Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, by Frans de Waal (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996) 296 pp., cloth $24.95.
This is an important book for secular humanists. The most telling objection to a secular view of reality and the absence of gods is this argument: why would any person behave ethically with-out some divine power to direct and enforce such action? In the view of religion, morality comes from god, and we observe moral imperatives because otherwise, God will punish us in the here and the hereafter. Without God, anybody can do anything he feels like, just like animals, which of course have no ethics.
Now here comes primatologist Frans de Waal to say, “false assumption”; we inherited our capacity and need for ethics from our simian ancestors. Far from requiring God’s gift, ethics arise out of the needs of living in the environment and in communities. They are part and parcel of a clear understanding of Darwinian evolution.
In a recent interview that appeared in the May 1996 Natural History de Waal, is quoted as explaining, “Human morality is a classic case of something imposed on individuals for the well-being of the community. Individuals benefit from a strong, united community, and that is why the community is valued so highly in our moral system.” He goes on to explain. Chimpanzees, like humans, value harmony in their social group, and he gives the example of a female acting as peacemaker between two males. “It is a striking example of an individual taking care of relationships in which the mediator is not herself directly involved. This is what moral systems do all the time.”
For me, the book and its thesis are easy to accept because I have always taken it for granted that there is nothing in the human animal that is not foreshadowed in some rudimentary form in our animal ancestors and relatives. This applies to language, upright walk, and the ability to reason, as well as to ethics. De Waal, however, is considered as facing a heavy burden of proof. Animals cannot be interviewed as to their ethical or selfish motives, so the research is entirely dependent on interpreting observations of animal activities. Since there is a long history of anthropomorphizing animals, going back to at least Aesop and his fables, scientists tend to be very chary about imputing ethical or any other unselfish motives to animal behavior.
The author provides a wealth of detailed evidence for the evolution of rudimentary ethical behavior in primates. De Waal draws on his own and others’ studies of animal behavior. He relies mainly on observation of chimpanzees, but also has a wealth of data on other primates, ranging from the hundred gram pygmy marmosets to hundred kilogram gorillas. Bonobos, baboons, and Japanese macaques figure especially heavily in his evidence because they have been studied extensively in the wild. De Waal also draws on other animals’ behaviors, often by way of contrast, because they are generally less able to internalize rules than are primates. I do think de Waal goes a long way towards proving his case.
Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society, The New Science of Memes, by Aaron Lynch (New York: Basic Books, 1996) xi + 192 pp., cloth $24.00.
Perhaps Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins knew not what they did when they developed the concept of memes—”mental genes,” ideas considered as entities able to replicate and evolve in society in much the same way living things do in the biosphere. First expressed in mature form in Dawkins’s classic The Selfish Gene (1976), meme theory holds that the spread of ideas, concepts and fashions can be modeled like a biological process. In par-ticular, new ideas diffuse through commu-nities in ways that have much in common with the spread of contagious disease.
Thought Contagion has just the breezy, breathless quality one would expect in a book by a zealous and wholly committed advocate. For Lynch, memetics is no thought-provoking but still largely inchoate discipline. It’s a hard science, and he’s dying for us to see it that way. So he careens from example to example in the apparent hope that readers won’t notice how little proof he offers for his grand claims.
Behind the winks and nudges there are nonetheless some worthwhile nuggets. Lynch suggests that conflicts like those between secularism and religiosity, or pro-life vs. pro-choice, exhibit a cyclical character like the well-known relation between predator and prey in the wild. (If so, though secular humanists will never win the battle for social influence, neither will Ralph Reed.) Lynch also draws arresting portraits of pathological memetic contagion, speculating that fad diets spread quickly precisely because their users are continually dieting, regaining the weight, and publicly re-boarding the roller coaster. Though Lynch doesn’t extend the analogy to the sort of religious fundamentalism from which one continually “backslides” and to which one continually re-commits at an endless series of revivals, the parallel seems obvious.
Lynch believes memetics will revolutionize our understanding of social phenomena. He claims too much too soon, but all the same, he shares some compelling ideas. If you’ve never read anything about memetics and wonder what your biologist friends mean when they make jokes about baseball caps worn backwards, Thought Contagion is a quick-reading and accessible introduction.
River Out of Time: A Darwinian View of Life, by Richard Dawkins (New York: BasicBooks/HarperCollins, 1995) 172 pp., cloth $20.00.
Going beyond the proverbial Darwinian tree of life model for organic evolution, philosopher and neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins represents the history of life on Earth as a digital “river” of DNA (genetic information) flowing throughout eons of geological time. His five provocative essays explore the diverging evolution of DNA in terms of gene pools or successful ancestors, African Eve as the universal ancestor for all humankind, the biological continuity of gradual evolution by natural selection, the argument to design or assumed teleology, and the exponential growth of both the human population and its information. For secular humanists, Dawkins clearly shows how computer technology and computer simulation greatly enhance our scientific explanation for organic evolution within a naturalistic worldview. In short, the essence of biological evolution is the maximization of DNA survival in a universe utterly indifferent to life itself (including our own species).
Vital Dust: Life as a Cosmic Imperative, by Christian de Duve (New York: BasicBooks/HarperCollins, 1995) 362 pp., paper $14.00.
In the history of scientific and philosophical thought, various hypotheses and speculations have been offered to account for the appearance of life-forms on this planet. These views range from spontaneous generation to extraterrestrial visitation. Rejecting vital-ism, finalism, and creationism, Nobel laureate Christian de Duve examines the origin and evolution of life strictly in terms of deterministic, physical-chemical causes and results during the past four billion years of Earth history. In great detail, he focuses on that crucial transition from prebiotic chemistry to organic evolution. His overview places emphasis on the emergence of the RNA molecules, archaebacteria, sexual reproduction, and ever-increasing complexity. De Duve gives special attention to the transition from a prokaryote cell (without nucleus) to the eukaryote cell (with nucleus). His materialistic interpretation of life history highlights the roles that constraints, congruence, contingency, bioversity, and natural selection have played throughout organic evolution. Secularists will particularly appreciate the author’s naturalistic explanation for the evolved brain and his humanistic treatment of values.
—H. James Birx