Just in time to intersect with the threads on humanism that have developed here and here arrive these letters from the New York Times editorial page.
The five missives respond to a recent opinion piece by David Brooks ("Human Nature Redux"). Brooks stated, without any particular argument, that belief in human goodness is as dead as Rousseau himself. He then observed with some shock that conservatives have not embraced evolutionary theory, a puzzling failure given that conservatism's truths coincide with evolution's emphasis upon the dark nature of man (<-- yes, I intentionally did not write "humanity" because gender seems an implicit part of Brooks' argument):
Here’s another perversity of human nature. Many conservatives resist the theory of evolution even though it confirms many of conservatism’s deepest truths.I am guessing that those "deepest truths" include facts like humans have been since the days of the caves selfish bastards who'd sooner bash a club over a neighbor's head and steal his mammoth steaks than, say, found a charity dedicated to the discovery of an AIDS vaccine.
The column also contains a sentence that I swear has been plagiarized from, well, every undergraduate paper I have ever graded. Of Rousseau's noble savage Brooks writes: "This belief had gigantic ramifications over the years." Ramifications are bad enough, but when they are gigantic and endure not just for days but over the years ... watch out!
But back to evolutionary theory, selfish bastards, and (apparently) American conservatives. Here is the little aria that forms the middle of the piece:
Human beings operate according to preset epigenetic rules, which dispose people to act in certain ways. We strive for dominance and undermine radical egalitarian dreams. We’re tribal and divide the world into in-groups and out-groups.
This darker if more realistic view of human nature has led to a rediscovery of different moral codes and different political assumptions. Most people today share what Thomas Sowell calls the Constrained Vision, what Pinker calls the Tragic Vision and what E. O. Wilson calls Existential Conservatism. This is based on the idea that there is a universal human nature; that it has nasty, competitive elements; that we don’t understand much about it; and that the conventions and institutions that have evolved to keep us from slitting each other’s throats are valuable and are altered at great peril.
Today, parents don’t seek to liberate their children; they supervise, coach and instruct every element of their lives. Today, there really is no antinomian counterculture — even the artists and rock stars are bourgeois strivers. Today, communes and utopian schemes are out of favor. People are mostly skeptical of social engineering efforts and jaundiced about revolutionaries who promise to herald a new dawn. Iraq has revealed what human beings do without a strong order-imposing state.
Just the other day I was teaching Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale, and I suddenly realized as I looked around the room that -- had humans not evolved the institutions of classrooms and universities -- my students would be slitting my throat and dancing in my blood. Fortunately conservatism has ensured their docility.
Anyway, I do want to call attention to the possibilities that writers like Brooks and some of the scientists he cites (like Wilson) preclude. In the five letters to the NYT, for example, Matthew Brookoff agrees with Brooks but argues that these conclusions about human nature argue for liberalism, with its checks and balances. David Barash, an evolutionary biologist, opines:
David Brooks is half right in asserting that evolutionary biology shows human beings to be selfish, nasty and competitive by nature. In the process, he conveniently doesn’t mention the other half, which is far less conducive to conservative political ideology: the adaptive outcome in question through the machinations of our selfish genes is often achieved by organisms behaving altruistically toward one another, contributing to genetic success by enhancing the success of other bodies like relatives, reciprocating friends and even, on occasion, unrelated individuals within the social group.
William Flesch, a professor of English at Brandeis, insists upon the place of altruism:
Recent studies have argued very persuasively that humans are different, and that E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker are needlessly pessimistic. We compete for status, true, but paradoxically the way we display status is by showing that we can afford to be generous to one another.
Michael Eigen, editor of The Psychoanalytic Review, inveighs against the stark binaries in Brooks' piece:
It is not a matter of one or the other or making a choice as to which is more basic. To put who we are in terms of one tendency versus another is to maintain an all-too-prevalent dissociative attitude that has played havoc with our sense of self for a good part of our history. I believe that evolution requires us to get beneath such categories and begin to partner the profound interweaving of multiple tendencies that give human nature the plasticity and persistence it demonstrates.
"Plasticity and persistence." Food for thought as medievalists here and elsewhere contemplate the universal, the ethical, the historically predetermined ... the human.