Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Darwinism, Atheism, & Moderation from Frans de Waal

I had the pleasure of meeting Frans de Waal when I attended a six week seminar at Dartmouth College in the 90’s and again when he accepted my invitation to a panel I organized.  He is a very gracious and thoughtful scholar, exactly what all of us academics should aspire to be.  He is, temperamentally I would guess and intellectually I am sure, a partisan of moderation.
His new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, is apparently drawing some fire from the latter.  I gather the bonobo has not yet responded.  De Waal has a couple of very interesting essays at Salon and at This View of Life.  Here is a bit from the latter:
In order to discuss the biological origins of morality, which is its central theme, I need to get two groups out of the way. One is fundamentalist religion, for which morality comes from God. The other are the neo-atheists who, by labeling themselves rational and everyone else irrational, have closed the door to open and tolerant debate. Calling believers idiots can't possibly be a good discussion opener. This explains my stance against militant atheism (a label that is not mine, but Dawkins' by the way).
This strikes me as dead spot on.  I have been teaching a class called Human Nature and Human Values for over a decade now.  The focus is Darwinian explanations of human moral and political behavior.  This course occasionally arouses the ire of two kinds of students.  The most obvious friction is generated when students with traditional religious backgrounds are confronted with full blown Darwinian theory.  Another source of friction occurs when students with leftist political leanings here that human beings have evolved instincts.  What I find is that, in general, students with religious objections tend to be more open than those with political objections. 
I have found the same to be true among academics.  Religious conservatives are congenitally suspicious of Darwinian explanations but generally willing to listen and to allow that there might be something worth looking at there.  Confirmed Darwinists tend to be utterly contemptuous of religion and religious persons.  I think that impedes the acceptance of Darwinian science among the population at large. 
Frans de Waal thinks that militant atheism impedes the development of a “bottom up” account of morality. 
Atheism will need to be combined with something else, something more constructive than its opposition to religion, to be relevant to our lives. The only possibility is to embrace morality as natural to our species. Otherwise atheism will end up in the Big Black Hole that Thomas Henry Huxley created for himself in the 19th Century. He did not believe morality came from God, but also denied its possible evolution. He could not explain where it came from except for saying that we had to fight very hard against our own nature to become moral (which is of course an ancient Christian position related to original sin, and so on). In this, Huxley went against Darwin himself, who did see room for moral evolution, as explained in "The Descent of Man." To debate these important issues we all need to step back, stop shouting, and move beyond unanswerable questions about the existence of God. Atheists should be interested in this debate and I hope they will join in.
I think de Waal is right about this.  However, I also come to the table from the direction of philosophy.  While I am a confirmed Darwinist and I emphatically agree with de Waal’s bottom up approach to morality, I also know what I do not know.  We have a pretty good idea now, thanks to contemporary Darwinian biology, how complex species emerged from simpler ones over time.  We have no idea how the first replicators emerged from inorganic matter.  We have no idea how the Kosmos happened to be arranged so as to allow the possibility of atheists and bonobos.  On these broad questions, the pious have the advantage. 
Frans de Waal moves in favor of moderation.  I second the motion. 

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