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The world of the über-Darwinians

15 August 2007

Darwin’s theories cannot explain real altruism, says Hugh Rayment-Pickard

IF YOU THINK that Richard Dawkins has been riding high in 2007, then just wait for 2009, which will mark both the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150 years since the publication of The Origin of Species. As Darwin’s representative here on earth, Professor Dawkins can be assured of massive media exposure.

Let me say straight away that I am a Darwinian, like all sensible Christians. We accept that evolutionary biology provides the best available account of human origins. Genesis is a sacred myth, illuminating our moral self-understanding, but only religious cranks now take it literally.

It is only the cranks who are threatened by evolution. They fail to see the religious beauty in Darwin’s theory — the inexorable blossoming of dazzling complexity that comes out of the simplest beginnings; the millions of years of evolutionary history from the primal soup to Einstein’s brain; the proliferation of beautiful and preposterous creatures that provoke a more-than-scientific response. Even if our wide-eyed wonder is not necessarily religious, it certainly can be.

But you can push a good theory too far. In The Selfish Gene (OUP 1976, 2006), Professor Dawkins was emboldened to use biology to explain the evolution of human culture. It was so tempting — if a theory works brilliantly in one field, it must surely work as well in another. If evolutionary biology can explain the development of the human eye, surely it can be used to explain the development of liberal democracy, human psychology, literature, and music.

Taking his intellectual reputation in both hands, Professor Dawkins launched his theory of “memes”, the cultural equivalent of “genes”. Memes are units of cultural learning that survive only where they benefit the human species. The trouble is that memes — unlike DNA — do not exist. Memes are articles of faith: you can believe in them if you want to, but you will never be able to prove their reality, still less see one under the microscope. As Mary Midgeley said in Evolution as a Religion (Routledge, 1985, 2002), memes are just metaphysics by another name.

This is why I am not looking forward to 2009. The celebration of Darwin is meet and right, but we are certain to hear from all sorts of evolutionary fanatics who want to subject everything in life to a Darwinian calculus.

Take, for example, Vladas Griskevicius et al, who have just published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Psychology arguing that altruism is simply a form of showing-off designed to make us more attractive to the opposite sex. “Philanthropic displays serve to increase . . . status and prestige, which may ultimately increase the signaller’s ability to attract and retain desirable mates.” Apparently, we become more generous when exposed to pictures of potential sexual partners. (Note to parish treasurers: there is a great idea for a church fund-raising campaign here. Try printing saucy pictures on your stewardship envelopes.)

If this research is correct, there is no such thing as genuine compassion or altruism. All our generosity is really just a biological display to get us more sex. What a godforsaken and barren vision of humanity this is. But this is the world of the über-Darwinians.

It is easy enough to prove to ourselves that this world-view is false: we need only to commit acts of genuinely altruistic love that seek no reward. Such actions, which benefit others but not ourselves, cannot be accounted for in a Darwinian calculation of genetic self-interest.

Jesus tells us to give alms “in secret”, precisely to ensure that our financial generosity is not selfish. And he enacted a perfect altruism on the cross. Great as Darwin was, his evolutionary theory cannot explain self-sacrifice.

The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is Vicar of St Clement with St Mark and St James, Notting Dale, in London.

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