Evolutionary Psychology, GodDarwin’s Little Devil, and the Curse of the Dichotomy


God and Darwin’s Little Devil

I was engaged in a long and rather pointless argument today on Facebook with some friends about evolutionary psychology.  At least I was discussing EP. They were responding (with great good will and grace, I might add) to a post I made claiming free will was a myth. I had actually done it to get a good knock-em-down, drag-em-out going with a Christian friend of mine online. Instead some non-dogmatic (and as far as know non-religious) thoughtful and very articulate people responded (that’s not to say my Christian friend isn’t articulate. She is.  I just wanted to pull her chain for a bit. I love doing that with Christians, even the ones I love.)

Anyway, because I didn’t get my chance to debate Leviticus, I suddenly was forced to defend my statement on reasonable grounds. I wasn’t entirely unprepared.  I actually do believe that most of what human beings do and say is based on evolutionary programming. The physical, obviously — such as our “choices” to eat and procreate and work and seek dominance and the like. The finer parts of us too are likely evolutionary based, such as our morality, altruism, status-seeking and even our spirituality, all of which likely developed when we banded to together in small hunter-gatherer tribes and had to sacrifice our individual fitness at times for the sake of the tribe. So when I give money to a homeless guy, I may be in fact responding to an evolutionary imperative wired into my brain from 3.4 million years ago to be generous in order the build allies within the tribe.

A lot of people hate EP (especially Christians) and I can understand this. It validates our basest desires, and turns our most sublime ones into a matter of gland secretions  and stone-age programming. I remember once standing in a parking lot and suddenly feeling that someone was looking at me from behind. I turned and sure enough there was. My first thought: my soul felt that look. My second: it is a predatory response, wired into my brain from the days when a hominid developed senses that could detect changes in shadows, wind direction, odour, small noises, and other sense data even from behind in order to gauge potential risks around him.

See what I mean? The first thought speaks of heaven, and transcendence. And the second? Well, it’s just biology. Purely physical. So how does an EPer survive in the world? If our most noble thoughts, feelings and actions have really just evolved from our evolutionary past (and evolutionary accidents, as Richard Dawkins says) millions of years ago, and they are nothing more than outmoded survival mechanisms, why do we even get out bed in the morning?

Well, for one thing, if our noble characteristics have evolved then our most savage ones have too. Human self awareness has developed to the stage that if we can know where our behavior stems from we can perhaps change it.  Richard Dawkins knows as much about evolutionary psychology as anyone on the planet, so he must know that the stuff he hates (radical religion being one of them) is really not a bunch of bad guys doing evil things for the fun of it, as the Free Willers would have us believe. These guys can’t help it. They’re wired to do it. Same as racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, et al. So why is Dawkins out there trying to convert as many people as he can to atheism (don’t think I’m on Dawkin’s side, by the way. His methods suck. He actually doesn’t understand the apophatic nature of the ancient religions at all, for as bright as the guy is.) Because Dawkins must believe that we can free ourselves from our evolutionary antecedents. Thanks to technology, the imperative has already been lifted, in some ways.  We no longer need to have sex to propagate. We can spill it wherever we want to these days and just be inseminated or adopt or go the sperm bank.   Some of us choose to be vegetarians due to compassion for animals, and this goes against every stone-age program installed. We were carnivores by nature. We ate tigers and bears and wooly mammoths.  I’ve read two articles recently on the idea that celebrity is a result of the need for social hierarchy in primates to maintain order, but it has gone and far exceeded its ancient purpose and got off kilter, for various reasons stated in the article.  One is by Robert Sapolsky. I had never read him before today, but this is an astute and very well-written piece. In my Facebook posts today I used words like ‘kin selection’ and ‘selection pressures’ and ‘speciation’ , but reading Sapolsky I realized I know so very little. Sapolsky would probably say I was trying to move up the baboon hierarchy and failing miserably.


So if our evolutionary drive for status can far exceed its intended evolutionary function, cannot our morality, ethics and spirituality do so also? And can we know their origins and still not denigrate or minimize them, to see them as sublime anyway?

“Evolution is a hideously cruel process.” Whenever a Christian or Muslim or Jew has the temerity to throw the new atheists a bone and say isn’t it possible that God created the universe and the evolutionary process it is this they fall back on. What kind of God could have created the ichneumen wasp, which paralyses its victim, usually a caterpillar or a spider, and lays its eggs inside. The larvae eat the victim while it is still alive, saving the tender vital organs for the very last so the beast won’t die until they’re done and spoil the meal. What kind of God, the atheists ask again, could create something like that?

The besetting sin of human beings is that we think we know so goddamned much. An astronomer will admit we know only the tiniest fraction of the universe and that is all we likely ever know. An archeologist will tell you it’s unlikely we’ll ever uncover the entire fossil record. An evolutionist will tell you that although we can tell you a lot about our evolutionary past we can say very little about our future or even our present (EPers aside).

Ask all three of them where the universe came from and they’ll all likely say the same thing: The Big Bang and nothing further is required to  explain it. Ask A Muslim, a Christian and a Jew and they’ll all likely say God and nothing further is required to explain it.

I am a deeply spiritual man (though I wasn’t always.) I don’t follow a particular creed or religion. Pray to no particular God, or any God for that matter. I am an Apophat, a Fidest, and an Agnostic Theist. Dogma and cataphatic terminology drives me a little nuts.  But I have a question, and I’ve always kind of wondered it. Can’t it be both?  Can’t something have a pragmatic origin and still be sublime (or even divine?) Can it, as Forrest Gump asks, be both random and planned? Quantum mechanics seems to say so, with some particles anyway (the ones that go through two slits at the same time, or act as a particle and a wave.)

Human brains can’t accept such ideas. We can’t get our heads around the fact that the universe could be completely Godless, biological, and mechanical, and yet also be sublime, transcendent, full of meaning and intended at the same time. We’re just not built that way.  Our brains have also evolved to process dichotomy. The biologist Stephen J Gould says this is likely because very very early in our development we only needed/and or were capable of an on-off switch type of thinking–flight or flight, run or rest, eat or drink–and this underpins our thinking even today. We have evolved in such a way that an understanding of our origins and a universe that doesn’t include an either/or scenario is beyond even the smartest of us.

I am definitely not the smartest of us. Not even close. But dichotomy-based thinking is one of those evolutionary imperatives I think we could leave behind and be much better off. One of the reasons I like posthumanism so much is that it attempts to leave dichotomy and duality in the dust. Certainly on a smaller scale than the origins of the universe, but Robert Pepperell’s  writing on the mind-body, consciousness/environment delusion are fascinating. and I think dead-on. Other dichotomies posthumanism takes on is animal/man, man/woman, man/machine, religion/scientism (such as I’m writing about here) and a bunch of others. It’s an incredibly destructive intellectual force, but it’s not tilting at windmills.

There are several ways to look at the motivation behind this post. I could be seeking status among my peers, trying to get to the top of the heap in the tribe. I could be acting on some moral impulse, the guy who stands outside the campfire, sees everyone arguing, and thinks he better say something before the hairy dudes in the next camp come over and kick some ass. I could, possibly, have too much of a half dozen chemicals coursing through my brain (but naturally–I don’t know what in the hell imperative drug addiction could be fulfilling.) Or it could be just that I’m a writer, tossing off a little spare energy in my art before I get up tomorrow and work on the real stuff  Or maybe I’m trying to write myself into a transcendent state, where I can commune with that fundamental  but ineffable energy that all artists know so well.

Every single option would be correct. Every single option would be incorrect. I write because I have to (determinism) and because I want to (free will.)

I am an electron, going through both slits at the same time.

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