Tuesday, May 12, 2015
Are Darwinian Explanations Ugly?
At this blog I have argued persistently and I hope convincingly that Darwinian thought can be neither reductionist nor materialist. The same is true, I suppose, for specifically biosocial thought. One of the advantages of the latter, especCritics of biosocial explanations on both the left and the right deploy the reductionist and materialist interpretations of Darwinism in order to make the latter appear as ugly as possible. It is this claim, that Darwinian social/political thought is ugly, that I intend to explore and refute here.
Before we can decide whether Darwinism is ugly or why reductionism and materialism are ugly, we need to have an account of beauty and ugliness. These concepts are frequently assumed to be entirely cultural in origin or socially constructed, which assumption turns out to be self-contradictory. For example, if my people say that dark eyes are beautiful and your people say that blue eyes are beautiful, this would count as a distinction between our two cultures only if we have some common notion of beauty to disagree about. To employ an analogy, we can whether it is right to feed a cold and starve a fever or vice verse only if we agree that the point is to relieve the one and the other.
Disagreements about where beauty and ugliness are found, like disagreements over medical cures, take place in the context of universal agreements about what we are looking for. As is usually the case, the Socratic philosophers laid out the basic logical structure of the business with both precision and depth. In Plato’s Gorgias, the orator Polus concedes that getting away with murder is an ugly thing (or shameful in the context) but insists, nonetheless, that it is a very good thing. Socrates points out that something that is ugly is so for one of two reasons. Either it is unpleasant or it is harmful. Since getting away with murder is not unpleasant, it therefore must be harmful.
Socrates’ distinction seems to me to be both accurate and exhaustive. According to his students Plato and Xenophon, Socrates was rather ugly in one sense but not the other. He was painful to look at, but did you a lot of good if you hung around him long enough. Other lovers, by contrast, can be very pleasing to eye but ruinous to the heart. Perhaps a better example, and one beloved by evolutionary psychologists, is the black widow spider. This creature can be intensely ugly, I can attest, if you find one crawling on your arm. Yet it is not painful to look at. On the contrary, it is a shiny jet black, with a beautiful red hour glass on its tear-shaped abdomen. There is nothing ugly about any of that. Its ugliness, when it does emerge, is a result of our inherited recognition. We recognize it as venomous.
This kind of ugliness holds for a wide range of creatures, from yellow jackets to rattlesnakes, which display warning colors. These creatures are the opposite of unpleasant to look at if you can view them in safety. In other contexts they are intensely ugly, so much so that human beings develop phobias about such things. It is one of the remarkable observations of evolutionary psychology that we have phobias about spiders and snakes but not about automobiles or tobacco. The reason is that the former killed our ancestors over very long periods of time whereas the latter kill us, but only very recently.
Our capacity for distinguishing the beautiful from the ugly and the two senses of each from one another, depends on a set of evolved psychological mechanisms. The same orange that is alarming on a snake is inviting on the skin of a piece of fruit, even the one held by the child in Van Gogh’s painting.
Just as beautiful colors can be transformed into ugly warnings, they can also be employed as lures. One kind of firefly uses its fire to attract males of another species looking for mates. The unlucky suitors are devoured. Likewise, human cooperators looking for honest partners can be fooled by conmen who have the knack of appearing honest. Most human beings are bad liars. We give ourselves away all too easily. That makes us good cooperators. Some human beings are very good liars. Accordingly, most of us have built in bullshit detectors. We instinctively look for signs of genuine virtue and deceit. We esteem those who help without demanding a reward over those who always look for a payoff.
I submit that the interpretation of Darwinian Theory (and especially Darwinian biosocial theory) as reductionist and materialist is rhetorically powerful because it arouses our fraud detection mechanisms. If a woman nurtures her infant because such behavior was selected for over evolutionary history, that looks to a lot of us like an ulterior motive. She doesn’t really love her baby; she really loves her selfish genes. Reductionism and materialism arouse our suspicion all the apparently beautiful sentiments are mere pretenses. My parents were only serving their genetic interests. Darwinism is ugly because it paints all of us as devious con artists, painting ourselves in morally fraudulent colors.
The interpretation of Darwinian moral/political thought as ugly gets the cart before the horse. Conmen are effective because most of us are basically honest and that can only be because honesty was selected for. Cooperation is beautiful because it is good. It makes for a better life for all of us. The fact that effective cooperative communities flourished whereas less effective cooperators did not underwrites the evolution of human language, morality, and indeed all higher culture. Those who are good fathers, mothers, friends and citizens, out of genuine inclination made better cooperators than those who merely pretended to be so. Indeed, the conmen could only come later, as parasites on the successful superorganism. Before you can have free riders, you have to have something to free ride upon.
What is ugly is either unpleasant to look at and/or harmful. What is beautiful is either pleasant to look at and/or beneficial. Darwinian Theory recognizes these distinctions. It is therefore Socratic in its logical structure. It is not ugly, unless it is wrong.