Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Sunday, April 01, 2012

DARWIN: The Moral Sense of Man

Charles Darwin has a special place in Tennessee history. His ideas put Dayton, Tennessee on the intellectual map at the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. At that time it was against the law to teach evolution instead of Genesis at any state-funded school in Tennessee. Times change. Now it’s against the law to teach the Genesis creation story in Tennessee’s public schools. What’s the fuss all about? This reading centers on a concept Darwin calls “natural selection” which is the tendency in individuals and species for variations that are favorable for survival to be preserved in the struggle for existence, and for injurious variations to be eliminated. We focus on just a small portion of that theory: the development of moral sensibilities in mammals. How does moral development help physical survival? Darwin tries to demonstrate that having sympathy for others increases the chances for the whole species to be successful in the overall struggle for existence. He says that although man has no special instincts to tell him how to aid his fellow men, he still has the impulse, and with his improved intellectual faculties would naturally be much guided in this respect by reason and experience. In other words, we’re not born knowing how to help other people by natural instinct. However, by using our minds and experience our efforts become much more effective. And it seems reasonable that more people will survive if we all put our minds to work helping out our neighbors. But there are problems with this theory. For example, how does helping “useless” people promote the welfare of the rest of the group? This sounds cold, but speaking strictly in biological terms, why should human beings care for people who can’t produce anything or contribute anything to the community’s material well-being? The short answer is: because we’re human beings. That’s what we do. Bees don’t do that. When winter starts coming on the drones are driven out of the hive. Nothing personal, they just don’t pull their weight anymore and are a useless burden for the rest of the bees. Freud points out that humans don’t do much better sometimes: Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved and who at the most can defend themselves when they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments include extreme aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbors are potential helpers and sex partners, but their neighbors also tempt them to satisfy their aggressive instincts: to exploit, to rape, to steal, to humiliate, cause pain, to torture and kill their neighbors. Sometimes human beings are as cold-hearted as bees. People can be cruel and selfish. But this is not the goal for highly-developed human cultures. We help those who need help. And we try to help everyone become as self-sufficient as possible. In Darwin’s view this is a good way to promote overall survival of the species. Aristotle notes that the final and perfect good seems to be self-sufficient. However, we define something as self-sufficient not by reference to the “self” alone. We do not mean a man who lives his life in isolation but a man who also lives with parents, children, a wife, and friends and fellow citizens generally, since man is by nature a social and political being. Darwin seems to share Aristotle’s optimism for the human race rather than Freud’s pessimism. This reading ends on an optimistic note: Looking to future generations there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance. In this case the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe and virtue will be triumphant. Darwin hopes that virtue will triumph. But are we any more virtuous today than our ancestors were in Aristotle’s time? That depends. What kind of world do we live in? Genesis says God created mankind and pronounced it good. Darwin says we evolved by chance and hopes for the best. Two different answers give two very different world views. That’s what “the monkey trial” was really all about: a debate about what kind of world we live in. Tennesseans have been debating that question since 1925.


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