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Weblog From Nowhere-Land

Unnatural Selection

"Let us understand, once and for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, but in combating it." -- Thomas Huxley, "Evolution and Ethics"

I sometimes ask myself why Providence has left me with relatively little in the way of wealth and status to show for a lifetime of impassioned effort. I don't ponder these things often, as it feels too much like self-pity (besides, I'm too busy generating non-remunerative passion projects), but on occasions when I can't do for my children what I wish I could, or don't get as much adoration from my wife as I think I should, or when the cable service is cut off, I go to this dismal place, and am forced to consider whether, in the argot of the Darwinists, I am worthy of the designation "high-status male." To go farther: is it possible that my past behavior has been "non-adaptive" in an evolutionary sense?

My former boss at Disney Studios, observing the ruthlessness of the marketplace, would often conclude his observation with the phrase, "in this Darwinian universe," as if to say, "The deck is stacked, my friend. Get used to it." And I would nod and smile knowingly, as if, of course, I understood how the world worked. But I didn't, and never had. In my world, the arc of the moral universe bent toward character, which meant that the best among us, and not necessarily the "fittest," would eventually prevail.

I thought of myself as one of those to whom that arc bent, one who'd win in the end on points, if not a knockout. I was talented, but never chased after the merely "popular" (that would be artistic compromise). I was ambitious, but played "by the rules" and never elbowed anyone aside (that would be ethical compromise). But the years passed, and my ship did not come in. For a long time, I comforted myself with the salve of moral victory. They might have denied me entry to the golden circle, but they hadn't broken me! Later, as I entered the reflective phase of life, I began to wonder if it might all come down to bad genes. Hadn't my paternal great-grandfather been a wastrel and a riverboat gambler? Recently, I'd begun to suspect poor evolutionary "tuning." An inbuilt resistance to the very things that might save me. Perhaps, in "this Darwinian universe," I just wasn't cut out to have a summer place on Martha's Vineyard or ever understand what a hedge fund did.

However...for some of those who, like myself, have a talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory; whose ears smoke at the notion that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are nature's high-value males; who believe, with Jesus, that the "the first shall be the last and the last shall be the first," there may be an explanation other than poor genetic outfitting or maladaption. It isn't really any more comforting, but it does offer a certain kind of crazy heroism. We may, in fact, be at war with God. Not Big God, but little God. I'll explain.

"If Nature and Man are both the works of a being of perfect goodness, we must concede that that Being intended Nature as a scheme to be amended, not imitated, by Man." -- John Stuart Mill, "Nature"

Evolutionary psychology is--with the possible exception of genetic engineering--the most controversial of the new sciences. Attacked from the left as biological determinism, reductionism, and even racism, and from the right as being anti-religious (not to mention relegating a good portion of the conservative electorate to the evolutionary dustbin), it sometimes has the ring of the awful truth no one wants to hear. It's message is bracingly simple: we are what our genes want us to be; we do what our genes want us to do. All for the sake of spreading them more widely, and with luck, subjugating (or wiping out) the biological competition. Men choose beauty and women choose "investment," and as for those bothersome "non-binary" types, well, they don't figure in unless they can figure out how to replicate their genes some other way. All that we do, all that we say, and all that we wish is subject to the tyranny of the genes. Culture and "nurture" may shape us, but they do not form us. Evolutionary psychology allows for things like "kin selection" and "group selection" that engender forms of empathy, altruism and "non-zero-sum gains," but these are stratagems, akin to sucking up to the boss in order to get a raise. It's all about you, baby. You, and what your genes produce. Your genes are, to cite Richard Dawkins, selfish.

But the know-it-all atheists driving around with DARWIN bumper stickers as if Darwinism were in some way "a cause," or quoting Dawkins and Hitchens as secular prophets, need to get something straight: Charles Darwin wasn't especially happy about what his studies revealed. In fact, he confided in his memoirs and to his closest associates his hope that only a small circle of scientists would ever know the jarring facts about the "descent of man." Darwin was good to his wife, good to his children, and good to his friends, despite the awful knowledge that Nature did not really want us to be good.

His present-day acolytes, the "neo-Darwinists" like Robert Trivers, Leda Cosmides, and Robert Wright are, for the most part, no more enamored of the cruel metric of natural selection. They just know it's true. Like Thomas Huxley (known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his tenacious advocacy of the truth of evolutionary theory) and John Stuart Mill, the father of modern liberalism, they seem to say that maintaining modern civilization means giving natural selection some push-back. After all, they remind us, the behavioral "knobs" (adaptations) that we now call normal were turned on in what's called "the ancestral environment" (or EEA: the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptiveness): between 100,000 and roughly 12,000 years ago. We're still operating by rules made for sentient apes with good motor skills in the Pleistocene.

As the late maverick physicist (and Vedantist monk) John Dobson wrote, "It is sometimes necessary to fight the genes" and answer to a higher calling.

All of this jibes weirdly well with that obscure but unkillable heresy known as Gnosticism, a fusion of Greek and early Christian thought that offered mankind the first blue pill-red pill choice by arguing that earthbound Nature was the creation of a lesser god, a jealous and petulant god, and that the Big God was aeons away, occupying a realm that now belongs to the bolder speculations of theoretical physics. The conclusion: we had to become what Albert Camus called "metaphysical rebels." We had to rage against the machine and shake the prison bars if we desired to be free. It was more than a duty. It was a necessity.

Is it possible that the genius behind natural selection--the method to its madness--is to evolve us to the point where we see that the deck is stacked and we challenge the house? In that case, all the ages of cruelty, warfare, and tribal hatred would amount to something. We'd see from the mountaintop--maybe even as far as that Big God--who I suspect is more like a fundamental force, or field, that wishes only that we preserve the exquisite balance of creation by finding a new way to be. Maybe that's even what Easter is about.

And that brings me back, via the usual circular route, to why some of us--no matter how hard we work, how ardently we love, how devotedly we attend to our dharma--just can't seem to cash in. To cash in, we either have to play by the house rules or be smart enough to beat them (Steve Jobs comes to mind) If your basic stance is that of a metaphysical rebel--a disobedient angel--and you can't find a way to capitalize on that (Mick Jagger comes to mind), then nothing you can do will buy that place on Martha's Vineyard. You will have failed to qualify by natural selection as the celebrity apprentice. Bummer. Less cocaine, fewer beautiful women, and considerably more self-doubt. But that's all right. There are days when being a rebel is its own reward.

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