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August 20, 2006

Morality and Evolution

When Sam Harris stops fulminating and starts arguing, his attack on the religion-and-science-can-be-buddies book by Human Genome Project head Francis Collins gets interesting.

Collins, plumping for the idea that morality comes straight from the Big Guy in the Sky to his Chosen Species, writes:

Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species' behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness.

Harris, after noting that humans have perpetrated an immoral act or two over the millennium, responds:

Just how widespread must "glimmerings" of morality be among other animals before Collins--who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes--begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors in the natural world? What if mice showed greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.) What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They have.) Wouldn't these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at August 20, 2006 9:16 PM


Collins has basically abandoned science to (can I say this?) whore after his new strange god. No evidence will convince him, because he has left the realm of evidenced-based belief, or knowledge, for that of faith.

Posted by: The Ridger at August 21, 2006 6:02 AM

Having read neither of these books I'm uneasy commenting, but Collins's invocation of 'universal rightness' needs highlighting, I think, as revealing his commitment to metaphysical Enlightenment values. It seems shocking, almost, that someone in charge of something like the HGP could continue to advance such a position. But my frequent frustration with posts to this blog is that too often, those who would advance science over such faith fail to question their own investment in the same Enlightenment narratives and values: e.g., evolution, no matter how salient a theory, is nevertheless saturated with the idea of universal progress, with all the implications of that as it plays out in imperialist ways that typically involve planetary violence--witness the present moment.

Thus, in some ways, as one essay I've been reading puts it, "both a-theism and theism do equal violence to life". It goes on to invoke Jacques Derrida on the idea "that religion in the present amounts to trust, on the one hand, faith, belief, in 'technoscience (capitalist and fiduciary)' and on the other hand the safest of places for discourses opposing the globalization of Western culture and language" (Michael M. Logan and James L. Martin, "Colonial Utility and the Dread Uses of Religion in Critical Practice," _Crossings_ no. 5/6 (2002/2003), 1-45).

Guess I'm searching for some kind of acknowledgement, and then interrogation, of science's investment in those 'humanistic' values and narratives that are, too frequently, merely the secularlized version of 'the same' ontotheological values and narratives that have been present since classical imperial (i.e., Roman) times. The present historical moment of violent fundamentalisms seems clearly a reaction to this. As Logan and Martin put it, "The return of religion in postmodern discourses, at the extreme of millennial a-theology, speaks to the ontological wounds that have resulted from the long history of religion's use by power. ... Religion's force is destructive, its behavior an 'auto-immune, auto-indemnification' [Derrida's terms]. Religion sacrifices itself either way, in giving itself to power or in opposing it. Stigmatized, religion is the dwelling place of injury *and* that which is most likely to respond to injury, too often with more injury".

[for those interested in further reading along these lines, see Jacques Derrida, "Faith and Knowledge at the Limits of Reason Alone," _Religion_, eds. Derrida and Gianni Vatimo (Stanford Univ Press, 1998); George Bataille, _Theory of Religion_, trans. Robert Hurley (Zone Books, 1992; orig. publ. Gallimard, 1973); Giorgio Agamben, _Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life_ (Stanford Univ Press, 1998)]

Posted by: JM at August 21, 2006 11:18 AM

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