Innate Depravity

Some religions depict humans as born in sin and saved only through faith and good works. Some Darwinians have followed this line as well. T. H. Huxley's 1896 lecture Evolution and Ethics portrayed morality as a cultural invention, a sword to slay the dragon of our animal past and overcome our innate selfishness. In

Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud took a similar line, arguing that society depends on the renunciation of animal passions and conformity to learned social norms. One of the few points of agreement between biologists and social scientists in the 20th century was that human morality must be taught, because it cannot be instinctive.

With the rise of selfish-gene thinking in 1960s and 1970s biology the innate depravity view gained clarity and force. Biologists realized that all organisms must evolve to be evolutionary egoists in the sense of promoting the replication of their own genes at the expense of other genes. This inclined some to the view that organisms must usually be egoists in the vernacular sense as well: individually competitive, selfish, ungenerous, and ill-mannered. The evolutionary selfishness of the gene was seen as leading automatically to the selfishness of human individuals. Leading evolutionary theorists such as E. O. Wilson, George Williams, and Robert Trivers adopted this seemingly pessimistic view. In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins followed Huxley's lead: "Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish."

Many critics reacted against the innate depravity view with moral outrage, sentimental anecdotes, and a failure to understand the power of the selfish-gene perspective. Confronted with an apparent conflict between modern evolutionary theory and human morality, some biologists such as Stephen Jay Gould dismissed the selfish-gene view of evolution. In reaction, selfish-gene biologists dismissed the critics as confused idealists. It has taken a couple of decades for scientists to get beyond this impasse, to accept that there are human moral instincts other than nepotism and reciprocity, and that they must have evolved somehow. Frans de Waal sounded this new note of optimism in his book Good Matured: "Humans and other animals have been endowed with a capacity for genuine love, sympathy, and care—

a fact that can and will one day be fully reconciled with the idea that genetic self-promotion drives the evolutionary process."

Evolutionary psychology is taking more seriously the evidence for human generosity such as evidence that sympathy develops spontaneously in young children, and experimental economics research showing "irrationally" high levels of generosity between adults playing bargaining games. Economist Robert Frank's book Passions Within Reason was very important in putting true sympathy and generosity back on evolutionary psychology's agenda. He analyzed the evolution of human capacities for moral commitment, showing how apparently irrational tendencies to honor promises and punish cheats could bring hidden genetic benefits. He also showed that people are pretty good at predicting who will act generously and who will not when there is a temptation to be selfish: our moral character can be reliably judged. Philosopher Elliot Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson have also insisted on the importance of bringing psychological evidence regarding sympathy and generosity into evolutionary discussions of morality. Some evolutionary economists have even turned to Adam Smith's A Theory of Moral Sentiments, which presents a much rosier picture of human generosity than his more famous The Wealth of Nations. Human kindness is becoming accepted as an adaptation to be explained rather than a myth to be ridiculed. The new Darwinian moral optimism is much more nuanced than either the innate selfishness view of the Catholic Church and sociobiology, or the innate goodness view of Rousseau and Utopian socialism. It accepts our moral nature as we find it. But the goal remains: to find the hidden evolutionary benefits of human kindness.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment