March 16, 2013


Evolution and Existentialism, an Intellectual Odd Couple (David P. Barash, 3/11/13, Chronicle Review)

The Danish philosopher and existentialist pioneer Søren Kierkegaard asked that only this should be written below his name on his gravestone: "The Individual." And in his masterful Man in the Modern Age, the existential psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers, although rejecting the label of existentialism, focused on the struggle of individuals to achieve an authentic life in the face of pressures for mass conformity.

In a parallel track, much of the intellectual impetus of evolutionary biology has come from abandoning comfortable but outmoded group-level arguments. Although the public still tends to think that evolution acts, as it's commonly put, "for the good of the species," evolutionary biologists are essentially unanimous that natural selection acts most strongly at the smallest level: individuals. Actually, the process goes farther yet, focusing when possible on individual genes. Species-wide effects are simply the arithmetic summation of these micro-impacts.

That individual, gene-centered perspective has given rise to criticism that sociobiology--the application of evolutionary insights to complex social behavior, including that of our own species­--is inherently cynical, promoting a gloomy, egocentric Weltansicht. The same, of course, has been said of existentialism, whose stereotypical practitioner is the anguished, angst-ridden loner, wearing a black turtleneck and obsessing, Hamlet-like, about the meaninglessness of life.

Let's look more closely at that critique by taking an extreme position and granting, if only for the sake of argument, that human beings, like other living things, are merely survival machines for their genes, organic robots whose biologically mandated purpose is neither more nor less than the promulgation of those genes. And let's grant that existentialists are very much occupied with the meaninglessness of life and the consequent need for people to assert their own meaning, to define themselves against an absurd universe. Furthermore, let's consider the less-well-known fact that, although evolutionary biology makes no claim that it or what it produces is inherently good, it also teaches that life is absurd.

Scientific paradigms are, after all, just a function of intellectual climate.

Posted by at March 16, 2013 10:00 PM

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