Science Says it’s Okay not to Be Nasty

“Humans are not naturally nasty,” read a headline I saw this morning. The article went on:

 Biological research increasingly debunks the view of humanity as competitive, aggressive and brutish, a leading specialist in primate behavior told a major science conference Monday. “Humans have a lot of pro-social tendencies,” Frans de Waal, a biologist at Emory University in Atlanta, told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. New research on higher animals from primates and elephants to mice shows there is a biological basis for behavior such as cooperation . . .

There is nothing all that new about this idea, but it sounds like there is even more scientific support for shift in thinking described here. De Waal has, in fact, been one of the pioneers of the efforts to see cooperative instincts and empathy as being fundamental to the animal kingdom. So I applaud the ongoing shift to seeing cooperation as being just as fundamental as competition when it comes to our evolutionary history. At the same time, I find it disconcerting that some feel we need the legitimizing stamp of science to give credence to our kindler, gentler sides. Nothing against de Waal or science; this kind of research is always fascinating.  But I always find it a little troubling how quickly people jump from scientific research to sweeping conclusions about “human nature.” Decades ago, biology may have told us we were hopelessly competitive and warlike primates; now it may tell us we are big warm and fuzzy critters. But I, for one, want to keep a little bit of distance from the interpretations and conclusions of the moment—good or bad. Evolutionary theory is particularly susceptible to this tendency, probably because the science is so close to home. I mean I don’t feel any twinge of concern about what string theory might reveal about my psychology.

So while it is natural and inevitable to use the latest knowledge about science to inform our view of human nature, we have to be very careful how far we take it. As I say in my new book, there is an important distinction between having one’s philosophy of life informed by science and it being determined by science. If evolutionary biology tells me that my nature, biologically speaking, is warlike and competitive, I can accept that truth and let it appropriately inform my thinking, without in any way taking that to be the final word in the complex story of our human character. And when science evolves, as it must inevitably do, and lo and behold, it turns out that my nature, biologically speaking, is full of cooperation and altruism, I can let that, in turn, inform my thinking, without letting it absolutely determine my worldview. In other words, science is an open-ended story, and any conclusions we draw based on it had better be tentative, temporary, and open-ended as well.



In Defense of the Generalist

As I was researching my book, Evolutionaries, I made an interesting observation: This is not a world built for generalists. It is a world built for specialists. What’s valued intellectually is specialty knowledge—expertise on the mechanics of eukaryotic cells or the chemistry of black holes or the life cycles of ant colonies. Even within individual disciplines, the drumbeat of specialization takes precedence over broader systems of knowledge. It’s not enough to be a physicist; one is a particle physicist or a quantum loop theorist or a string theorist. It’s not enough to be an historian; one is an expert on Renaissance social customs or South Asian political dynamics in the eighteenth century. Indeed, the degree of specialization in our collective knowledge base is both stunning in its depth and detail and frightening in its increasing fragmentation.

“Most educated people at the beginning of the twenty-first century consider themselves to be specialists.” writes Craig Eisendrath. “Yet what is needed for the task of understanding our culture’s evolution, and of framing a new cultural paradigm, is the generalist’s capacity to look at culture’s many dimensions and to put together ideas from disparate sources.”

The people I have come to call “Evolutionaries” are generalists for this very reason. Their critical insights are a result of thinking as a generalist must think—with a passionate but broad curiosity that fans out across culture and sees connections, patterns, transitions, and trends where others only see discrete facts and details. An Evolutionary must be able to look at the movements of nature, culture, and cosmos as a whole, yet without denying the infinite detail that surrounds us.

If one reads the books written by many of today’s thinkers who are tracking the evolution of culture and even of the cosmos itself, this one characteristic that immediately stands out. Whatever their fields of expertise, most are incredibly well-informed generalists. They move from one field to another with ease and sometimes brilliance. They are unafraid to risk the wrath of the specialists and take research from one field and apply it another. They shift gracefully from science to sociology to philosophy and then apply all they have gained in the journey to human life and culture. They are interpreters par excellence—synthesizers, holistically inclined pattern-recognizers. They mine today’s incredible knowledge base for insights, and help make sense out of the enormous confusion that the information revolution hath wrought. In doing so, they serve a great function. They help explain our place in the scheme of things.

Of course, there are times when such thinking can go very wrong. For example, when well-intentioned but ill-informed people take difficult concepts from a complex field like quantum physics, and draw overly facile conclusions about how they apply to spirituality and life. Bookstores are filled with such ill-conceived problem children of the science and spirit relationship. And it’s not just spirituality. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has used the term “biobabble” to describe a similar misapplication of biological principles to economic systems. Moreover, even if our thinking is clear and our intentions genuine, it is always hard to satisfy the specialists’ criteria, to avoid stepping on toes in fields that are not one’s primary expertise. But that should not deter us from appreciating the importance of this missing function.

Over the last decades there has been a growing sense that the critical role that a generalist plays in society is being forgotten, with dangerous consequences for culture. In discipline after discipline, experts have raised concerns that our knowledge base has privileged depth and detail over breadth and context. As Eisendrath points out, one result of this increasing fragmentation of knowledge is that there is no one left “to speak for the culture as a whole.”

Of course, in an advanced society, specialization has a honored place. But after we have gained all the power of specialization, recognized the necessity of reductionism, practiced the art of slicing and dicing reality into smaller and smaller revelations, we must set a new course. We have so much information, but have so little context. We have so much knowledge, but somehow lack a larger frame in which to understand it. We are data rich and meaning poor. It takes me all of ten seconds on Google to find the infant mortality rate of Chad in 2003, and yet, we have seemingly no clue as to how and why some cultures evolve in healthy ways, and others descend into anarchy. We have mapped the marvelous complexity of the human genome and yet stand by helpless as kids wander our streets as dropouts and junkies, undeveloped throwaways of the wealthiest culture in history. We may be on the verge of unlocking the very secrets of life and longevity, and yet millions of people have so despaired at our capacity to positively impact the evolution of culture that they have decided the only way forward is for the earth to suffer a near apocalypse, or as some believe, undergo a miraculous global awakening. Evolutionaries sense that the world is broken, and that we must embrace our role in jumpstarting the process of re-integration.

Evolution, by its very nature, helps us to integrate our thinking. It transcends the neat structures of disciplines mapped out on the university campus and encourages us to lift our eyes to patterns and trends that break the boundaries of compartmentalization. It compels us to think in bigger ways about life, time, and history, until finally we find ourselves staring at contexts so fundamental that they can temporarily break the hold of the mind’s incessant fascination with particulates of experience and reveal completely new perspectives on existence. Perhaps that is why Hegel, one of the original evolutionary philosophers, when asked “what is truth?” replied with the slightly flippant but no less profound answer, “Nothing in particular.”

Integration is still a road less traveled. The generalist remains a rare breed, and the evolutionary generalist even more so. There are few who have the capacity or inclination to speak for “culture as a whole”. Yet there is little question that our future lies is this direction. As author James Gardner, writes in what I think is one of the most salient and inspiring descriptions of precisely this kind of integrative attitude toward knowledge:

The overlapping domains of science, religion, and philosophy should be regarded as virtual rain forests of cross-pollinating ideas—precious reserves of endlessly fecund memes that are the raw ingredients of consciousness itself in all its diverse manifestations. The messy science/religion/philosophy interface should be treasured as an incredibly fruitful cornucopia of creative ideas—a constantly coevolving cultural triple helix of interacting ideas and beliefs that is, by far, the most precious of all the manifold treasures yielded by our history of cultural evolution on Earth.

Being an evolutionary generalist is more than simply being a pluralist—one who makes space for multiple perspectives and points of view. In fact, there is evidence, coming from a variety of sources, that integrative, cross-disciplinary thinking may not just be the latest and greatest idea of the cognoscenti, but an actual higher mental function that represents a further step in the evolution of consciousness itself. In other words, it may be an evolutionary adaptation to the challenges presented by our globalizing, ever-complexifying society.

Whatever the case, we should never forget that the very faculties we use to perceive the world are themselves caught up in the evolutionary process itself. More and more theorists are suggesting that the relatively limited capacities of homo sapiens sapiens in the twenty-first century represent not some final end state of development or a completed picture of human possibility, but merely one more stage in a cosmic drama that has taken us from energy to matter to life to mind and now seeks higher and higher potentials. They suggest that the immense challenges of our globalizing world are themselves catalyzing and calling forth evolutionary potentials in human development, that will allow us to begin to make deeper sense of the immense complexities of our wonderfully diverse but painfully fragmented age. No, they aren’t teaching this in Kansas schoolrooms or creationist colleges, but neither is it common at Harvard. But if we are to form a more perfect, and integrated, union of our fragmented world in the days to come, it is a perspective worth considering.

Weekly Links: Atheism, Emergence and a New God

My links for this week–articles I noticed and thought were worth sharing. This week is heavy on atheism, but at the end, we also have a new kind of religious sensibility, so perhaps it balances out.

1. Atheism in America: Godlessness is the last big taboo in the US, where non-believers face discrimination and isolation

This is an article from the Financial Times about discrimination against Atheists in America’s heartland. For those of us on the East and West coast, this might be hard to relate to, but religiously, it’s another world as you get nearer the Mississippi. As someone who grew up in that world, I found it a bit overstated, but an interesting portrait nonetheless.

 A now famous University of Minnesota study concluded that Americans ranked atheists lower than Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society”. Nearly 48 per cent said they “would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group” (many more than the next most unpopular category, Muslims, at 33.5 per cent). No wonder atheist groups talk of modelling their campaigns on the civil rights, gay and women’s liberation movements. It is not that they claim their persecution is on the same level but that they suggest the way forward requires a combination of organising and consciousness-raising. “We want people to realise that some of their best friends are atheists, some of their doctors, and lawyers and fire chiefs and all the rest of them are atheists,” says Dennett.

2. A Scientific Explanation for the Emergence of Mattering from Matter

From atheism to emergence. Here is a blog on Terry Deacon’s new book, which is getting serious kudos by friends of mine. He may have the most sophisticated scientific model yet to explain how mind emerges from matter. Has he answered the “hard” problem as some are suggesting, or is it another interesting but premature declaration of victory over the problematic nature of immaterial consciousness in a material world? I look forward to reading it.

With the spontaneous emergence of ententional phenomena, we find the emergence of all of life’s attributes: function, evolution, consequence-organized behavior, self-reproduction (re-presentation), end-directedness, and what is misunderstood as free will, but is actually more like self-assertion, an organism’s capacity, through its evolved and learned adaptations, to impose novel physical work on its environment.

3. The Universe Between Atheism and Fundamentalism

Back to atheism and religion. William Grassie, director of the Metanexus Institute has a blog about his view of religion. Grassie is getting The Metanexus Institute, once huge players in the science and religion field, back on its feet. Good luck  to him—always a great resource for evolutionary visions of spirit.

there is a third possibility: that all religions are partly true, depending on how they are interpreted. The truths of these diverse traditions are shaped by specific historical and cultural factors, embedded in profound mythologies, rich symbol systems, and metaphysical intuitions winnowed through centuries of human experimentation and experience.

4. “Global Warming Has Stopped”? How to Fool People Using “Cherry-Picked” Climate Data

This article from Forbes takes on the latest complaints from the anti-climate change crowd. Apparently, the “Earth has stooped warming” idea is all the rage of the climate-change deniers. Who knew

The current favorite argument of those who argue that climate changes isn’t happening, or a problem, or worth dealing with, is that global warming has stopped. Therefore (they conclude) scientists must be wrong when they say that climate change is caused by humans, worsening, and ultimately a serious environmental problem that must be addressed by policy makers.

The problem with this argument is that it is false: global warming has notstopped and those who repeat this claim over and over are either lying, ignorant, or exhibiting a blatant disregard for the truth.

5. Alain de Botton reveals plans for ‘temple to atheism’ in heart of London

Back to Atheism. Alain de Botton wants to build a temple to atheism in London. It’s actually a lot more interesting then you might think. It’s really a temple celebrating the insights of modernism more than just a negative statement of about theism. Not exactly my thing, but still kinda cool. I’ll also include his TED Talk here as well.

Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.

The philosopher said he has raised almost half the funds for the project from a group of property developers who want to remain anonymous. He hopes to find the rest of the money with a public appeal, and construction could start by the end of 2013 if permission is granted by the Corporation of London.

And the TED talk:

6.  God as the Future 

Last link this week is a new vision of God, from Bruce Sanguin. Bruce is a leader in the new world of evolutionary spirituality, so glad to see him stepping out and re-making Christianity in a new image. “God as Future” is at the heart of an evolutionary theism, and something I write extensively about in my upcoming book. Glad that Beams and Struts, one of the best new integral/evolutionary blogs, is featuring him.

 All religious and spiritual lineages throughout the ages have affirmed that the higher order cannot emerge from the lower. Again, what scientists call the “spontaneous” emergence of higher order from the lower is merely descriptive. If science introduces the idea of “information” to explain this mystery, then theology is certainly within its rights to use this analogy to describe how God influences the world without being an interfering presence. Indeed, Paul talks about how God’s power is made manifest in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), and how God empties Godself of power as force in order to be present as the alluring power of Love (Philippians 2:1-8). John Caputo is developing a theology based on the weakness of God (6). God is the Something that is present as the influential no-thing, for those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts that are open. God empties Godself of power as force, precisely by withdrawing into the future that is always coming toward us with new possibilities for higher order, new ways of being—more aligned with Love Itself.