Genetics, Ethics, and the New Social Darwinism


There’s been a lot of buzz among the pundits lately about “cooperation,” particularly about purported scientific findings that cooperation, collaboration, altruism, and other kinds of social virtues are genetic and that “cooperation is as central to evolution as mutation and selection” (Brooks, 5 May 2011).  The pundits are responding to a minor publishing fad for books on these subjects, for example Super Cooperator  by Nowak and Highfield and Braintrust by Patrica Churchland (reviewed by Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal on 14 May 2011).

The underlying thesis is that because cooperation improves the survival of individuals and their relatives, our “moral rules of thumb” have, as Ridley puts it, “been chosen by evolution to achieve certain social goals.”  I do hope that Ridley is being deliberately poetic here, for otherwise he is promulgating a teleological version of evolution, one in which evolution chooses and has intentional goals and one that verges on intelligent design.

It is naïve to assert that evolution makes choices or has goals—evolution is not an entity.  The word “evolution” denotes a process of nondirected change over eons. Tthat change has eventuated in complexity of form and behavior is a consequence of time, not purpose.

The New Social Darwinists’ notion that evolution favors cooperation also does not stand up to the facts.  If cooperation (and all its variants) were “favored” by evolution, in the same way that, say, development of bigger brains is, one would expect to see a diminution of its opposite, selfishness.  But no such diminution can be observed.

This raises the more interesting and nonbiological question of why there has recently been this upsurge in books and articles on the biological basis of cooperation.  It seems to me that it is a reaction to the manifest lack of cooperative and altruistic behavior in American society today.  The current recession was triggered by a tsunami of selfish, devil take the hindmost behavior; and the current political climate, particularly on the right (which no longer deserves to be called “conservative”), as well as the pervasive “look-at-me-first” attitudes expressed by popular culture, all point to a collapse of social cohesion and sense of responsibility to others.

In other words, the current interest in cooperation is symptomatic of its manifest lack in American society, economics, and politics.  Those alarmed by this decline are attempting to use “science” as an antidote, as a means of encouraging greater cooperation in a poisonous political and economic climate of selfishness and disregard for those who lack power and money.  But we don’t need pseudoscience and appeals to myths of the primeval savannah to dissect the causes of the current discouraging state of America nor to argue for greater cooperation and consideration for others.  Sociology and history, moral philosophy and ethics, and yes even religion, rather than sociobiology and evolutionary just-so stories, are more than adequate to the task.

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