Who knows what I might do? Well, I suppose everyone does, because inevitably, having made all kinds of wild suggestions to myself, I send the unsuccessful knitting to the frog pond and do it over, profiting if at all possible from my mistakes the first (or fourth) time around. This could be because I am a dull and predictable person, but I like to think that it is because I am rational.
And it is as a rational person that I am currently enjoying a look at the whole creation/evolution controversy. In particular, at the moment, I am thinking about the idea of purpose.
So here I am reading two sets of things, one of which takes the position that humanity’s sole purpose in life is to serve as carriers for genetic information, the other that humanity’s sole purpose in life is to glorify God. Into this already-interesting juxtaposition of ideas come words from two fellow xangans, The Water Jar and Kali Mama.
Now, neither of them was actually talking about The Meaning of Life at the time, so this is not so much a conversation with them as it is an example of my taking their words from their xanga refrigerators for my own philosophical soup.
The Water Jar said that parents should place their child’s welfare so high that it could transcend morality.
Now, if we are simply carriers of DNA, hoping to keep that biological information around as long as possible, then that is surely true. Morality is not essential to reproductive success. Once we have produced sufficient offspring, we should — as mere carriers of genetic data — just die. Insects do. Dawkins, however, points out that the investment in offspring, from the point of view of long-term reproductive success, should also depend on the number and potential of the offspring.
We are talking about success in such a specialized sense that I think I have to clarify it, in case it is a new idea to you. “Reproductive success” over the long term means keeping your genes in the pool as long as possible. My friend the Poster Queen, for example, is an only child, married to an only child. They had one child, who as yet has no children. If she does not get around to reproducing, then the Poster Queen is not going to be anyone’s ancestor — and neither are her parents, nor her parents-in-law. Their genes will be out of the pool.
My brother, who has no children at all, does have a passel of nieces and nephews with whom he shares a pretty good percentage of DNA. Chances are excellent that his parents will end up having great-grandchildren. Should he never get around to reproducing, he — though childless — will still be more reproductively successful in the long term than the Poster Queen, who is already a mom. (Note that this is of course not dependent on their personal decency as individuals, which is in both cases beyond question.)
This matters to our philosophical question because short-term reproductive success appears to require different strategies from the long-term kind. If I am male, I might achieve impressive short-term reproductive success by impregnating a new woman every night (by force if necessary) and then abandoning her and moving on to the next one. However, according to the computer models, this turns out not to be a good long-term strategy. I might get lots of kids this way, but not so many great-grandkids.
In order to get to be an ancestor, I have to figure out not just how to pass on genetic information likely to lead to people who live long enough to procreate, but also memetic information making it likely that those kids will produce kids who will themselves have kids, and so on. It turns out — according to the computer models — that what I really need to do is not so much scatter seed as bring up people who will become good parents.Over the long run, it appears that altruism and general decency are more successful strategies than rape and pillage.
Now, it is important to remember that no one is suggesting literal strategies here. The hypothetical man does not at any point think “Gee, what could I do to keep my genes in the pool for a couple dozen generations?” Nor does the DNA plot or try to influence the man’s behavior. It is simply — according to the computer models — that natural selection, over the long term, favors decent behavior. So, people who are genetically or perhaps memetically predisposed toward decent behavior will end up with more descendants, and that characteristic will tend to become more common. The mutation that causes us to perceive right and wrong as real is reinforced over time.
There is a bit of a problem with this, in that there is no evidence that people have become or are becoming more decent, more cooperative, or more moral as time goes by. A characteristic which is adaptive, and which is selected for, is normally obvious to us because it increases. We do not usually come around to deciding it is adaptive by saying, “Hmm, what could be the point of a conscience? Maybe it could be adaptive, according to computer models. Let’s check.”
Even if we are prepared to say that groups of people have become less warlike and barbaric in their behavior, it is very hard to support a claim that we as individuals are more moral than the people of the past. We don’t even seem to have made any real changes in our concepts of morality, let alone in how well we follow through. An examination of history, literature, and religion will show us people who screw up in essentially the same ways people always have.
Kali Mama said that morality is necessary for social animals because it improves the success rate. Look at insects. And this is Dawkins’s position as well.
Insects do sometimes cooperate, and they do certainly behave like creatures who experience themselves only as genetic carriers. Their home lives are, for the most part, appalling, so they may not be good examples of moral sense. They do not seem even to feel pain, let alone compassion or the pricks of conscience.
But there are people who hold that thoughts and feelings are just by-products of physical processes, like digestion. We interpret them as having some kind of importance, because it is adaptive for us to be meaning-seeking creatures. Ants go about their tasks as though they were very important, even when they are in ant farms and doing nothing of any value (besides carrying DNA around in their cells). And we go around pondering truths as though that were very important.
Under this model, morality and religion are just like bile and lipids. We just have a biological quirk that makes us experience them as thoughts and feelings. It is this idea, I think, that creationists consider dangerous about evolution. We could decide that reproductive success is not important to us, and then there would be no reason at all for us to strive for moral behavior. We could just ignore the promptings of our consciences, just as I have learned to ignore the inaccurate danger signals sent to me by my phobic reactions to things. “Ah,” we would tell ourselves, “those are just by-products of brain functions. Total amorality for me!”
It is hard for me to imagine any rational person stepping from an acceptance of evolution, even of natural selection as a force for altruism, to a decision to become depraved. However, the rationality which I cherish could itself be nothing more than a by-product of a purely physical function. In which case the entire question is no more than a means of amusing myself while I re-knit the newsboy cap.
Hey — I have come back because I just read sighkey’s comment, and I want to change “by-products of brain functions” to “epiphenomena of biochemistry.” It sounds much cooler. It would be dishonest for me to actually change it, so just read it that way in your head, okay?