Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010
The New Theory Versus the Old Story
by David Loye
Are humans an organism primarily ruled by the inescapable biological dictate of "survival of the fittest" and "selfish genes"? Or do we have the inbuilt drive and ability to choose to live by an ethos of mutual aid, caring for others, ultimately love?
A number of recent articles in Tikkun have set in motion a vital new probe of this question, which I believe is the single most important query facing our species at this pivotal juncture in human evolution: Peter Gabel's call for sacred biologists, Art Green's call for sacred evolution (Tikkun March/April 2010), and David Belden's earlier review of Joan Roughgarden's book The Genial Gene (September/October 2009). I am happy to join the conversation and share my perspective as an evolutionary systems scientist.
The idea of an inbuilt drive to care and love is really nothing new, of course. It's been the underlying message of Jesus, Gautama, and countless other practical visionaries over the ages. It's only new to us in trying to scientifically grope our way out of what became the prison of the old scientific mindset into the liberation of a new world allied as friend rather than enemy to spirituality.
The other thing that sadly comes across for me is how we could have been a century ahead, rather than a century behind, in the evolution of both our psyches and our social policies had we been able to understand, teach, and celebrate all that Darwin really believed and wrote. It's not as if his ideas were lost in some obscure place like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Rather, there they have been staring us in the face for over one hundred years, laid out clearly, and at length, in The Descent of Man, in his early notebooks and letters, and in his own highly moral, cooperative, and loving family life.
Go with an open mind to the book in which Darwin specifically tells us he will deal with human evolution, The Descent of Man, and here is what you will find: in the 828 pages of this book -- into each of which on the average 980 words are crammed -- you will find that Darwin wrote only twice of "survival of the fittest," but ninety-five times of love.
You will find that of selfishness -- which he called "a base principle" -- he wrote only twelve times, but ninety-two times of moral sensitivity.
Yet after more than one hundred years, if you ask someone what they think or know about evolution, odds are you'll get something about "survival of the fittest," "selfish genes," or what a CBS/New York Times poll in 2004 confirmed: that of American respondents, 55 percent believed "God created us in our present form."
This is after a century of billions spent on science and education in the wealthiest and once supposedly most advanced country in the world.
What Did Darwin Really Believe?
What I found still astounds me. Behind the arresting word counts for Descent is the baffling reality of "two Darwins" that have divided Darwinians into three irreconcilable camps. On one hand is the "hard" Darwin of racist, sexist, and imperialist quotations. This for one camp is the ugly image for the man that comfortably fits the celebration of selfishness and "survival of the fittest" at the core of the traditionally "hard" Darwinian theory. It is also the Darwin who has provided the Creationists with a bogeyman, an excuse to bog down the mass mind in abysmal ignorance for over a century.
On the other hand, staunchly defended by the well-entrenched official camp -- e.g., Dawkins, Dennett, Wilson, Pinker, and the Super Neo-Darwinians of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology -- is the mystifying image of a really nice guy who somehow also happens to be the bloody patron saint for the traditionally "hard" Darwinian theory.
On still another hand, however, is what began as hardly a camp at all -- just growing numbers of puzzled people able to read past the barrier of what we've been told to what in fact Darwin did both think and write of extensively.
It may seem inconceivable, beyond belief. But what I found is the Darwin whose other great contribution was in providing the scientific grounding for the "love thy neighbor" ethos of Jesus. Indeed, he does this, as a whole, for progressive religion and progressive philosophy.
In other words, in the "lost Darwin" one finds a carefully reasoned, empirically grounded scientific expression of the supremacy of love and moral sensitivity, with even a good word for what we know today as progressive religion!
Yes, in this man reviled as the enemy of religion, you will find that, although he firmly decided it was not for him, he approved of the practical, evolutionary effect of "the ennobling belief in God" that others held.
Even bolder, you may glimpse what I have come to see as the central driver for the Tikkun mission. In the "lost Darwin" I found ground for the vision of the task that progressive science, religion, philosophy, politics, and economics hold in common: fighting the regression in all its fields and forms that now places our species and our planet at risk.
Uncovering a Buried Treasure: Darwin's Picture of Who We Really Are
For over a decade I have written a stream of articles, edited two books with essays by others, written four more books myself, formed The Darwin Project with a Council of fifty leading American, European, and Asian scientists and educators, built three websites, and formed a publishing company (Benjamin Franklin Press) to report what can only be glimpsed here, most all of it still in grim fact generally ignored.
Why such massive resistance? At age eighty-five, in one last big whack at it, I've set out to try to break the prevailing stranglehold of the disastrous old "survival of the fittest" and "selfish genes" mindset on us with three more books. In the forthcoming trilogy, Darwin and the Battle for Human Survival, I place the new Darwin within the step-by-step context of major works in the development of evolution theory, and the battle of progressive versus regressive politics, economics, education, science, and religion throughout the twentieth century.
What emerges not just out of the lost Darwin, but out of hundreds of corroborating studies (e.g., Maslow, the brain research of Paul MacLean and Karl Pribram, the biology of Lynn Margulis, the moral psychology of Freud, Piaget, Fromm, Kohlberg, and Gilligan), and skirmishes between pro and con (the volley and thundering of the so-called Darwin Wars) is this picture of who we really are:
- Unlike what we've been brainwashed over many centuries to believe, we are basically good -- that is, far more often than we are aware of, we are driven by moral sensitivity.
- Though selfish, we are also driven by love to transcend selfishness.
- Though of necessity fiercely motivated to survive and prevail, we are also driven by the transcendent need to respect and care for the needs of others.
- Though in part or even throughout much of our lives we may be the captives, victims, and even slaves of forces larger than ourselves, above all we are driven by a brain and a mind with the hunger and capability for a choice of destiny in a world in which choice of destiny is an option.
I have written this trilogy to bring to life not only the lost Darwin but by now countless others who wrote and write not just in speculation but in reasonably well-grounded conviction of where we are going.
They write not of how we are driven blindly, witlessly, through a life with no predictability -- which has convinced far too many of us that we are but sheep in need of the wolf as leader -- but of how we are driven by a brain that demands of life a sense of meaning and purpose, and by the vision of a better future.
In the concluding pages of The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote the following for all with open minds and eyes to see:
Important as the struggle for existence has been and even still is, yet as far as the highest part of our nature is concerned there are other agencies more important. For the moral qualities are advanced either directly or indirectly much more through the effects of habit, by our reasoning powers, by instruction, by religion, etc., than through natural selection.... But the more important elements for us are love, and the distinct emotion of sympathy.... The birth both of the species and of the individual are equally parts of that grand sequence of events that our minds refuse to accept as the result of blind chance. The understanding revolts at such a conclusion.
If we date the scientific case for these conclusions from the year in which Darwin first sketched the higher order completion of his theory in his early notebooks, around 1837, I feel that here we have 173 years of scientific support for Peter Gabel's call for a "sacred biology," Art Green's call for "sacred evolution," and Joan Roughgarden's case for the "genial gene" -- which notably provides the biological grounding for cultural evolution theorist Riane Eisler's partnership-versus-domination-system cultural transformation theory.
Time to Live by a New Story
How do we storm the barricades of mind to advance this essential revolution? What must we do to build the bridge to a better world?
We live by story.
Most of us would agree with this statement, as intuitively it seems to make sense without further elaboration. But then add this: we live by story -- and the story we are living by is driving our species toward extinction.
I've sorted through it all, over all of these years, looking for the answer, and I am convinced that what falls in place is this picture of new versus old theory, story, and paradigm.
The old way insists we are merely the willy-nilly playthings of random variation and natural selection, or of blind chance, fate, or Karma. The new way says what matters is the power of our vision of the better world and of our desire to journey there.
The old way was and is to outfit a comparative handful of kings, priests, scientists, and politicians to board the ship to the future, leaving the rest of us in ignorance behind. Historically we were and are to be left behind until they run the ship aground, then suddenly we become of value -- suddenly gone from peon to cherished helper status, we are called up to help push the ship they've grounded from the rocks.
The new way is to bring us within the process. By widening our minds and enlisting our energies, the goal is to help drive the ship of state faster and more surely toward the better future not just for the few, but also for us all.
The old theory of Origin, misapplied, tells us we're inherently, predominantly, and indeed overwhelmingly selfish and aggressive. Emergent in Descent, the new theory tells us that, unless we've been unnaturally and disastrously warped, both over the short term and the long term we can be -- and generally are -- more powerfully driven by concern for the regard of others and by love.
The old theory tells us we are primarily driven by the need to perpetuate our own genes or the genes of our kin. The new theory tells us that we are also driven by the need to transcend ourselves, resonating to the whole of humanity and to the whole of life.
The old theory tells us that we are alone in the universe. In the phrase picked up in simultaneous book titles by biophysicist Stuart Kauffman and physicist John Wheeler, the new theory tells us we are "at home in the universe." It tells us we're linked to one another and to the universe by something that's just "out there," whether we call it spirituality, God, the cosmic connection, the Akashic Record, or the quantum vacuum.
The old theory tells us that our destiny is whatever chance and forces larger than ourselves select for us. The new theory offers something immeasurably more difficult to understand, but immeasurably hopeful once we understand it: it tells us that although we are massively constrained by all that really is larger and more powerful than ourselves, we are also driven by self-organizing and self-regulating processes that open up within the constraints a surprisingly large leeway, or "window of opportunity." Given then our capacity for the will to shape it, the choice of destiny to a vital degree is ours.
The old theory tells us there is nothing inherent within us to help us tell good from bad or right from wrong -- that throughout our lives from birth to death "moral sense" must always be hammered into us by self-appointed authorities who know better. The new theory tells us that moral sensitivity has been embedded within us over at least one billion years. It tells us that, by providing an inner voice of basic guidance, it has escalated upward, level by evolutionary level, to reach the culmination of choice within ourselves.
The old theory encourages us to sit back and enjoy the medium, for supposedly the message is settled. Seeing that it has been scientifically worked out and certified by people much smarter than we are, who are we to question what we have been told and will be told again and again?
Oh, sure, the message may not be what we want to hear, but the old theory affirms this is the grim reality we must not only learn and teach but that each of us -- as best we can -- must adapt to.
The new theory and the new story tells us that the message is open-ended and eternal, stretching out of the dim past into the mists of the future for our species. It tells us that we have a voice in the shaping of the message -- but that this message needs a great deal more nurturing, and understanding, and the assignment of much more financing for its R&D, and much more of the power of updated schooling and updated media to its spreading.
Above all, it tells us that we are not just what we more or less dutifully adapt to. Much more importantly -- standing with the best of minds and hearts over the ages -- we are what we refuse to adapt to.
The old theory tells us with scientific precision why we are driven by what used to be called our vices. The new theory scientifically accounts for, and offers hope and encouragement for, the expansion of the kind of values that used to be called our virtues.
Darwin's lost completion of theory accounts for and offers hope for our gaining more of such virtues as the courage of a Gandhi, the compassion of an Eleanor Roosevelt, and the perseverance and self-discipline of a Helen Keller or a Stephen Hawking in the face of debilitating handicaps.
It celebrates the virtues of cheerfulness and friendliness that lighten the life of others, which distinguished Franklin Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Darwin himself, or the Dalai Lama today. It further explains the helpfulness that psychiatrist Robert Coles pointed to in Dorothy Day's leadership of the Catholic Workers Union, or the all-too-often unappreciated responsibility that the all-too-rare best political leaders take on in giving of themselves to look after the rights, livelihoods, and betterment of others throughout the world.
These "virtues" are not just "nice" things for embroidery on Victorian walls or the Boy Scout or Girl Scout Manual. In terms of their evolutionary function, all the virtues I identify here are among those either experientially defined by Darwin in the development of the theory of Descent or empirically defined by psychologists Milton Rokeach, Abraham Maslow, and Darwin's other modern successors in psychology.
Most of all, the theory of Descent accounts for the majesty of mind -- for the virtues of the intellect, of logic, of imagination, of "broadmindedness," and of wisdom embodied in an Einstein, Freud, Marx, in Darwin himself, in the legendary Hypatia, or a Marie Curie, or a Maria Montessori.
The theory of Descent also begins to account for the love of beauty of a Mozart, Chagall, or Schubert, for the passion of a Van Gogh, and for how Isadora Duncan could throw herself into dance or how Sarah Bernhardt could throw herself into drama.
It certainly accounts for the virtue of self-transcendence that Darwin writes of in the human rescuers of others from fires and from drowning. It is also clearly what he had in mind elsewhere in development of the rest of his theory of human evolution. It is this virtue of self-transcendence that he saw emerging among prehumans: the rabbits that stamp their feet, the sheep that whistle, the monkeys that cry out to warn others.
Hopes for a Higher Level of Evolution
In short, what Darwin set out to do as a young man, and then returned to as an old man, is what everybody who hungers for intelligence, decency, stability, and hope in our world today is seeking. It's also what countless progressive successors have since worked (and fought against the always better-financed powers that be) to give us.
Darwin gave us the vision of a completed theory of evolution, where out of the truncated first part -- in which the educated mind of the twentieth century got bogged down -- rises the thrust of what used to be called heart and soul as well as mind into the vast hopeful expansion of a higher level for evolution.
We live by story -- but must the story we are living by drive our species toward extinction?
How do we end the old story and begin the new one?
After a century of seeing and all too often personally experiencing the social and personal devastation that only half a theory or the wrong or inadequate theory of evolution can lead to, surely we're ready for what seems to me the main point of Darwin's life and of our own: that the story we live by is shaped by the prevailing theory of who we are, what we are here for, and where we are going.
If we change the theory, we can change the story, and thus the old pattern to our lives, opening the way to the better world.
David Loye is a psychologist, evolutionary systems scientist, cofounder (with Riane Eisler) of The Center for Partnership Studies, and the author of many books, most recently Darwin's Lost Theory and Darwin's Second Revolution.
Source Citation: Loye, David. 2010. The New Theory Versus the Old Story. Tikkun 25(6): 48