Friday, 31 July 2009

The Teratology of Morals

‘Creationism is not a scientific theory - it's a belief that's based on 'evidence' that can't be tested or examined. As such creationism has no place in scientific discussion - if it is brought into scientific discussion then why not discuss Greek, Nordic, Australian Aboriginal or Hindu creation myths along with Christian ones?’

So wrote my friend Gareth

My response was that all of these could fit loosely under the 'intelligent design' label. Except for the last about which more later, after a brief rant.

My views on evolution are not formed much by being a Christian and I do not think that the book of Genesis is a literal account. There are many fascinating Orthodox essays on the matter.

I do not see 'Darwinism' as a contradiction to my Byzantine faith of Medieval hymns and mystic writings, but of what I see around me. OK, there are many people more knowledgeable than me about biology who believe in Darwinian evolution, but this seems an enlightenment era myth which is unfalsifiable and unprovable. According to Darwinism all life has the same source (something I agree with) but becomes different through 'natural selection', which is why we have big brains and opposable thumbs. Subsequently, life strives upwards.

My only problem with this is that I don't see evolution moving in this direction. And I think it is harmful to adopt the Darwinian philosophy because it helps instill in people the lurid concept of progress.

So back to Greek myths, we have the story of Prometheus and Epimetheus making all the creatures. According to Protagoras, they used up all the claws and fangs on the other creatures, so there was nothing left for us. Subsequently we were given fire, but Zeus thought this was a bad idea so punished Prometheus for this.
Fire was not good enough for people, however, who were all gobbled up, and so Apollo gave them cities as refuge from predators. But then what happened? They started knifing and slaughtering each other. So Apollo gave them laws as well. To me this seems more intellectually satisfying: people are a species with such little affinity for wisdom and kindness that they need to receive these things externally.

Now I know very little about biology but know a bit about ideas. And sadly, I also know a bit about internet message boards: which helps me understand why Epimetheus didn't give us any claws or fangs or horns. If you were putting organisms into a tiger infested forest and had to choose whether to give the last pair of antlers to a fawn or to someone who repeats Richard Littlejohn's 'ideas', what would you do?

What really astounds me is that neo-liberalism is blossoming right now in contravention of any law of 'survival of the fittest'. Not flourishing intellectually of course, but the ideologues are increasing in numbers and volume. Now we hear that a neo-liberal government is needed to sort out the banks which have been ruined by a Marxist clown, Gordon Clown. As Iraq is turning into a failed state and Afghanistan is getting increasingly violent, we keep hearing about the wonders of liberal interventionism. Scoffing be upon those appeasers. Let's take on Russia.

I really do not believe in survival of the fittest any more. It seems that the ideas which appeal most to the selfish, lonely, bloodthirsty mentally, socially and intellectually unfit are the ones which will increase in popularity. Because there's more of them.

I've pretty much gone off reading the newspapers, but whenever I do see an article in The Independent and The Guardian, there are always floods of comments from right wing idiots drooling with hatred. Take today's article by Johann Hari for example.

I'm very far from being an unambiguous fan of Hari, but it seems he's spot on in this one. Why does Britain lionise the repulsive Andrew Roberts? After all, he praises Lord Salisbury's concentration camps which inspired Hitler.

What's that? Britain is morally equivalent with Nazi Germany? Oh, the outrage.

Actually, Hari never once implied moral equivalence, yet seven right wing nutters thought their time would be well-spent upbraiding him for implied equivalence. Sadly, I think they are half-right. Not about Hari being wrong, but about their time being best spent repeating idiotic and illogical arguments on a left-wing message board; I can't imagine their social calenders are very full, especially for the bloke who scoffs that Hari has a degree in 'yoghart (sic) knitting' (?) as well as an evil line in moral equivalence.

Indeed, the 'moral equivalence' meme is to logic and ethics what the shark is to the biosphere. It is so primitive and fierce that it will paradoxically flourish; accusing opponents of 'moral equivalence' gives idiots an excuse for being selfish and nasty without even having to come up with any Nietzschian dissection of the geneology of morals.

And this is where we've gotten to 2500 years or so after Plato*. I don't agree with Plato on everything. He wanted to cut the exciting bits out of The Odyssey, had some unwholesome sentiments about young men and thought that people should live in barracks (or at least attributed these ideas to Socrates, his teacher). Yet no-one would deny that the dialogues are thought provoking and fascinating.

Just compare this to The Guardian's message boards, or The Independent?

Humanity is not the only species that seems to be making heavy progress, evolutionarily speaking. The giant panda has outlived many more formidable creatures, the cave bear for example and many other disadvantaged animals like sloths and slugs seem to be prospering as the leopard inches towards extinction. So please guys, let's ignore the creationists and ID movement, but also the Darwinian belief in 'survival of the fittest'. Let's look back to the Hellenes who were right about that. Maybe not in terms of the fossil record, but in terms of getting the general gist of things. And these 2500 year old texts will give us an ideal for our cultural evolution.

*To nearest semi-millennium


  1. Hi Gregor

    I have always explained the creation story within the framework of a typical Jewish week. A Jew works for 6 days and rests on the 7th. I think it was written by the scribes of Ancient Israel as means of conveying of a moral message.

    However I am more content with a Creator and Lawgiver philosophy than Chemical reaction in the fumes of a nascent Earth and development through the survival of the fittest. It ultimately leads to hedonism beceuse nothing else than satisfaction of your instinctive needs and desires matters. Even though Darwins theories are useful for studying nature, they seem to fail when applied to society.

  2. Hi Leos

    Thank you for your comment. My post was rather tongue in cheek, because whilst I have no qualifications in biology, I do think that the Darwinian ideal of ‘survival of the fittest’ is rather naïve and the concept of ‘memes’ is even more so. As Frank Zappa said, ‘it isn’t getting any smarter out there’.

    Having said that, I am just speaking as someone who confesses their own ignorance, and I am pleased that the Orthodox do not try to interfere with science courses. Some converts have been moving in that direction, which I find sad. The apophatic tradition of Orthodoxy is very important and there are many interesting Orthodox theories of time. I’ve always liked the thought that the Book of Revelation is both a prophecy and a history.

  3. Hi Gregor,

    I think to understand Darwinism in terms of striving upwards, or even as 'survival of the fittest' can be misleading.

    A better phrase might be 'most able to survive in an environment to pass on genes' - in that regard you could see why in a totalitarian state certain qualities would keep you alive (maybe dishonesty, obsequiousness, sneakyness) and able to pass on your genes, while other qualities that we might see as admirable (courage to oppose authority, desire for liberty, individuality) wouldn't. Even though this is straying dangerously far into the territory of Social Darwinism - which isn't the same as Darwinism in it's purely biological terms - I think it's a good way of thinking about how Darwinist theory doesn't necessarily say that the 'fittest' to survive in a given environment is in any way the most admirable, or even subjectively 'better' in any way.

    In regard to the Meme theory - I find it sort of inherently unsatisfactory in a way - though the more I think about it (especially in terms of how cultural stereotypes are spread and adopted in the media), the more I can't help but think that it is a good way to describe how cultural ideas are spread and adopted.

    Anyway Gregor - it's more a conversation to be had with plenty of time to spare ! Why no new posts for so long? You'll have to come over and see my new place sometime soon - we can discuss meme theory in more depth!

    Hope you're well and to see you soon, G

  4. Hi Gareth

    Good to hear from you. I've spent a long time in Edinburgh, just back briefly. Then I will probably spend longer in Inverness again, and get back to ranting on my blog (I'm hoping to do a post on the Lockerbie thing).

    Anyway, this post was a bit tongue in cheek. As you said, Darwin did not use the term 'survival of the fittest'. Yet, my argument is that people call themselves 'Darwinist' without trying to distance themselves from this connotation of the word.

    I think 'evolution' subsequently has taken on a very loaded meaning: that essentially it is a 'scientific' counterbalance to 'entropy' in the popular mind. I do not think many people would say e.g. 'Weimar Germany evolved into Nazism' whilst some might say 'Monarchist Stuart England evolved into a parlaimentary constitutional Monarchy under the Hanoverians'.

    Personally, I think that 'evolution' should be replaced with a more neutral word to describe how life-forms change: not always for the better.