David Brooks has a column in today’s NYT about how some evolutionary theorists try to force random evolution into a form that can explain human moral agency. From “Nice Guys Finish First:”
The story of evolution, we have been told, is the story of the survival of the fittest. The strong eat the weak. The creatures that adapt to the environment pass on their selfish genes. Those that do not become extinct. In this telling, we humans are like all other animals deeply and thoroughly selfish. We spend our time trying to maximize our outcomes competing for status, wealth and mating opportunities. Behavior that seems altruistic is really self-interest in disguise. Charity and fellowship are the cultural drapery atop the iron logic of nature.
All this is partially true, of course. Yet every day, it seems, a book crosses my desk, emphasizing a different side of the story. These are books about sympathy, empathy, cooperation and collaboration, written by scientists, evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists and others. It seems there’s been a shift among those who study this ground, yielding a more nuanced, and often gentler picture of our nature.
Here’s the new theory, as Bro0ks explains it:
Different interpretations of evolution produce different ways of analyzing the world. The selfish-competitor model fostered the utility-maximizing model that is so prevalent in the social sciences, particularly economics. The new, more cooperative view will complicate all that. But the big upshot is this: For decades, people tried to devise a rigorous “scientific” system to analyze behavior that would be divorced from morality. But if cooperation permeates our nature, then so does morality, and there is no escaping ethics, emotion and religion in our quest to understand who we are and how we got this way.
But applying evolution to our moral agency is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Once we became conscious—however that happened—evolution lost its hold over us and we ceased to be flotsam and jetsam floating on a random and purposeless sea of natural selection.
Think about it, with consciousness came rationality, abstract thinking, creativity, and wisdom. We learned lessons and applied the knowledge to design our own societies. And we created moral systems, law, religions, philosophies, and the concept of right and wrong, which varies from society to society—demonstrating, it would seem, that “proper” morality is not hard wired in our genes.
Evolution may have taken us to a certain point, but after that, we took matters substantially into our own hands, meaning that by definition, it was no longer evolution. Some might point to God. Others to human gray matter. Whatever it might be, we ceased being merely reactive to environmental forces and that put us at least one foot beyond nature. Except for dogs and other domesticated animals that also did not evolve—we invented them—no other species in the known universe can make that claim. Which makes us exceptional.