Jerry Coyne just launched another New Atheist salvo against the Defenders of the Faith in the form of his latest book, Faith versus Fact. It’s well written and well reasoned, effectively squashing the “sophisticated Christian” gambit of the faithful, and storming some of their few remaining “God of the gaps” redoubts. However, one of its most striking features is its decisive rejection of the Blank Slate. The New Atheists have learned to stop worrying and love innate morality!
Just like the Blank Slaters of yore, the New Atheists may be found predominantly on the left of the political spectrum. In Prof. Coyne’s case the connection is even more striking. As a graduate student, his professor/advisor was none other than Blank Slate kingpin Richard Lewontin of Not In Our Genes fame! In spite of that, in Faith versus Fact he not only accepts but positively embraces evolutionary psychology in general and innate morality in particular. Why?
It turns out that, along with the origin of life, the existence of consciousness, the “fine tuning” of physical constants, etc., one of the more cherished “gaps” in the “God of the gaps” arguments of the faithful is the existence of innate morality. As with the other “gap” gambits, the claim is that it couldn’t exist unless God created it. As noted in an earlier post, the Christian philosopher Francis Hutcheson used a combination of reason and careful observation of his own species to demonstrate the existence of an innate “moral sense,” building on the earlier work of Anthony Ashley-Cooper and others early in the 18th century. The Blank Slaters would have done well to read his work. Instead, they insisted on the non-existence of human nature, thereby handing over this particular “gap” to the faithful by default. Obviously, Prof. Coyne had second thoughts, and decided to snatch it back. However, he doesn’t quite succeed in breaking entirely with the past. Instead, he insists on elevating “cultural morality” to a co-equal status with innate morality, and demonstrates that he has swallowed Steven Pinker’s fanciful “academic version” of the history of the Blank Slate in the process. Allow me to quote at length some of the relevant passages from his book:
Evolution disproves critical parts of both the Bible and the Quran – the creation stories – yet millions have been unable to abandon them. Finally, and perhaps most important, evolution means that human morality, rather than being imbued in us by God, somehow arose via natural processes: biological evolution involving natural selection on behavior, and cultural evolution involving our ability to calculate, foresee, and prefer the results of different behaviors.
Here we encounter the conflation of biological and cultural evolution, which are described as if they were independent factors accounting for the “rise” of human morality. This tendency to embrace innate explanations while at the same time clinging to the “culture and learning” of the Blank Slate as a distinct, quasi-independent determinant of moral behavior is a recurring theme in FvF. A bit later Coyne seems to return to the Darwinian fold, citing his comments on “well-marked social instincts.”
In his 1871 book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, where Darwin first applied his theory of evolution by natural selection to humans, he did not neglect morality. In chapter 3, he floats what can be considered the first suggestion that our morality may be an elaboration by our large brains of social instincts evolved in our ancestors: “The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”
This impression is apparently confirmed in the following remarkable passage:
A century later, the biologist Edward O. Wilson angered many by asserting the complete hegemony of biology over ethics: “Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.” Wilson’s statement, in the pathbreaking book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, really began the modern incursion of evolution into human behavior that has become the discipline of evolutionary psychology. In the last four decades psychologists, philosophers, and biologists have begun to dissect the cultural and evolutionary roots of morality.
Here we find, almost verbatim, Steven Pinker’s bowdlerized version of the “history” of the Blank Slate, featuring E. O. Wilson as the knight in shining armor who came out of nowhere to “begin the modern incursion of evolution into human behavior,” with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975. Anyone with even a faint familiarity with the source material knows that Pinker’s version is really nothing but a longish fairy tale. The “modern incursion of evolution into human behavior” was already well underway in Europe in 1951, when Niko Tinbergen published his The Study of Instinct. It was continued there through the 50’s and 60’s in the work of Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and many others. Long before the appearance of Sociobiology, Robert Ardrey began the publication of a series of four books on evolved human nature that really set in motion the smashing of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences. There is literally nothing of any significance in Sociobiology bearing on the “incursion of evolution into human behavior” or the emergence of what came to be called evolutionary psychology that is not merely an echo of work that had been published by Ardrey, Lorenz, Tinbergen, and others many years earlier. No matter. It would seem that Pinker’s fanciful “history” has now been transmogrified into one of Coyne’s “facts.”
But I digress. As noted above, even as Coyne demolishes morality as one of the “gaps” that must be filled by inventing a God by noting its emergence as an evolved trait, and even as he explicitly embraces evolutionary psychology, which has apparently only recently become “respectable,” he can never quite entirely free himself from the stench of the Blank Slate. Finally, as if frightened by his own temerity, and perhaps feeling the withering gaze of his old professor/advisor Lewontin, Coyne executes a partial retreat from the territory he has just attempted to reconquer:
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker makes a strong case that since the Middle Ages most societies have become much less brutal, due largely to changes in what’s considered moral. So if morality is innate, it’s certainly malleable. And that itself refutes the argument that human morality comes from God, unless the moral sentiments of the deity are equally malleable. The rapid change in many aspects of morality, even in the last century, also suggests that much of its “innateness” comes not from evolution but from learning. That’s because evolutionary change simply doesn’t occur fast enough to explain societal changes like our realization that women are not an inferior moiety of humanity, or that we shouldn’t torture prisoners. The explanation for these changes must reside in reason and learning: our realization that there is no rational basis for giving ourselves moral privilege over those who belong to other groups.
Here we find the good professor behaving for all the world like one of Niko Tinbergen’s famous sticklebacks who, suddenly realizing he has strayed far over the established boundary of his own territory, rushes back to more familiar haunts. Only one of Lewontin’s “genetic determinists” would be obtuse enough to suggest that the meanderings of 21st century morality are caused by “evolution,” and those are as rare as unicorns. Obviously, no such extraordinarily rapid evolution is necessary. The innate wellsprings of human morality need not “evolve” at all to account for these wanderings, which are adequately accounted for by the fact that they represent the mediation of a relatively static “moral sense” in a rapidly changing environment through the consciousness of creatures with large brains. As brilliantly demonstrated by Hutcheson in his An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, absent this “root cause” in the form of evolved behavioral predispositions, “reason and learning” could chug along for centuries without spitting out anything remotely resembling morality. Innate behavioral predispositions are the basis of all moral behavior, and without them morality as we know it would not exist. The only role of “reason and learning” is in interpreting and mediating the “moral passions.” Absent those passions, there would be literally nothing to be reasoned about or learned that would manifest itself as moral behavior. They, and not “reason and learning” are the sine qua non for the existence of morality.
But let us refrain from looking this particular gift horse in the mouth. In general, as noted above, the New Atheists may be found more or less in the same region of the ideological spectrum as was once occupied by the Blank Slaters. If they are now constrained to add innate behavior to their arsenal as one more weapon in their continuing battle against the faithful, so much the better for all of us. If nothing else it enhances the chances that, at least for the time being, students of human behavior will be able to continue acquiring the knowledge we need to gain self-understanding without fear of being bullied and intimidated for pointing out facts that happen to be politically inconvenient.