Mar 26, 2013

Existentialism and Evolution: The First of Two Interesting Articles

 A few days ago, I stumbled across a blog post, Disobedience Succeeds Essence (on Massimo Pigliucci's Rationally Speaking) which caught my interest, not only because it referenced existentialism and counseled a kind of disobedience -- which could be seen as, if not exclusively their province, at last a central theme for certain existentialists -- but because it focused on a discourse where existentialist inclinations are usually set aside at the door -- evolutionary biology.  Pigliucci is an ideal person to grapple with these sorts of matters, since he not only straddles the fields of evolutionary biology and philosophy, he works within and integrates them.

Pigliucci's own post -- which I'll address in a later piece -- was spurred by a short essay by David Barash in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Evolution and Existentialism, an Intellectual Odd Couple, which provides a good place to start.  Barashin suggests looking at evolutionary biology and existential philosophy together. They are primed to clash:
Existentialism has, as one of its organizing principles, the notion that human beings have no "essence." As Jean-Paul Sartre famously put it, "existence precedes essence." For existentialists, there is no Platonic form of the person, no ideal self of which our corporeal reality is a pale instantiation. Rather, we define ourselves, give ourselves meaning, establish our essence only via our existence, by what we do, how we choose to live our individual lives. We have no "human nature," just our own intentions.
Thus choice is especially important for existentialists, because we are free; in Sartre's paradoxical words, we are "condemned to be free." In a universe devoid of purpose and uncaring about people, it is our job to give meaning to our lives.

That is vastly different from evolutionary premises. At the heart of an evolutionary view of human nature­—or of hippopotamus, halibut, or hickory-tree nature—is the idea that living things are a concatenation of genes, jousting with other, similar genes to get ahead. Free, conscious, intentional choices seem out of place for a creature who is merely the physical manifestation of DNA programmed to succeed.

For evolutionary biologists, all living things have a purpose. It is neither divine nor Platonic. It is also not a choice, at least for nonhuman species, because their purpose is generated, quite simply, by the reward that natural selection provides for creatures that succeed in projecting their genes into future generations. Living things are survival vehicles for their potentially immortal genes. Biologically speaking, that is what they are­­—and all that they are.
So, we have what appear to be mutually contradictory emphases, perhaps even positions.  The Existentialist stresses human individuality, lack of determinism, conscious intentionality, responsibility, freedom.  The Evolutionist envisions a universe of ultimately mechanical processes, deterministic, giving rise to (probably only apparent) choice, intentionality, and consciousness only to enfold these right back into the grand mechanism of matter, life, forces, drives. . . .

Human beings represent -- and introduce -- a kind of unpredictable but nevertheless intentional and intelligible reflexivity into processes and systems. 
Thanks to evolutionary insights, people are acquiring a new knowledge: what their genes are up to, i.e., their evolutionary "purpose." An important benefit of evolutionary wisdom is that, by giving us the kind of knowledge about the universe that Pascal so admired, it leaves us free to pursue our own, chosen purposes. Sometimes those purposes involve a conscious decision to refrain from, say, reproducing­—something unimaginable in any other species. At other times (all too rarely), they might involve deciding to extend an ethic of caretaking to include other human beings to whom we are not immediately related, or even to include other species, with whom we share comparatively few genes.
Where Barashin goes with these insights is largely dependent on his own understanding of existentialism, which strikes me at first read as on-track and in-line with respect to some of the atheist existentialists, but not even engaged enough to be off-base with respect to religious or largely agnostic (like Jaspers!) existentialists -- an issue to take up perhaps later on.
Think back, now, to Pascal and his successors, whether atheist (Nietzsche, Sartre) or religious (Kierke­gaard, Jaspers), for whom there are many ways that human beings can and do say no to their genes. Sartre, for example, encouraged rebellion against the pressures of conformity and the lack of authenticity inherent in denying one's freedom, just as Camus urged his readers to reject any complicity in lethal violence, to be "neither victims nor executioners." By the same token, Kierkegaard led the way for the "truly religious" to take deep and often personal responsibility for their spiritual lives.
As descendants of both existential and evolutionary perspectives, we have the opportunity to assert ourselves as creative rebels.
That's really the key point for both Pigliucci and Barash  -- we are able to say no, to transcend at least in part, our genes and all that they can be made to represent (all that can be read into them) within the evolutionary biological perspective.  Such intervention, intentional choice, interestingly, gets framed almost exclusively in terms of rebellion, revolt, denial, refusal of Sartrian bad faith, which would be to simply accede to our genes (or more likely, to what evolutionary biologists claim to reveal to us about what our genes mean!)
On the basis of evolutionary existentialism, I would therefore like to suggest the heretical and admittedly paradoxical notion that, in fact, we need to teach more disobedience. Not only disobedience to political and social authority but especially disobedience to some of our troublesome genetic inclinations.
From my point of view, I can see this answering to -- even at all appreciative of -- only a few figures in the Existentialist spectrum, and that raises not only suspicions, but the beginnings of objections -- and even more, a desire to go back to a central question for anyone who aims to study, consider, apply, teach about existentialism -- what themes and theses are actually at the core of Existentialism? -- and another correlative question:   how many different ways, worn and perhaps well-lit by previous Existentialist thinkers, can the interpretative reaction go?  Is rebellion somehow more existentialist than those taken and worked out by others?

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