Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Before the Reality Principle

I remarked in an earlier post how some scientists and philosophers (among others) like to fancy themselves tough, unsentimental realists -- they can face the unpleasant reality that free will is an illusion, that Man is a hairless ape, that Man is inherently aggressive, brutal, competitive, hierarchical, and so on. (Freud also opposed the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle -- get it? Reality is the opposite of pleasure. If you feel good right now, you're living in a fool's paradise, but don't worry: Reality is gonna get ya in the end.) Sometimes they affect some regret that reality is so unattractive, but the upshot is still that life sucks and then you die, and thanks to their years of philosophical or scientific training, they can face it. Can you, punk? Huh?

I stopped taking this pose seriously when I encountered it in political reactionaries (proto-Reaganite conservatives) in the 1970s. Life is unfair, they'd opine, and unfortunately governments -- even our America, home of the brave and land of the free -- must do nasty things. I found, however, that like most Americans they were woefully uninformed about how much blood Uncle Sam actually has on his hands, and when I'd spell it out for them, they'd start looking green around the gills.

Aside from the discussions in A Very Bad Wizard I've discussed so far, there's also Frans De Waal, a Dutch primatologist who has challenged the popular quasi-Darwinian program of
providing a sort of shock therapy to people in the social sciences and philosophy. And when the social scientists would reply, "But sometimes people are kind to each other," they would reply, "No, no, that's all made up, they're faking that. There has to be some sort of selfish ulterior motive behind it" [75].
De Waal even recognizes what many people have trouble recognizing: that people (and other primates) are social and selfish, cruel and kind. He talks about empathy and its importance as a source for morality. But then he makes what I think is a basic error of his own:
Because the way evolution works, yes -- it's a nasty process. Evolution works by eliminating those who are not successful. Natural selection is a process that cares only about your own reproduction, or gene selection, and everything else is irrelevant [73-74].
From a certain point of view, De Waal is correct; but that point of view is a creationist perspective, which sees the world as the product of a personal intelligence. He's anthropomorphizing natural selection here. But evolution is not Natural Selection Idol. Natural selection doesn't sit around wherever natural selection sits, like a cosmic Simon Cowell, gleefully and sadistically eliminating the Losers while the studio audience howls like the Bandur-log. Natural selection doesn't "care" about your own reproduction, or about anything else: it's an impersonal, nonpersonal process. "The struggle for existence" is at best a technical term in Darwin's theory, which should be replaced because people, including scientists, tend to take it literally. Direct competition is not the norm in natural selection -- plants, for example, do not try to bite out each other's throats. Predators and prey are not in competition with each other.

Not only that: everybody dies, the "successful" along with the "unfit." The successful may live longer, or have more offspring, but they all die in the end, and most species eventually go extinct after a longer or shorter run. (And in the longest run, the sun goes nova and the universe collapses into heat death and the extinction of everything.) The unfit don't even know that they have been eliminated; a species is not a Platonic form with consciousness that wails disconsolately (or who knows, puts a brave face on it, whatever) as it is sent to the showers.

Some people find this appalling, or least insufficiently dramatic. They want a cosmic Someone -- a cosmic Simon Cowell, in fact -- who sits and watches, and commiserates and This Hurts Him More Than It Hurts You, and they find such a notion comforting. But if Super-Simon is out there somewhere, he's the one who is cruel. Whether you believe in Theistic Evolution, Intelligent Design, or Young-Earth Creationism, you believe that all the millennia or eons of Nature Red in Tooth and Claw is Super-Simon's deliberate, conscious plan. He wants it that way.

This first occurred to me when I read an essay by Stephen Jay Gould on the Ichneumonidae, a superfamily of wasps, most of which insert their eggs into caterpillars. The larvae then feed on the hosts' innards until they're mature, and eat their way out. Someone wrote to Darwin, as I recall, complaining how awful it was that Natural Selection should produce such awful creatures. Darwin, though, saw it (via) as I do:
I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.
The Ichneumonidae are there, however they came into being. Not that the Ichneumonidae are cruel; the larvae don't know that they're eating their host alive. Nor is Natural Selection cruel; even "indifferent" anthropomorphizes it too much. The Ichneumonidae are another example of species finding an ecological niche. (Are they really that much more horrible than carnivorous animals that have to kill other animals to live?) But if a personal Creator made the Ichneumonidae, or earthquakes, or tsunamis, or leukemia, it knew what it was doing. Creation is a lifestyle choice.