Monday, September 09, 2013

Unable to Think Outside the Neo-Darwinian Box

Ann Arbor

In an essay that has kinship relations with Thomas Nagel's recent Mind and Cosmos, Christopher Booker argues against Edwin O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth. Wilson wants to explain all animal behavior (including human animal behavior) in terms of sociality and instinct. Booker argues that "Wilson completely misses out is any recognition of what is by far the most glaring difference between humans and ants. What marks out humankind as unique is the degree to which we have broken free from the dictates of instinct. We may in terms of our individual ‘ego-instincts’, such as our urges to eat, sleep, live in social groups and reproduce our species, be just as much governed by instinct as other creatures. But in all the ways in which we give expression to those urges, how we build our shelters, obtain our food, organise our societies. we are no longer guided entirely by instinct. Unlike any other species, we have become free to imagine how all these things can be done differently."

Booker continues:

"It is our ability to escape from the rigid frame of instinct which explains almost everything that distinguishes human beings from any other form of life. But one looks in vain to Wilson to recognise this, let alone to explain how it could have come about in terms of Darwinian evolutionary theory. No attribute of Darwinians is more marked than their inability to grasp just how much their theory cannot account for..."

Such as, e.g., altruism, art, and the deeper aspects of religion.

"Nothing is more comical about Darwinians than the contortions they get into in trying to explain those ‘altruistic’ aspects of human nature which might seem to contradict their belief that the evolutionary drive is always essentially self-centred (seen at its most extreme in Dawkins’s ‘selfish gene’ theory). Wilson’s thesis finally crumbles when he comes up with absurdly reductionist explanations for the emergence of the creative arts and religion. Forget Bach’s B Minor Mass or the deeper insights of the Hindu scriptures — as a lapsed Southern Baptist, he caricatures the religious instinct of mankind as little more than the stunted form of faith he escaped from."

Both Booker and Nagel affirm neo-Darwinism, but argue that it is a box within which everything cannot fit. Religious Darwinists like Wilson are, for both, unable to think outside of this box.