Human Nature after Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction

By Janet Radcliffe Richards | Go to book overview
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10

The real differences

So far all fears about the implications of deepening Darwinism seem to have been misguided, but one major question has not yet been discussed: the implications of the materialism boundary for ideals, hopes and the way we lead our lives. Here the differences are potentially enormous. A materialist Darwinian cannot have any of the most fundamental hopes of religious believers, and this must lead to a radically different approach to life.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that most other familiar assumptions about the implications of Darwinism seem to be wrong, so the question arises of why there should be such far-reaching implications in some contexts but none in others, and why it is that there are so many mistaken ideas about which are which. There is a range of reasons, but all involve a failure to recognize the limits to what can and cannot be changed by the advance of science, and the place of philosophical analysis in understanding ourselves and our situation.

It is obviously important to understand the facts about our situation as far as possible, since mistakes will prevent our making the best judgements about how to lead our lives. But mistakes in making inferences from those facts are just as serious. For understanding our nature and situation, the philosophical work is at least as important as the science.

Darwinians come in dyes of differing depth, and it seems to be widely thought that the deeper your dye, the more you are forced to abandon in the way of traditional ideas about ourselves and our situation, and of deeply held moral and political ideals. If the arguments so far have been right, however, this impression is mistaken. For all the issues so far discussed, no difference is made by crossing the boundary from Mind First, typically dualist, views into materialism, or from standard social science theories to evolutionary psychology.

But this is surely puzzling. What becomes of Simpson's claim, quoted at the beginning of the book, that all ideas of human nature before 1859 were worthless, and should be abandoned? What becomes of Dennett's idea of Darwinism as a universal acid, dissolving everything it touches? It is obviously true that Darwinism, at least in its radical forms, turns upside down traditional accounts of our nature and our place in the scheme of things. How can such a radical change make so little difference to so much of our everyday thinking about ourselves?

There are two answers to this. The obvious one is that we have not yet come to the end of the investigation. We still have not considered the implications of the materialism boundary for hopes, ideals and the way we lead our lives. This is, indeed, the point at which the pattern breaks. From this point of view, the differences of implication between the two sides are potentially enormous.

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