Science and Subversion – by Roger Scruton

“The concept of the meme belongs with other subversive concepts – Marx’s “ideology”, Freud’s unconscious, Foucault’s “discourse” – in being aimed at discrediting common prejudice. It seeks to expose illusions and to explain away our dreams. But it itself is a dream: a piece of ideology, accepted not for its truth but for the illusory power that it confers on the one who conjures with it. It has produced some striking arguments – not least those given by Daniel Dennett in “Breaking the Spell”. But it possesses the very fault for which it purports to be a remedy: it is a spell, with which the scientistic mind seeks to conjure away the things that pose a threat to it.

Reflecting on this, it seems clear to me that [Alfred Russell] Wallace had a point in the emphasis that he put on the features that seem to place humanity in a world apart, though he was surely wrong to think of those features as “surplus to evolutionary requirements” for if any of our attributes is adaptive, rationality surely is. But then, rationality is, in one sense of that difficult expression, “of our essence”. Wallace was therefore pointing to the fact that we human beings, even if we are animals, belong to a kind that does not occupy a place in the scheme of things comparable to that of the other animals.

Dawkins sets out to explain goals and rational choices in terms of genetic materials that make no choices. He describes these materials as “selfish” entities, motivated by a reproductive “goal” but (at least in his less rhetorical moments) he recognizes that genes are not, and cannot be, selfish, since selfishness is a feature of people, to be characterized in terms of their dispositions and their rational projects. In a cogent biological theory all such teleological idioms must be replaced with functional explanations. And that is what the recourse to game theory and similar devices is supposed to authorize. A player wants to win and therefore adopts a winning strategy: that is a teleological explanation of this behavior. Natural selection tells us that winning strategies will be selected, even when they describe the behavior of genes that want nothing at all. That is a functional explanation, which says nothing about intentions, choices, or goals.

Functional explanations have a central place in biology. The fact that birds have wings is explained by the function of the wings, in enabling birds to fly. The process of random mutation at some point produced a winged creature: and in the competition for scarce resources, this creature has the decisive advantage over its rivals. Note, however, that this reference to function only amounts to a causal explanation because it is supplemented by the theory of random mutation – a theory that tells us how the existence of a trait is caused by its function. This point bears heavily on the “explanations” of altruism and morality advanced by [evolutionary psychologists]. A population genetically averse to cooperation, to parental affection, to self-sacrifice on behalf of children, and to sexual restraint and the control of violence is a population endowed with traits that are dysfunctional relative to reproduction. Hence it will disappear. From this trivial truth, however, we can deduce nothing about the causes of moral conduct or moral thought and nothing about their grounds. It does not follow that morality is the result of natural selection rather than group selection within the species; nor does it follow that morality originates in our biological makeup rather than in the workings of rational thought.

It is a trivial truth that dysfunctional attributes disappear; it is a substantial theoretical claim that functional attributes exist because of their function. And until the theory is produced, the claim is without intellectual weight. You may think that genetics provides the needed theory: for it implies that altruism is the “evolutionally stable” solution to genetic competition within our species. But that explanation only gives a sufficient condition for “altruism”, and only by redescribing altruism in terms that bypass the higher realms of moral thought. If Kant is right about the categorical imperative, then there is an independent sufficient condition, namely rationality, that tells us to act on that maxim that we can will as a universal law.

Moreover, practical reason explains not only altruism, in the minimalist description favored by geneticists, but also the superstructure of moral thought and emotion. It also suggests a theory of the kind to which we belong, and it is a theory at odds with that suggested by the game-theoretic account of genetic self-sacrifice. According to Kant, the kind to which we belong is that of person, and persons are by nature free, self-conscious, rational agents, obedient to reason and bound by the moral law. According to the theory of the selfish gene, the kind to which we belong is that of human animal, and humans are by nature complicated by-products of their DNA.

In the hands of their popularizers, the biological sciences are used to reduce the human condition to some simpler archetype, on the assumption that what we are is what once we were and that the truth about mankind is contained in our genealogy. The previous wave of pop genetics, which called itself “sociobiology”, came up with deliberately disturbing conclusions, such as this one: “Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate purpose than to keep human genetic material intact”. Such conclusions depend upon using the language of common sense while at the same time cancelling the presuppositions on which commonsense terms depend for their meaning. This trick can be played in almost any area of human thinking and is never more effective than when it is used to pour scorn on our moral and religious ideas. Ordinary people are in the unfortunate position of believing things that are true but which they cannot defend by any rational argument that will withstand the force of scientific reasoning, however flawed that reasoning may be. Hence, by targeting ordinary beliefs – beliefs that, if backed up at all, are backed up by religious faith and not by scientific argument – scientists score easy points and conceal the weakness of their case” – Roger Scruton, “On Human Nature”.

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