Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, August 15, 2016

DARWIN: The Moral Sense of Man (Loyalty & Conscience)

This week’s selection is taken from Charles Darwin’s book with the popular title of The Descent of Man.  The full title is The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.  Our current reading is taken from Chapter 4 “Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals (continued, Part 1).”  It’s interesting that Darwin chose to call his book The Descent of Man rather than The Ascent of Man.  Presumably Darwin wants to emphasize the point that we are descendants of more primitive forms of species.  In this section he wants to focus exclusively on the moral sense of man because “of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important.”  Right from the start we’re faced with a dilemma.  Is conscience a topic suited for science or is it best studied as a branch of philosophy?  Is science equipped to deal with questions of morality?  The key may lie in the way Darwin uses the word “sense” as a framework for describing moral behavior (as in the moral “sense” of man).  This is a bold attempt and he admits “as far as I know, no one has approached it exclusively from the side of natural history.”  “Natural history” is what we now call science.

How successful is Darwin in separating scientific fact from philosophic speculation?  It’s a daunting task and the results are mixed.  Sometimes he falls short.  For example, Darwin says the word “ought (or duty)… is the most noble of all the attributes of man.”  Is “noble” a scientific term?  Can a “noble” trait be quantified or tested by experiment?  In another section Darwin talks about “the blackest fact in natural history.”  On a scientific level are some facts dark and ominous while other facts are bright and inspirational?  Here we should pause to consider a related question.  Is it the job of science to make value judgments?  Or should science be value-neutral by merely observing and describing what takes place?  Claude Bernard helps shed light on this question in his essay on Observation and Experiment (IGB2).  He says scientists “must be at once observers and experimenters.  Observers… purely and simply note the phenomena before their eyes and… must observe without any preconceived idea; the observer’s mind must be passive.”  An experimenter, on the other hand, must “experiment with a preconceived idea.  An experimenter’s mind must be active.”  These two approaches “correspond to different phases of experimental research.  The observer does not reason, he notes; the experimenter reasons and grounds himself on acquired facts, to imagine and induce rationally other facts.”

Darwin attempts to bridge the gap between the two approaches.  He’s made careful notes about his vast observations of nature.  He talks about the habits of rabbits, sheep, birds, seals, monkeys, horses, cows, wolves, pelicans, and baboons, among others.  As an observer Darwin knows what he’s talking about.  But as an experimenter Darwin is working with a big disadvantage.  How can he “experiment” with processes which can take millions of years?  What he tries to do is take things as they are now and work backwards.  His “preconceived idea” is a simple one.  Things as they are now are the result of millions of years of natural selection.  Species which can adapt to changing conditions will thrive and flourish.  Species which cannot will wither away and become extinct.  It’s relatively easy to see how giraffes with longer necks will tend to survive.  It’s harder to see how a trait like “conscience” can help a species survive.  Darwin “grounds himself on acquired facts” by observing the examples of social animals.  By noting the fact that they “warn one another of danger” he makes the imaginative leap that loyalty to the group is a trait which helps a species survive.  We can’t really set up an experiment to test if this hypothesis is true but it seems reasonable.  The question for modern readers is whether traits like loyalty are transmitted genetically or by what Rousseau called “convention.”  We’re still working on that.


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