Question: When is an extreme act of altruism actually the ultimate demonstration of self-love? Answer: When it is motivated by natural selection. At least according to Robert Wright in a recent editorial written in response to the evolutionary despondency of Robert Brooks. Last week I commented on two editorials by Brooks that essentially accepted the hopelessness of consistent Darwinism as a fact of life when it is lived in subjection to pure materialism. While Brooks was busy brooding though, Wright was attempting to put a happy face on the news report that we humans are merely genetic “survival machines.”
Cheer up! Despair is a plausible response to news that our loftiest feelings boil down to genetic self-interest, but genetic self-interest actually turns out to be our salvation. The selfishness of our genes gave us the illuminating power of love and put us on the path to a kind of transcendence.
One would be forgiven for mistaking the above quote for a sermon. Wright’s use of religious language betrays his real views of Darwinism. Evolution is for Wright what Christianity is for C.S. Lewis. As Lewis famously stated: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.” We could substitute “evolution” for “Christianity” in Lewis’s quote and come to a close approximation of Wright’s religious views. Wright spends his entire editorial trying to explain and give meaning to something that, by his own admission, has no meaning. He describes why we are willing to overlook “bad” behavior in our own children yet condemn it in others as our “genes’ way of getting you to serve their agenda.” In other words, your “love” and “adoration” of your kin is simply nature’s way of ensuring their (and ultimately your) future genetic survival.
[N]atural selection builds machines devoted ultimately to the survival of their genes, not themselves.
Hence love. A love-impelled grandparent sacrifices her life to save a child’s life. Too bad for the grandparent, but mission accomplished for the love genes: they’ve kept copies of themselves alive in a vibrant vehicle that was otherwise doomed, and all they’ve lost is a vehicle that, frankly, didn’t have the world’s most auspicious odometer anyway. Love of offspring (and siblings) is your genes’ way of getting you to serve their agenda.
Wright’s version of Darwinism seems to be intelligently directed by something greater than “blind pitiless indifference.” Genes don’t have “agendas,” nor do “they” plot, or scheme, or make statistical analyses. In fact, two sentences later, Wright admits that, “genes are just dopey little particles, devoid of consciousness.” So which is it? Do genes have an agenda or don’t they? Do genes have consciousness or don’t they. Wright is pounding his head on the ceiling of his naturalistic paradigm so hard that his brain has become numb to the nonsense rolling out of his typewriter. Dopey little particles write dopey little articles.
But Wright doesn’t stop there. Immediately after denying that genes have consciousness, he goes on to grant this wonderful ability to humans anyway. “We, in contrast, can perceive the world. And how! Thanks to love, we see beyond ourselves and into the selves around us.” Where does Wright get his concept of “self?” How does he know that we “perceive” and even that we perceive accurately? And how is it that over the course of three paragraphs Wright has the human animal go from a mere genetic survival machine to a conscious being? If we are simply the sum of our genes and genes are “devoid of consciousness,” where does “it” come from? A whole heap of nothing is still nothing. Wright waves his magic wand of religious dogma and does the very same thing that he ridicules the God of the Bible for doing: creation ex nihilo, creating from nothing. Wright’s evolutionary religion allows him to proclaim himself the sovereign deity of creation. But, he saves the very best for last. His closing words are a textbook example of “begging the question”:
Transcending the arbitrary narrowness of our empathy isn’t guaranteed by nature. (Why do you think they call it transcendence?) But nature has given us the tools — not just the empathy, but the brains to figure out how evolution works, and thus to see that the narrowness is arbitrary.
So evolution has led to something outside itself — to the brink of a larger, more widely illuminating love, maybe even to a glimpse of moral truth. What’s not to like?
No matter how many times I read those words I continue to be astounded at the sheer ignorance that a presumably educated man like Wright is capable of publishing with a straight face. “Nature” has endowed man with a brain that can begin to understand this “nature” and its associated mechanisms like “evolution,” which brings about “things” like “love” so that evolution can reproduce itself with cognizant carriers of conscious-less genes which have “progressed” so far that they can now expect a glimpse into “moral truth.” So we’re back to religion again. Although Wright spends the better part of 700 words trying to show how, contrary to David Brooks’ assessment, evolution can and does lead to something outside of itself, his diatribe ends precisely where it began: on the front steps of the church. His evolutionary religion can’t supply the moral narrative that he so desperately wants and needs, so he lifts it from Christianity and hopes that none of his dopey little readers will notice. But then again, the “moral truths” of the evolutionary religion conveniently don’t condemn stealing—it’s the natural way for the “21 st Century Schizoid Man.”
. Robert Wright, “Why Darwinism Isn’t Depressing,” New York Times, April 21, 2007.
. C.S. Lewis, They Asked For a Paper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1962), 165.
. Famous phrase from a quote by Richard Dawkins’ in his book, River Out of Eden. “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”
. Infamous song by the progressive rock band King Crimson. Read the lyrics here and ask yourself if it couldn’t just as easily have been titled “21st Century Evolutionary Man.”