Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Darwinian bedtime stories

Jeff Lowder has emerged from a long hibernation to promote the glorious cause of godlessness. Perhaps he felt the "new atheists," and their strident wannabes, were giving atheism a black eye. Whatever the reason, I’m going to comment on this post:


Humans are effectively self-centered; our tendency to behave in self-centered ways is usually much stronger than any tendency to behave in selfless ways. These selfless or altruistic behaviors can be divided into two types: kin altruism and non-kin altruism.

On Darwinian naturalism, the mixture of moral goodness and moral badness we find in Homo sapiens is easy to explain. The Darwinian naturalist explanation for our overwhelming tendency towards self-centered behavior is obvious. Kin altruism is also easy to explain: behaviors that promote the survival and reproduction of my kin make it more probable that my genes will be inherited by future generations. Non-kin altruism is weaker than kin altruism and also absent more often than kin altruism. Given that kin altruism exists, this pattern or distribution is exactly what we would expect on Darwinian naturalism.

This is one of those comfy just-so stories that Darwinians like to tell each other at bedtime. Nice, armchair theories. It’s striking how many atheists, who pride themselves on their scientific outlook, are suckers for pseudoscientific explanations, like evolutionary psychology.

Jeff’s summary is plausible as long as you don’t think about it too hard. Yet it’s child’s play to come up with counterexamples. Let’s consider a few illustrations:

i) On crassly evolutionary terms, a postmenopausal woman has outlived her usefulness. She’s become a consumer rather than a producer. A drag on the system.

So we’d expect natural selection to program kin to abandon wives, mothers, and grandmothers who are past the childbearing years. Yet grown children generally retain an intense lifelong attachment to the mother. Likewise, husbands are often devoted to infertile wives. Men (husbands, sons) will risk their lives to protect infertile women.

ii) Conversely, many men can father kids until the day they die. So we should instinctively value aging fathers more highly than aging mothers. Yet many grown children are closer to their mothers than their fathers.

This stands in contrast to many species, where the mother raises offspring to the point where offspring can provide and fend for itself, after which the bond is dissolved.

iii) On the one hand, it’s not uncommon for blood-brothers to resent each other. Even hate each other. Likewise, some grown children resent or even despise one or both parents. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for men to be closer to male friends than to their own brothers. Same thing with sisters. So kinship bonds can be weaker than friendship. Indeed, that’s often the case. Hardly exceptional.

iv) And this operates across species. A human being can have a stronger emotional bond with a pet dog or horse than with his parents or siblings. Yet that confers no evolutionary advantage.

v) Kin tend to be intensely protective of a sibling or child who’s deaf, blind, or crippled. Yet that’s a weak link in the chain. Not only may the disabled family member be unable to survive on his own, but resources diverted to protecting and providing for him lower the survivability of his kin-group. So we’d expect natural selection to program kin to abandon physically or mentally defective kids or siblings. And there are no doubt situations where that happens, but that’s hardly the norm.

This stands in stark contrast to the animal kingdom, where sick, aging, or injured members of the herd are left behind, as easy pickings for predators and scavengers.

On theism, either God created humans directly (special creation) or indirectly (Darwinian theism or theistic evolution). Since God is omnipotent and omniscient, He could create humans without making them inherently self-centered. Since God is morally perfect, He would have good moral reasons for creating altruistic humans. Furthermore, He would not create inherently self-centered humans unless He had a morally sufficient reason for doing so. So given that humans are inherently self-centered, theism entails both that God is not constrained by biological goals like survival and reproduction (and hence does not need to create human beings who are inherently self-centered) and that He had a morally sufficient reason for doing so. And that's a really big coincidence that Darwinian naturalism doesn't need.

Jeff is erecting a false dichotomy between self-centeredness and altruism. Because I know what it’s like to be me, I know what my own needs and feelings are. In combination with the fact that humans share a common nature, that forms the basis for compassion or empathy. Using myself as the immediate frame of reference, I can see a fellow human in need, and imagine how I’d feel in his situation. How would I feel if I were in that bind? Wouldn’t I want somebody to help me out? My “self-centered,” first-person perspective enables me to project myself into the situation of another. To extrapolate from my individual, personal experience to the needs and feelings of someone other than myself.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, Steve and Jeff back in the ring. I hope you're both in good health.