Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Fred Reed: Sociobiologist

One of my favorite fun reads, Fred Reed, has decided to put us under a microscope and has come to the conclusion that we can't help ourselves. We're animals, driven by instinct, our innards awash in ruinous hormones whose impulses we can't resist. We're getting worse, not better (he could be on to something there), and there's no way out because we are what we are. Free will is a self-deluding fantasy. His evidence is, unsurprisingly, human behavior.

...our behavior is largely built-in, with the software preinstalled at the factory and packed into a complex read-only file. We make the choices our instincts allow us to make, and have the freedom of choice of a bowling ball rolling down the lane. We seldom notice, because behavior in accord with instinct seems perfectly reasonable.

We learn to walk and talk and later, with the onset of puberty, develop a manic interest in the opposite sex, and we all do these things at the same pre-wired stage of life. Sex, like fighting, is a major and irrational organizing force in our lives. We are always in heat, always looking or at least considering. People spend hours thinking about sex, reading books about sex, trying to find sex, looking at pornography or reading the mandatory stories about sex in women's magazines.
We'd all admit there's some biological component to our physical capacities. But what about our higher capacities, not just that we learn to talk, but actually find something to say other than "food" while pointing at our mouths?

The illusion of free will is more convincing when one considers the making of what appear to be choices. Learning to walk can be regarded as purely physical. Being a libertarian or a socialist seems more the result of ratiocination. But our politics are equally instinctive. We form groups and fight other groups. What appears to be intellectually determined usually isn't.

Fighting is what we have always done and always will do, he says. It's "how we are." We can't help it. The only difference between the savage's bloody handaxe and the general's intercontinental ballistic missile is one of sophistication. Of Europeans and pagans he notes that The Spanish, a civilized people who burned heretics at the stake, were horrified by the [Aztecs'] practice of human sacrifice. Civilization doesn't temper barbarity. Both, you see, were propitiating their respective gods. As a Christian, I wanted to leap to the defense of the Spanish, but it's not easy. What argument would sway a doubter? I don't think, blinded by the horrors, that he'd welcome an inquiry into whether any of those respective gods might be the true God. Our brains, he says, are the tools of our glands.

In sum, When people became a tad more civilized, they kept on fighting, butchering, and torturing. They just had better plumbing in their houses...the history of the species is a tale of war, rape, pillage, torture, and butchery.
Who's right and who's wrong in these sagas of strife is not dealt with.The optimist's objection that our history is also a story of intermittent peace, chivalry, charity, mercy, and martyrdom is not dealt with either. I can only suppose that truly selfless, altruistic acts are relegated to the realm of randomly useful mutations, as when certain members of an ant colony will form a bridge across a body of water for their fellows to cross. The bridge-ants die that the others may live. Humans sometimes do the same sort of thing. They think they do it because they care, and Fred might admit they really do but only because they can't help it. They're wired that way to temper the savagery. Some of us are born to butcher, and others of us are born to write columns complaining about the butchery. In this scheme, when someone - Jesus, for example - said that there is no greater love than this, he was just trying to start a movement. He couldn't help it. These causes may be good ones, but only accidentally. When five hundred generations do the same things, one begins to suspect that the fix is in. Jesus was just lucky enough to attract a whole bunch of like-wired followers who started preaching mercy, pity, peace and love so that we wouldn't exterminate ourselves, as long as "ourselves" did not include witches, heretics, Muslims or Jews. And look where it got Jesus himself -exterminated. If he'd known what Fred knows, he'd have kept his mouth shut.

I never knew Fred was such a Darwinian, an Edward O. Wilson with personality, style, normal hair - what's left of it - and a revulsion for tweed suits. Of course, I've never known what he really believes because he doesn't talk about it. Well, almost never. He has written sympathetically of religion's place in our occasionally civilized culture, while careful to aver that he is not himself a "believing Christian or believing anything else." He seems largely conservative in the social arena, and his gift is for a lyrically folksy and bluntly befuddled outrage at the human capacity for denying the obvious. (See his hilarious Florida, Hillary, and Airports). He's been a police reporter and a war correspondent, so he's seen plenty of "the dark side," which might excuse a certain pessimism. He was against the war in Iraq. For war in general he hasn't much use. The antagonists' competing claims to righteousness are frivolous appeals to distinctions without differences. "Morality" in war is an oxymoron. "You might as well," he says, "look for morality in a used car lot."

I'm not even sure he's really Darwinian. He wrote a column expressing scepticism. He doesn't seem to see the contradiction in doubting the Darwinists while supporting the sociobiologists. Systematic exegesis is not his metier, so it's hard to know what his sytem is. But this theme of biological determinism is showing up of late with greater frequency, as if he's now given to fatalism and despair. The race isn't improving with time. We can't: we don't know how to change instincts...To me, the automaticity of our larger impulses militates against faith in progress toward a peaceable world...We act the way we always act, because it's the only way we can act.

Which leads me to conclude that I'm a creature who can act - think, laugh, copulate, murder - but only because I must. I can't choose not to do any of these things. An act of the will is always preceded by a conscious decision, an act of thought, but since thought is "the tool of our glands" I'm not really thinking and therefore not really choosing. My "choice" is predetermined by instinct. I only thought I was thinking. As Fred might say, "I'm confused." Why would nature produce a creature incessantly preoccupied with deluding itself? Other animals aren't bothered by it. Just us. In nature, a persistent behavior provides an adaptive advantage. Any sociobiologist could tell you so. What's the advantage here, Fred? By your own account, we're not getting any better. We might be headed for annihilation, the only species to have purposely committed suicide without choosing to do so. In our devolution, nature evolved a loser. Well, you might say, it's happened before, but I don't think you'll accuse those other species of having courted their own demise. They were just blind alleys. But us...we ought to be able to see without seeing.

Which leads me to a question. Why did you write this, Fred? Even as you inform us of our bad behavior, you already know (instinctively, I guess) that after we read about it we're going to do it anyway, because we can also hear without hearing.
I think I know the answer: you couldn't help yourself. But I'll continue reading your stuff because sometimes (so I think, so I choose to believe) you're right; sometimes you seem like more than the sum of your glands. It's just "how you are."

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