Friday, June 9, 2017
The High and the Low
I recently enjoyed a good conversation with a thoughtful friend: Thomas J. Kaiser, a Senior Tutor at Thomas Aquinas College. The exchange was conducted by email and you can read it all at Starting Points Journal. Tom expresses very well the reservations that many of my friends, trained in classical thought, have about Darwinian theory. I argued that those reservations are unnecessary. Read the two parts of the exchange, and be the judge.
This post may be considered as an addendum to that conversation. I take as my starting point this quote from Leo Strauss:
It is safer to try to understand the low in the light of the high than the high in the light of the low. In doing the latter one necessarily distorts the high, whereas in doing the former one does not deprive the low of the freedom to reveal itself as fully as what it is.
Like a lot of Strauss’s famous quotes, this one is pregnant with meaning; however, midwifing the birth can be challenging. What comes to mind just now is the case of Oskar Schindler. What is the low in this case? He was a two-bit conman making a load of money off the Nazis. What is the high? He spent the last years of the war trying to save as many Jews as he could.
Why was the latter “high”? Because it was beautiful and good and, not the least, almost miraculous. Why was the former “low”? It was no more admirable or hard to explain than a dog chewing on a meaty bone. Yet the former was as real as the latter and to try to explain his heroic action in terms of some venal drive would be to blind oneself to the reality of it. On the other hand, recognizing Schindler’s heroism for what it was does nothing to blind us to the nature of his original business.
I wish to apply Strauss’s principle to a simple case which I hope will help to explain my view of Darwinian explanations. Some years ago, I had a meal at The Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. When we sat down the waiters brought us white linen napkins. One of the waiters noticed that my mother was wearing a black dress and brought her a black napkin to match. That is what a great restaurant is like.
The appetizer was a star of three split green pods with a shrimp nested into the three angles. The center was a tangle of something red (red onion?). All this rested on a bed of green sauce flecked with red bits. See above. I remember the turtle soup (unbelievable) and the entrée… something must be left to the imagination.
What occurs to me now is that everything on the plates could be explained by a biologist. Why do we like these colors, protein, fat, sugars, etc.? The elements that lay like a painter’s palate in the Chef’s mind are all products of our evolution as mammals. No biologist can explain why we went to the Commander’s Palace to get them. We went there for something beautiful. We human beings are capable of putting together the elements that satisfy our basic biological appetites in ways that do not serve evolutionary functions at all. They do more than satisfy us; they make our lives beautiful and interesting.
I suppose that all the things that we regard as high and noble‑heroic deeds and self-sacrifice, Ionic columns, Turner’s paintings, Shakespeare’s plays‑are like that meal. This one animal can transform the elements of animal satisfaction into something that is beautiful beyond any merely animal urges.
Evolution is a mechanical process. It is not goal-directed. In so far as it has any direction, it is only to push organic life into new ecological niches. For that reason, evolution cannot confer value on anything. Yet evolution produces sentient animals that, while necessarily meeting the demands of natural selection, also pursued their own agendas. When one elk faces off against another, he is not trying to reproduce; he is only trying to dominate his rival. That is a kind of freedom.
This one animal expanded that freedom into a coherent world, with the possibility of beauty and nobility in it. In order to understand the high, we must begin with the high. What we want as human beings is to live lives that are interesting and admirable. The low, our evolutionary heritage, is both illuminated and ennobled by this beginning.