they aren't being taken seriously as "individual acts." Mutatis mutandis, a person who insists on translating music or poetry into its prosaic equivalent doesn't take music or poetry seriously.

Darwin can comment on acts of good and evil using the Queen's English, employing concepts that fit within the framework of Judaism and Christianity or even of Enlightenment philosophy, but he is not "intellectually entitled" to speak that way based on his own philosophy. The same is true of Marx (and Freud) whose philosophy doesn't entitle him to express the "moral" rage found in the Manifesto and elsewhere.

As far as Darwinism spawning "acts of horror," I note that the "godless" and "racist" notions of Communism and Nazism arose with the collapse of faith in the 20th century (cf. "Dover Beach" and Nietzsche's prophecy of nihilism to come). Those ideologies produced the bloodiest century ever. Furthermore, Nazism was rooted in a biological myth that was foreshadowed in the 20s by "respectible" scientists who wrote about "life not worthy of life" and promoted the increasingly popular idea of euthanasia (esp. for the "unfit").

In brief, I think the historical record provides substantial evidence that societies based on philosophies that deny the fundamental legitimacy of moral categories (C.S. Lewis' "Tao") spawn "acts of horror." I also think that a reasonable assessment of the anomie of contempory Western society (the litany of mass murders since 1966, 40 million-plus abortions in the U.S., the coarseness and violence of popular culture, two million-plus Americans incarcerated, etc.) is that this "cultural devolution" is what one should expect when a society promotes a vision of life rooted in physical pleasure against a backdrop of genetic determinism and cosmic meaninglessness.

I think an adequate philosophy of life must be able to speak at the memorial service at VT and say something about the sacrifice of Liviu Librescu in terms that go beyond the categories of biology-that is, it must speak from a philosophical perspective where the words "hero" and "villain" and "sacrifice" and "love" are more than deceptive metaphors for mechanical processes.

maurile said...

Thank you for your thoughtful response.

If your point is that people like Brooks, Dawkins, and Dennett ought to refrain from drawing unwarranted philosophical inferences from their knowledge of the natural sciences, I sympathize strongly with your position. In that case, perhaps your suggestion that Darwinism denies the fundamental legitimacy of moral categories should be taken as parody or satire.

But if your point is that evolutionary biology really does imply cosmic meaninglessness, all I can say is that I think you're reading a lot more into it than is there.

By the way, if you don't mind a book recommendation, I believe you might quite enjoy Ken Miller's Finding Darwin's God. Miller is an evolutionary biologist whose textbook on that subject is widely used in high schools. He is also a devout Catholic, and explains in his book why accepting the whole of modern science does not threaten his fundamental values.

RKirk said...

Maurile,
Evolutionary biology as a discipline limited to exploration of the genetic and structural relationships of species to one another, is not a philosophical enterprise. However, evolutionary biology (as all limited disciplines are wont to do)has consistently expanded its scope to include comprehensive philosophical perspectives. That perspective asserts that life arose through random movements of chemicals (formerly in a warm soup of amino acids)and developed through random mutations and natural selection to its present state. In other words, the major figures in evolutionary biology are committed "materialists." That is a philosophical position, not a scientific position. This idea is explained in Phillip Johnson's book, DARWIN ON TRIAL.

I have absolutely no quarrel with evolution as a process of development within a natural TELEOLOGICAL system. What's odd about many sciences, including biology, is that they are predicated upon finding a reason (logos) for development (such as DNA) but when it comes to ultimate explanations, many, if not most, prominent scientists insist that there is no FINAL CAUSE (a la Aristotle's final cause).

Teilhard de Chardin was also a Catholic priest who merged evolutionary development with belief in God--but the key to his doing so was that development, even if indirect at times, was ultimately purposeful and, fundamentally, guided.

To say that materialists deny the fundamental legitimacy of moral categories is, essentially, a redundancy. Moral categories aren't material. Those who believe that we are "machines" generated by genes to promote the distribution of genes do not and cannot (with any logical consistency) grant fundamental legitimacy to moral categories. They must always be reduced (as Marx, Freud, and modern Darwinists do) to the status of epiphenomena.

Stephen Pinker's comments about morality ["basis of," see his index] in his book THE BLANK SLATE illustrates how morality is viewed as a function of natural selection. Pinker puts his toe, very briefly, into waters where Dawkins would never go--suggesting that, just perhaps, moral concepts might have some real status, like the status of mathematical concepts, but then he draws back from that Platonic precipice and recurs to the typical bio-explanation for moral concepts--namely, that they have, thus far, won out in the struggle for survival.

What confuses folks, I think, is that this idea about the status of morality isn't put forward as bluntly and honestly as Brooks put it in his piece--or as Dawkins tends to put it. Philosophically, however, that's the bottom line of Pinker's view of the "basis of" morality.

C.S. Lewis in THE ABOLITION OF MAN addresses this "materialist" POV as well--the POV that has animated, and also decimated, intellectual thought for the last few centuries. (See Whitehead's description of the materialist viewpoint in the first chapter or two of SCIENCE AND THE MODERN WORLD.)

joanna dillon said...

I personally believe that if children are taught that they evolved from animals, animals they will eventually become.

Evolution is only a theory....as is creation. However, evolution is taught in the public schools system as if it were fact while the theory of creation has fallen by the way side. I am not opposed to either theory being taught in the school system....as long as both are taught as theories and given equal time. Our children are being brain washed into believing that they evolved from a monkey like creature. They are being taught that it is only natural for men to want to have sex with as many women as possible because it is an evolutionary safeguard for ensuring the human race. Children are being taught that homosexuality is "ok" because other primates exhibit these types of behaviors...and after all, we evolved from them so it's OK.

Evolution teaches that there is no one to be accountable to. That we are in control of our own destinies. That there are no moral laws to be accountable to. However, creation teaches that there is a God to be accountable to. That we are NOT in control of our own destinies. That there are moral laws that govern our actions. Mass murder is highly logical when viewed through the eyes of evolution. However, it is absurd when viewed through the eyes of creation.