Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Evolution and the Drive to be Moral

I am currently working my way through philosopher Anthony O'Hear's Beyond Evolution: Human Nature and the Limits of Evolutionory Explanation (Clarendon Press, 1997). In this work he sets about establishing some limits to evolutionary explanatory power.

One pillar of evolutionary theory, one great drive of the upward ascent of species development, is survival of the fittest. For any individual to survive enough to have their genes past on to the next generation, they require a powerful instinctive drive towards survival. One that trumps all other needs and desires.

Thus evolution predicts the drive for survival as the strongest and most basic motivation in human beings. Such is evolution, and this is where O'Hear moves to strike.

Throughout Plato's Phaedo, we have the account of Socrates on trial. Socrates indeed had a choice on whether or not to face capital punishment. He had the option to either recant his position or attempt an escape. Socrates chose death however, he chose principle over life.

This represents a powerful counterexample to the predictions of evolutionary theory. Something decisively non-Darwinian is working in Socrates. Socrates is obeying normativity (a moral 'ought' if you will), rather than survival.

But it may be said that Socrates' case represents an insignificant anomaly in the history of species development. Thus it may consititute only a minor argument against evolution after all. But this hardly explains why so much of humanity has been helpless but to revere the moral and philosophical insights of Socrates. And why his moral example stands to so many as worthy of emulation.

No comments: