If we're looking for some intellectually credible explanation for our human place in the universe, there is today no plausible alternative to Darwinian evolutionary science. Because of Darwin, we now know what we are and where we came from. We are those remarkably smart, social primates with a unique suite of natural desires and capacities--including language, morality, and self-awareness--that has arisen through natural and cultural evolution.
The pervasive influence of this grand Darwinian story is now being extended beyond the natural sciences into the social sciences and humanities. We can see that this spring in the public debate surrounding two new books that are offering powerful arguments for a Darwinian paradigm for the social sciences. Next month, we'll see Frank Fukuyama's new book, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, which is the first volume in what some people are calling Fukuyama's magnum opus. Having seen some of Fukuyama's lecture notes for some of the material going into this book, I foresee that this will become one of the leading statements of Darwinian political science.
The other book has just been published--David Brooks' The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. Brooks surveys the research in evolutionary psychology as supporting an Aristotelian conception of human nature and human happiness. To illustrate his points, Brooks tells the story of one composite American couple--Harold and Erica. As Brooks indicates, he intends to employ the technique of Rousseau's Emile, in using a fictional narrative to illustrate his account of human nature.
Since I am now reading Brooks' book, I was interested in the review of the book by Thomas Nagel in the New York Times Book Review.
Nagel is a prominent philosopher at New York University. In 1978, he wrote one of the first responses to E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology coming from a philosopher. Like most philosophers at the time, Nagel showed the reaction of a Platonic transcendentalist in denigrating Wilson's biological account of morality. Nagel rejected sociobiological ethics because it failed to see that ethics is "an autonomous theoretical subject" like mathematics that belongs to a transcendent realm of pure logic. He argued that ethics exists at two levels--the behavioral and the theoretical. And while he acknowledged that biology could illuminate the behavioral level of ethics--the patterns of ethical action as motivated by moral emotions--he dismissed biology as irrelevant to the theoretical level of ethics as concerned with rational standards of moral justification and criticism. Insofar as morality is a matter of normative reasoning, it has nothing to do with any empirical science of human behavior.
With my memory of this essay, I was not surprised to see Nagel criticizing Brooks's book. Here we see the fundamental debate that has been the subject of many of my posts--the conflict between a Platonic or Kantian transcendentalism and an Aristotelian or Humean empiricism. Brooks shows how a Darwinian moral psychology confirms the Aristotelian and Humean tradition of empirical ethics, which will provoke the opposition of Platonic and Kantian transcendentalists like Nagel.
Nagel suggests at least four criticisms of Brooks's book. First, Nagel scorns Brooks's story of Harold and Erica as lacking any psychological depth that would engage our interest in them as vivid characters: "they do not come to life; they and their supporting cast are mannequins for the display of psychological and social generalizations."
I agree that Brooks's story lacks the narrative power of a good novel. But, at least, the story does succeed in the same way that Rousseau's Emile succeeds in providing concrete illustrations of some generalizations about human life.
Brooks's main argument is that the human mind works at two levels--the conscious and the unconscious--and that the unconscious mind is more important in shaping our lives. Nagel's second criticism is his complaint that Brooks does not clearly separate these two realms, because much of what Brooks identifies as unconscious--such as emotions, desires, character traits, and perceptions--could also be seen as parts of conscious experience. But then Nagel essentially concedes Brooks's point in admitting that to a large degree these conscious experiences are not fully under direct conscious control.
Nagel's third criticism is that Brooks is too credulous in accepting some "idiotic" claims by cognitive scientists--"for example, that since people need only 4,000 words for 98 percent of conversations, the reason they have vocabularies of 60,000 words is to impress and sort out potential mates." But, then, Nagel admits that much of the research reported by Brooks is persuasive and not easily dismissed.
Nagel's fourth criticism expresses the fundamental dispute. Although Brooks does say that reason is important for human moral judgment, his argument that emotion and other unconscious motivations and perceptions drive moral experience tends to deny the supremacy of reason in ruling over the passions, which thus rejects the philosophical rationalism that Nagel and other moral philosophers take for granted. Brooks says that conscious reasoning gives us some control over our moral choices because "we can choose the narrative we tell about our lives." So, for example, when Erika commits adultery, she immediately feels a deeply painful regret for what she has done. And contrary to what Nagel says about the story of Harold and Erica being "without interest," I find Brooks's description of how Erika is seduced by "Mr. Make-Believe" and is then thrown into agonizing remorse to be a moving narrative that elicits our sympathetic understanding. This story is a good illustration of what Darwin says about the experience of regret in shaping our moral deliberation. Erika responds to her moral crisis by telling herself a "story of drift and redemption"--a story of a woman who drifted away from her moral anchors until she found her way back to her moral commitments to a husband that she truly loved.
"Amid the tangled jostle of unconscious forces," Brooks observes, "the intuitionist still leaves room for reason and reflection," because "we can choose the narrative we tell about our lives." Nagel objects that this doesn't provide us any rational standards for choosing one narrative over another. He writes:
Experiments show that human beings feel greater sympathy for those who resemble them--racially, for example--than for those who do not. How do we know that it would be better to counter the effects of this bias rather than to respect it as a legitimate form of loyalty? The most plausible ground is the conscious and rational one that race is irrelevant to the badness of someone's suffering, so these differential feelings, however natural, are a poor guide to how we should treat people. But reason is not Brooks's thing: he prefers to quote a little Sunday school hymn about how Jesus loves the little children, "Be they yellow, black or white/they are precious in his sight." This is an easy case, but harder ones also demand more reflection than he has time for.
But then Nagel never explains exactly how purely rational principles resolve moral conflicts. (I recognize, of course, that a short book review doesn't allow for much elaboration.) He doesn't respond to some of the evidence surveyed by Brooks that shows how apparently rational human beings--psychopaths, for example--can become moral monsters because they lack the moral emotions that incline them to care for other human beings.
Moreover, Nagel doesn't explain why so many of the Kantian moral philosophers in Nazi Germany joined the Nazi Party. They surely had a very good intellectual understanding of the rational principle "that race is irrelevant to the badness of someone's suffering." But, apparently, their philosophical rationalism could not overcome the appeal of Nazi morality.
I will be writing some future posts on Brooks's book.
Some posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, and here.
The New Yorker has published an excerpt from Brooks's book.
There is a web video of a "TED Talk" by Brooks on why reason cannot be separated from emotion.