The Pursuit of Knowledge

Facing Up to Darwin

There is a philosophy of the human condition that stands apart from biological science without opposing it.

By From the February 2012 issue

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It is fair to say that "Darwin's dangerous idea," as Daniel Dennett has described it, has caused more trouble to the ordinary conscience than just about any other scientific hypothesis. We cannot easily reject the theory of evolution, which explains so much that we observe in the lives of plants and animals; and we cannot easily accept it either, when it comes to understanding human beings. It is not only the religious world-view that seems so precarious in the light of it. All kinds of moral aspirations, set against what we can know or surmise about our hunter-gatherer ancestors, seem to be so much wishful thinking. How can we entertain the liberal hope for equality between the sexes, for universal human rights, for a global community without wars, when we reflect on the harsh conditions in which our species is said to have evolved, and for the need, in those conditions, for belligerence, relations of domination, and an innate division of labor between woman and man?

For a long time in the wake of Darwin's Descent of Man, social scientists and anthropologists argued that human beings are not simply biological organisms, whose behavior is to be explained by their inherited constitution, but also social beings, whose most important traits are "socially constructed." On this view culture is an independent influence, which works on the raw material of human biology and changes it into something finer, more malleable, and more responsive to moral and spiritual ideals. In this way, thinkers like Durkheim and Weber hoped to rescue human nature from Darwin by describing another input into our behavior than our biological inheritance. Not only did this give a new purchase to religion; it liberated morality from the constraints of evolutionary thinking. Morality was returned to its throne as a guide to life, by which wisdom and reason override the demands of instinct and desire.

But the respite from Darwin was only short-lived. Evolutionary psychologists have since turned their attention to culture itself, arguing that culture is not, after all, an independent input into human behavior. Culture too, they argue, is part of our biological inheritance. It is not simply that there are extraordinary constants among the many cultures that we observe: gender roles, incest taboos, rites of passage, festivals, warfare, mourning, religious beliefs, moral scruples, aesthetic interests. Culture is also a part of human nature: it is our way of being. We do not live in herds or packs; our hierarchies are not based on strength or sexual dominance. We relate to one another through language, morality, and law; we sing together, dance together, worship together, and spend as much time in festivals and story telling as in seeking our food. Our hierarchies involve offices, responsibilities, gift-giving, and ceremonial recognition. Our meals are shared, and food for us is not merely nourishment but the occasion for hospitality, affection, and dressing up. All these things are comprehended in the idea of culture and culture, so understood, is uniquely human. Why is this?

The social scientists respond that culture is uniquely human because we created it. But the Darwinians reject that answer as a fudge: if we created culture, what explains our capacity to create it? The answer is that this capacity evolved. Culture is therefore an adaptation, which exists because it conferred a reproductive advantage on our hunter-gatherer ancestors. According to this view, many of our cultural traits are local variations of attributes acquired during the Pleistocene age and now "hard-wired in the brain." But if this is so, cultural characteristics may not be as plastic as the social scientists suggest. There are features of the human condition, such as gender roles, that people have believed to be cultural and therefore changeable. But if culture is an aspect of nature, "cultural" does not mean "changeable." Maybe these controversial features of human culture are part of the genetic endowment of mankind.

This new way of thinking gains credibility from the evolutionary theory of morality. Many social scientists suppose morality to be an acquired characteristic, passed on by customs, laws and punishments in which a society asserts its rights over its members. However, with the development of genetics, a new perspective opens. "Altruism" begins to look like a genetic "strategy," which confers a reproductive advantage on the genes that produce it. In the competition for scarce resources, the genetically altruistic are able to call others to their aid, through networks of cooperation that are withheld from the genetically selfish, who are thereby eliminated from the game.

If this is so, it is argued, then morality is not an acquired but an inherited characteristic. Any competitor species that failed to develop innate moral feelings would by now have died out. And what is true of morality might be true of many other human characteristics that have previously been attributed to nurture: language, art, music, religion, warfare, the local variants of which are far less significant than their common structure.

If we accept the argument of the evolutionary biologists, therefore, we may find ourselves pushed toward accepting that traits often attributed to culture may be part of our genetic inheritance, and therefore not as changeable as many might have hoped: gender differences, intelligence, belligerence, and so on through all the human characteristics that people have wished, for whatever reason, to rescue from destiny and refashion as choice. But to speculate freely about such matters is dangerous. The once respectable subject of eugenics was so discredited by Nazism that "don't enter" is now written across its door. The distinguished biologist James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, was recently run out of the academy for having publicly suggested that sub-Saharan Africans are genetically disposed to have lower IQs than the Westerners who strive to help them, while the economist Larry Summers suffered a similar fate for claiming that the brains of women are at the top end less suited than those of men to the study of the hard sciences. In America it is widely assumed that socially significant differences between ethnic groups and sexes are the result of social factors, and in particular of "discrimination" directed against the group that does badly. This assumption is not the conclusion of a reasoned social science but the foundation of an optimistic world-view, to disturb which is to threaten the whole community that has been built on it. On the other hand, as Galileo in comparable circumstances didn't quite say, it ain't necessarily so.

SOME CONSERVATIVES take comfort from this, arguing that liberal egalitarian values are, after all, no more than wishful thinking, and that the attempt to impose them through the school and university curriculum goes against human nature and is therefore doomed to failure. To take this line, however, is to announce the defeat of liberalism by conceding the defeat of conservatism too. Conservatism is founded, like liberalism, on the assumption that human beings are free, that they can to a certain measure shift the boundaries that constrain them, and that there is a right and wrong in human affairs which are not simply dictated by biology. It is imperative, therefore, to find another response to the evolutionary picture. The real question raised by evolutionary biology and neuroscience is not whether those sciences can be refuted, but whether we can accept what they have to say while still holding on to the beliefs and attitudes that morality demands of us.

From Kant and Hegel to Wittgenstein and Husserl, there have been attempts to give a philosophy of the human condition that stands apart from biological science without opposing it. Those great thinkers told us in their several ways that we are both human beings and persons. Human beings form a biological kind, and it is for science to describe that kind. Probably it will do so in the way that the evolutionary psychologists propose. But persons do not form a biological kind, or any other sort of natural kind. The concept of the person is shaped in another way, not by our attempt to explain things but by our attempt to understand, to interact, to hold to account, to relate. The "why?" of personal understanding is not the "why?" of scientific inference. And it is answered by conceptualizing the world under the aspect of freedom and choice. Our world is a palimpsest, and over the book of nature, written in the language of cause and effect, there is another and incommensurable text, written in the language of freedom. We cannot rewrite the book of nature so that it accords with our hopes and ideals, for these have no place in that book. But we can rewrite the book of freedom, and that is where the contests lie.

Consider, then, the dispute over gender and gender equality. Liberals do not deny that there are two biologically fixed kinds of human being—the male and the female; but they deny that there are two culturally fixed kinds of person—the masculine and the feminine. For the liberal, the division of roles, rights, and duties that conservatives defend is neither decreed by nature nor endorsed by the moral law. The response of conservatives should be to defend this division of roles, rights, and duties for what it is—the foundation of the most important personal relation that we have, which is the relation that binds a man and a woman in marriage. I don't think I have ever written a sentence more politically incorrect than that one. Nevertheless, as Galileo was wise enough not to say, if you don't like it, that's your problem.

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About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.