Level 16 - Colossus
The primary focus of this essay is on adaptationism and the theory of evolution, which, of course, challenges fundamental religious beliefs. In fact, perhaps as a substitute for religion, some have adopted a distortion of Darwinism to explain the "purpose" of life: one depiction of human existence is that we\'re actually survival machines programmed to perpetuate our genes, according to "selfish gene" pursuits. From this POV, the purpose of life is survival for the sake of continued reproduction- each life then is a carrier, a brief repository of gene pool elements.
Because of this belief, some Darwinists seek to find adaptationist explanations for all aspects of the human physique and behavior. They do so because they believe that all traits must make rational, "selfish gene" sense somehow because that\'s their whole point; because natural selection wouldn\'t allow it otherwise. Some people even have a bizarre "faith" in evolution as if life can always be counted on to devise a way somehow (even miraculously) to survive, i.e., "life will find a way". The SF writer, Robert A. Heinlein, a Social Darwinist, once wrote, "there will always be survivors"; he meant only "survival of the fittest", of course, with the implication that the "non-fit" don\'t "deserve" to live. Nazism (blatant power fantasy) was an outgrowth of Social Darwinism with the implication that "natural order" dictates that human society should be patterned on this; that the "unfit", "weak and inferior" should be actively "weeded" out by society. However, it\'s a fallacy to infer morality from natural law. After all, the law of gravity doesn\'t mean human society should strive to promote falling down.
This essay has been another attempt to dispel these simplistic notions. Natural selection alone doesn\'t explain all aspects of ourselves: mere statistics (of distribution and variation) alone prevents that as previously explained. Adaptationism is a major factor, of course, but not all traits are the result of direct adaptations- and this is increasingly true with greater complexity. Where does one draw the line between direct adaptation, random drift and peripheral serendipity (unintended consequences)?
Again, it can\'t be emphasized enough that technically, genes have no purpose- nor are they "trying to survive" or enhance their reproductive success or do anything for that matter. It\'s just that the gene pool will obviously TEND to consist of genes that have happened to have done so- by default; i.e., the other genes that happened not to have done so will obviously not be around in as great numbers, if at all. Life will continue to perpetuate in the ways that it\'s possible to do so within the laws of nature. The so-called ingenious ways that species "devised" to survive were often the only feasible options left (no miracle was involved)- by default- given the current environment and the previous genetic lineage and the preexistence of requisite traits. But remember, most species- perhaps, all species- go extinct eventually.
Evolution is a constant "work in progress"; just because a particular species has existed for millions of years doesn\'t mean that a kind of "perfection" or optimization has been achieved. Sometimes, a species can exist for millennia IN SPITE of "bad" adaptations. And past reproductive success doesn\'t predict future success- just look at the dinosaurs. So there\'s no preordained "destiny" to evolution. Evolutionary biology provides a context for understanding HOW current behavior modes may\'ve developed and why they persist. However, it doesn\'t directly explain WHY we are as we are. Saying that men seek power and status for sex and are violent to fight over women; and that women seek high status males; or that genes seek to maximize reproductive fitness is a useful model (stereotype)- a teleological explanation- but it\'s certainly not the "meaning of life".
The primary focus of natural selection has always been on the "winners" (life); but I think evolution can be extended to encompass non-life as well. In semiconductor physics, electrical current can be defined either as negative charge moving, say, in one direction or as positive charge moving in the opposite direction. Likewise, instead of saying that evolution is all about reproductive fitness, one could just as well say it\'s about death and extinction- the other side of the coin. Hell, death is the most likely outcome of natural selection after all.
When you get down to it, the only fundamental generalization that makes sense about both life and nonlife is that both aren\'t really about survival or reproductive fitness or "progress" or anything for that matter, but mere existence: life\'s "purpose" then isn\'t to survive- it\'s exactly the same as the purpose of everything else- to simply exist- as some form of matter and/or energy. Existence for the sake of existence. From this POV, rather than being "masters of the world", we\'re actually on "equal" footing with everything else in this universe. (I.e., there\'s no such thing as "inferior" or "superior".) Human existence has no more cosmic significance than, well, anything else. In that sense, everything\'s the same, and nothing\'s really "meant to be". This POV also automatically incorporates adaptationism\'s limitations. For ex., this essay has attempted to explain behavior that doesn\'t make gene-centric sense (like parents who murder their own children) as ex.s of adaptationism\'s statistical limitations or as subtle extreme-case adaptations. But if this POV is taken, then no other explanation is required- it\'s already taken into account; so it kind of makes "perfect sense" in a perverse sort of way. One doesn\'t have to get bogged down, devising adaptationist scenarios for everything.
One doesn\'t have to puzzle why a father may kill his estranged wife and his children before killing himself by resorting to agonized "just-so" stories. Nor does anyone have to devise adaptationist reasons for or find meaning in a million other oddities like abortion, adoption, albinoism, alcoholism, art, asthma, autism, auto racing, bad breath, baldness, bestiality, bigotry, birth control, boredom, bowling, boxing, bungee-cord jumping, cancer, child molesters, cricket, cults, curiosity, dancing, diabetes, dictatorships, domestic abuse, Down\'s syndrome, dowry, drug addiction, eyebrows, finger snapping, gambling, genius, genocide, golf, headaches, honor killings, house plants, humor, hymen, hype, hypnosis, hypocrisy, laughter, literature, love, lying, manic-depressive disorder, mathematics, money, mountain climbing, Munchausens, murder, music, narcolepsy, Nazism, necrophilia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, painting, paranoia, pets, pornography, profanity, purdah, racism, rape, religion, road rage, roller-coasters, sadism, serial killers, singing, sleep, smiling, snoring, sperm banks, stuttering, suicide, TV, Tourette\'s Syndrome, xenophobia, war, wife swapping, writing, yawning, whatever.
And one doesn\'t have to wonder why natural disasters that kill thousands of innocents happen and "why bad things happen to good people". If you ask why, well, WHY NOT? Anything goes. The joke is on us all then. I\'m well aware that this is a form of nihilism, but maybe its time has come. Really, why should any of us worry so much about the seven or eight decades of life we\'ll have at most when an eternity of oblivion is our one true destiny? If there\'s no afterlife, and death is followed by eternal oblivion, then what\'s so bad about that? Some say only the "weak" commit suicide, but maybe, the truly smart people are the ones who just kill themselves and get it over with. Why should death be feared or avoided? (Well, obviously, an aversion to death is an adaptation.) In fact, one could argue suicide is a good thing. It may be bad for reproductive fitness and for society, but why should people give a damn about that or anything for that matter? Why should people struggle and suffer- when they can have quiet oblivion instead? I\'m not advocating this, but it is a "valid" POV. In a way, nihilism represents the ultimate freedom...
I once saw a book in a bookstore that describes evolution as an entropic (increasing disorder) process. The general concept of entropy has come to be synonymous with the general decline of things, so this makes intuitive sense. From an energy POV, our greatest energy potential is as embryos; living is an inevitable progression towards death (and in the process, we consume so much). In fact, all of human progress and the ever increasing amount of energy our high-tech civilization consumes might be seen as promoting entropy. Maybe then, all of existence is simply an expression of entropy and we\'re the means (agents of entropy) by which the universe expends its energy. Perhaps, this is an equivalent view.
This POV also explains what religion can\'t- i.e., the basic fundamental unfairness of life and why there\'s no "justice" in the universe. Why no one gets what they "deserve"- things just happen to both good and bad people alike. I mean, religion flounders over stuff like that. Religious people may cite the book of "Job", for ex., but even so, their basic belief is that if they pray and they\'re god-fearing people, then they\'ll be protected and rewarded by God. It\'s simply superstition and even when bad things happen anyway, they fall back on "god works in mysterious ways" or that the "afterlife will be better". I\'m sure it\'s occurred to them that maybe they\'re just kidding themselves; but perhaps, it\'s easier to believe that than the nihilist alternative.
And who can really blame them? It is a bleak point of view. Irregardless, we all want to believe that life should be fair or that we have a destiny of some sort or that there should be some guarantees. Who can really embrace the notion that life isn\'t quite a random accident, but that for all practical purposes, it might as well have been? Who wants to believe that all of us can die anytime and that anything (esp. all of the horrible possibilities out there) can happen? Who wants to believe that at anytime, a new plague or a meteorite from outer space could wipe out humanity; and that it could happen as meaninglessly as an anthill being stepped on by someone walking aimlessly down a road. If god exists, then it means we have some kind of protection. If not, then anything can happen. Is it any wonder then that people fall back on religion or belief in UFOs or New Age spiritualism or celebrity worship or television shows or gambling or alcohol or drugs or Nazism or all of the other hundred forms of escapism out there? Atheists may feel contempt for religious people; but they fall back on something too.
Pope John Paul II recently adopted the revisionist view of evolution as one of the "mysterious ways" by which god works; i.e., the Catholic Church now accepts natural selection in principle because of the overwhelming scientific evidence just as they eventually accepted Galileo\'s theories. But they still assert god\'s subtle, divine guidance behind it all, i.e., a purpose in conferred "unto" evolution by god. Avowed atheists like Richard Dawkins, though, contend that we can be explained without resorting to divine guidance; i.e., blind, stumbling natural selection alone can account for us. Well, Dawkins is right, but technically, the theory of evolution doesn\'t disprove the existence of god; although at least according to Dawkins, it does show that divine guidance is unnecessary. Irregardless, creationists deny all of evolutionary theory- not out of intellectual stupidity, but because they simply don\'t want to believe.
But the real threat to religion isn\'t in the idea that humans may be descended from apes- that\'s no big deal. The real threat to religion is from the more recent theory of evolutionary psychology. I mean, an adaptationist explanation for eyelids as protection for the eyes is one thing; but accepting that human nature and morality are adaptations too threatens the very foundation of religion! I mean, one can\'t read the Bible or the Koran with all of its bizarre rules (cultural adaptations) on sexual morality, and not find them to be almost a crude parody of evolutionary psychology. Adaptationist theory, esp. on sexual morality or TIT FOR TAT, I think, clearly implies that our concepts of good and evil are arbitrary- they\'re not universal absolutes handed down to us by some father-figure god. Consider how much of our morality revolves around sex. And yet, most of that sexual morality is based on selfish-gene adaptations "meant" to promote population growth (for civilization); and to guarantee male paternity of children in order to promote two-parent child rearing. Where\'s the absolute good and evil in all of that? Where\'s the absolute good and evil in TIT FOR TAT? Evolutionary psychology then makes a mockery of human morality and religion. As far as I\'m concerned, it\'s the fatal deathblow to religion...it "torpedoes" it. (Not that I think that religious belief is necessarily in decline: consider a recent survey that most Americans still believe in angels.)
A recent essay by Ronald Bailey discusses how some conservative intellectuals like Robert Bork are now attacking evolutionary theory possibly not because they dispute its scientific truth (in private); but because they believe that strong religious belief is necessary for society\'s well-being; i.e., "no society can long endure that thinks its lives are meaningless". Wright acknowledges this problem too in "Moral Animal" and then goes on as a proponent of secular humanism (utilitarianism) instead- the idea of maximizing happiness among as many people as possible (like in Aldous Huxley\'s "Brave New World" (1932)? ; not because of divine ordinance, but because we should all want that. This is something, of course, most people would agree to; but even he acknowledges that there are no absolute reasons one can give to do so- people must choose to do so. I mean, if some schizoid nihilist out there wants to kill everyone else; or some neo-Nazi/Christian Identity racists want to start a "racial holy war" and exterminate all non-whites; well, what absolute rationale against that can anyone really offer? Who says that the objective "truth" must be believed or that people have to act "rationally"? Certainly, not natural selection, which has allowed all kinds of delusions to persist (with "nothing bad\'ll ever happen to me" being the most common- because otherwise, there\'d be no new ventures! I mean, existence really is all arbitrary and deranged: our lives and everything else that goes on in this universe are just the universe\'s way of killing time, so anything goes.
As asserted by Isaac Asimov, I think the Bible is simply Hebrew mythology. The only difference between it and Greek mythology is that the former is still taken seriously. In fact, the Old Testament and the Koran at times even seem like grotesque parodies of evolutionary psychology to me (e.g., Numbers 31). As far as I\'m concerned, if god exists, then it\'d be like Olaf Stapledon\'s "Star Maker" (1937)- incredibly remote and totally indifferent (and irrelevant) to our existence. It wouldn\'t care about us as a species let alone as individuals. Technically then, I\'m an agnostic- but I\'ve felt like an atheist sometimes out of cynicism. There was a time when I blamed religion, particularly religious fundamentalism, for a lot of the intolerance and violence in the world (like in the Middle East). And, of course, I saw that a lot of the "most" religious people are nothing but self-righteous, sanctimonious hypocrites. And I used to naively think that a refutation of religion would make humanity more rational and less violent. But now I understand that religion is just a human tool and it shouldn\'t be held responsible for its negatives (just like a knife shouldn\'t be blamed, if it\'s used to commit a murder). Overall, I now actually think religion inspires people to act better, particularly in charity work. Religion does inspire violence, but so does everything else it seems (even soccer matches for British fans!)
Besides, morality becomes relative and arbitrary without the belief in (and fear of?) an absolute Good/Evil dictated to us by an Angry Vengeful God; with relative morality instead, "anything goes"... religion may be a lie, but maybe, it\'s an essential lie. Religion has been described as the "opiate of the masses" (something to keep people in line with threats of hellfire and eternal damnation); but it\'s probably an essential cultural adaptation to boot. Religious zealots cite the Bible or the Koran with fervor because they believe it to be the word of God- the rest of us know it\'s just human fiction (fantasy). But obviously, religious rules like the Ten Commandments, which help keep the masses in line, lack conviction- few will take them seriously- unless one really believes them to have divine origin.
Bailey\'s essay talks about "different kinds of truth"- how some intellectuals believe that only a few (i.e., the "intellectual elite") can "handle the truth" about religion. Darwin himself was an atheist by the end of his life, but he also thought religion held the social order together for the masses. Some sociologists think that as religious belief in the US has declined, a kind of aimless malaise brought on by moral relativism, and cynicism threatens to take over society. That increasingly, nothing is taken seriously anymore- too much self-awareness is a bad thing?
It IS harder to take life seriously at all without religion. Likewise, it\'s arguable that combating social ills like drug addiction, prostitution, and the spread of AIDS (by encouraging monogamy), say, might be easier by making it a moral, religious issue rather than just a public-health concern (religious fervor provides more emotional incentive). For ex., in a famous series of debates in 1858 with Senator Stephan Douglas, Abraham Lincoln opposed the spread of slavery in the US simply because it was "wrong"; instead of deferring to the "pragmatic" popular sovereignty favored by Douglas. But simple "right and wrong" are the first things to go with moral relativism...
So maybe then ("for the good of society"), these conservatives are right? Perhaps then, Islam, the fastest growing religion, has greater "fitness" than Darwinism, and will win out in the end over secular humanism, because it provides more potent motivation for the masses. Or perhaps, Islamic nations will face the same decline in religious belief as they modernize. (Or perhaps instead of religion, what we really need are new frontiers "to conquer"- like outer space? According to some science fiction writers, the 20th century with all of its technical marvels has also seen the end of exploration- the end of adventure and escape for the masses.)
This essay has been written by a guy who\'s had a fairly easy and sheltered life. I\'ve grown up a member of the elite, upper-middle suburban class in the US. I\'ve never known real hunger or suffering or violence or crime. Intellectually, I\'m aware that most of human history is about suffering whether it be WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War; or the 1918 influenza epidemic in just this century alone. Intellectually, I know the world doesn\'t make sense; but I don\'t feel that way. I expect- almost feel it\'s my right- to have a long, safe and prosperous life. But I feel that way because I\'m a naive, delusional, smug, yuppie fool.
Because the real world is one of constant violence and uncertainty. It\'s a world where other men will kill you for just looking at them funny or bumping into them by accident; or run you down for the fun of it; or beat the *blank* out of you for being different. It\'s a world where in truth- hate, injustice, crime, violence and suffering are the NORM- not the exception. It\'s a world where there\'s probably no real difference in motive between street gang violence and militarized war between nations. That\'s the way it is for the bulk of humanity today in the 3rd World. People who believe "violence never solves anything" are naive, foolish simpletons. Violence is and has been the end-all of most human affairs- "might does make right".
The real challenge of the 21st century won\'t be in building the infrastructure of the Information Superhighway like some idiot technocrats would have us believe, but in finding enough food and drinking water for everyone; dealing with: environmental degradation (e.g., global warming), unemployment, AIDS (and other new plagues), the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and finding an alternative energy source to oil. What\'s driving these problems is human overpopulation- I guess we\'re too "fit" for our own good! Realistically, the future is anything but bright. Today, a small minority of people in the modern world have achieved a kind of paradise, but that may be a blip in history. So this essay has just been a long-winded way of saying I really don\'t know what to believe in anymore.