David Brooks’s 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 naivete. 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 biological 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’s “postmodern” West.