This is the 12th blog in this series which is reflecting on E.O. Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth. The first blog in the series is “What Does It Mean to be Human?” and the previous blog is Biological Determinism (III).
Eastern Orthodox theologians assumed from the beginning of human existence that humans had a natural relationship to God and a natural inclination to move toward God. In their interpretation of Genesis 3, they see humans as making a critical choice to be self-centered and self-serving; humans freely chose to engage in self-love rather than love which is directed toward God and neighbor. Humans, who were created with a unique blend of physical features and divine/spiritual ones, in rejecting the divine life, further embraced their animal nature. So unlike the theory of evolution which has humans having nothing but an animal nature, traditional Christian thinking is that humans gave up the transcendent life to live a life limited by all the conditions that limit every other animal species. Both evolution and traditional Christian thinking thus do recognize there is a commonality between all other creatures and humans. But the monotheistic tradition of the West says humans were created to transcend a merely animal existence. Morality and spirituality at their best are efforts by humans inspired by God to return to that transcendent life which humans gave up by their own selfishness. Morality thus matters greatly in religion, for it is our effort to be fully and truly human and to reject any idea that everything about humanity is determined by our genetic makeup.
Wilson in his writings betrays a hostility toward religious ethics (without stating why). Perhaps because as one locked into biological determinism he feels humans should just follow their genetic desires so he doesn’t value any self denial. He doesn’t really believe in free will, so he doesn’t think we can transcend our biology anyway. Traditional morality shaped by religious experience or revelation is to be rejected as antiquated, and a new morality based in science is to govern human behavior.
“Whatever the outcome, it seems clear that ethical philosophy will benefit from a reconstruction of its precepts based on both science and culture. If such greater understanding amounts to the “moral relativism” so fervently despised by the doctrinally righteous, so be it.” (Kindle Loc. 4119-21)
A morality based in “both science and culture” is one totally governed by human reason and rationality. It is limited by how reasonable or rationale humans really are. Wilson is OK with moral relativism as it applies to traditional morality, but he is not amoral – he advocates biological diversity, so moralities which contribute to diversity are to be promoted. Raymond Tallis, another scientist and atheist, sees all kinds of red flags in Wilson’s notion that science and scientists should determine morality. As I reported in my blog The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self (II):
“Tallis sees the risks and dangers to humanity that the ideologues of the new neuroscience represent in more stark terms. The danger of what Tallis calls neuromania can be seen for example in the writings of Julian Savulescu who argues that ‘as technology advances more rapidly than the moral character of human beings, we are in increasing danger. We must therefore seek biomedical and genetic means to enhance the moral character of humanity.’ Savulescu is saying that it is biomedical tinkering and genetic engineering which are going to be needed to help humanity deal morally with the changes being brought about by modern technology. The belief that scientists can biomedically engineer a morally superior human being causes Tallis to conclude: ‘Be afraid, be very afraid.’”
To be fair to Wilson, he is opposed to biomedical engineering of a superior human being:
“I hope, and am inclined to believe on moral grounds, that this form of eugenic manipulation will never be permitted, in order that humanity can at the very least avoid the socially corrosive effects of nepotism and privilege it is bound to serve.” (Kindle Loc. 1691-93)
And yet a foundation for his moral beliefs is hard to determine. “Science and culture” give us very little guideline for what would be the basis of his morality. On the one hand he believes humans cannot escape their genetically predetermined warlike natures, but then without offering a shred of evidence that “science” can overcome our genetics, he trusts that science and reason can create a new ethics and apparently a new humanity. It is after all science and not human tradition or revealed religion which alone in his opinions determines morality. So scientists will be the new priesthood enforcing their own morality based in their own ideas of what is reasonable.
Wilson is not however a moral relativist – he only advocates moral relativity when it undermines traditional human and religious morality. Wilson writes:
“Humanity is strengthened by a broad portfolio of genes that can generate new talents, additional resistance to diseases, and perhaps even new ways of seeing reality. For scientific as well as for moral reasons, we should learn to promote human biological diversity for its own sake instead of using it to justify prejudice and conflict.” (Kindle Loc. 1445-48)
He would “promote human biological diversity for its own sake” (emphases mine). This is his own version of a pro-life attitude. He opposes humans determining their own genetics because it knows this will limit genetic diversity as scientists create humans in their own image and likeness. The weak, unwanted and sick will be cast off, left to die if they are allowed to be conceived at all under a purely rational system of morality. Wilson is not amoral or immoral in his thinking but does believe, again without offering any proof for this belief, that scientific humans can create a superior morality for the world. This utopian thinking has been a frequent child of the Enlightenment where it is believed (even when evidence is against it) that ignorance is the greatest human problem. And in this thinking ignorance can be cured by education and if not by education by scientific masters who govern the world with their pure rationalism. Laws would be created based on scientific reason that would outlaw any irrational behavior. And yet this belief in the power of human reason to create a better morality flies in the face of his equally held belief of a biological determinism which humans cannot escape. We cannot escape our genetics (at least he denies that religion can help us transcend our genetic limits) and yet by some form of magic, a morality based in science will lead to a human breakthrough from its genetic chains. It is the magic of science which for Wilson will break the genetic curse – science will by some miracle yet unknown to us transcend the limits of genetics. Science in this thinking is another Utopian philosophy or a new religion. Wilson is a prophet of this new revelation and religion.
It is true that science has indeed used the inventiveness of the human mind to create technologies capable of solving or curing many human problems and ailments. Yet humans will be humans. This is a truth that religion has recognized in its call for a transcendent morality. Humans left to their own devices will be self-serving and law will not be able to change that. That requires human ascetical effort.
A last moral point from Wilson:
“I am further inclined to discount the widespread belief that robotic intelligence will in the near future overtake and potentially replace human intelligence. This will certainly occur in the categories of raw memory, computation, and synthesis of information. Algorithms might in time be written that simulate emotional responses and human-like processes of decision-making. Yet even at their most extreme and effective, these creations will still be robots.” (Kindle Loc. 1693-97)
Here is a point which many theists can welcome from Wilson. There is something unique about humans which makes them different from all other creatures on earth and which will not be replaced by ingenious human technology. We have a unique place in our world.