Keep that Acorn Away from Me!

February 5, 2008

Amuirin wrote (I am not sure from what philosophical/religious perspective and I edited the quote very slightly for coherence and consistency):

I think the nature of the experiment [the thought experiment described in my original “acorn” post] kind of betrays why, after so many generations, we don’t have a population of mostly ‘evil’ people.

The wild card is love. Most children are raised by parents who love them deeply. As opposed to your control groups that follow certain ‘rules’, many children are exposed early on to parenting that may be flawed, haphazard, even neglectful but full of that crazy warmth and affection: that willingness to sacrifice the better cookie, the last dollar, the remote control for no logical ’survival driven’ reason. (yes, I know we’re hard-wired to love our children so we don’t throw them over a cliff the first time they have a crying jag, but human love for offspring far exceeds simple species survival needs in most examples)

Do you ever watch reality t.v.? Hopefully not, but I do tune into some programs, and I find myself really rooting for the person who seems genuine, caring or empathetic when they’re talking privately to the camera. I don’t think I’m the only one who doesn’t want the back-stabbing, catty or selfish people to win. It doesn’t take much to turn the tide of selfishness and brutality. Sometimes just one true loving example.

There is much that I agree with in this comment. I do think that “family values” do inspire much of the best in human behavior, though family values can go much astray, as they will in a future post.

I am not a religious believer. Despite all the theories about why humans behave the way they do, and dictates about how they should behave proposed by the Bible, I suspect that the real well-springs of human behavior arise from what is called sociobiology, one of the most controversial ideas in science. To summarize this idea in a surpassingly simple-minded and superficial way, even for me, I will say it represents the idea that organisms are essentially transporters of genes. Our genes say, Reproduce us, baby and we are overcome with lust (and occasionally, love) and rush to do the deed with two backs, seldom inhibited by how ridiculous the activity is, whether or not we are precisely thinking about having a baby while engaging in that activity. Richard Dawkins referred to these hidden, invisible motivators when he titled one of his books, The Selfish Gene.

Not only that, despite all Christian rhetoric about Jesus and being Saved, and of carrying out God’s purposes, and, and so on, I think most humans find “meaning in life” through having and supporting children. Although neither my wife nor I intended to have children, having a child probably held our shaky marriage together and guided much of our behavior during our lives. Even people who can’t have children (like my Aunt Rose), or who choose not to have children, like the woman architect who designed our little house, are often much taken with children and may function as non-genetic uncles and aunts. It is striking to me how much many of the evangelical Christians of worldmagblog carry on about children, how they glorify having children, how they criticize societies (such as Western Europe and Japan) where birth rates have dropped, and how passionate they become about opposing abortion.

One of the (many) reasons sociobiology is so controversial is that it purports to describe actions where no actual genetic link is involved. My daughter is physically unable to bear children, but to my eye she is just as much a loving mom to our granddaughter as her partner, the actual “birth mom.”

As people get older, they pester their children to have children so they can become grandparents. Although I never pestered my daughter in that way, and I am not a genetic grandpa, I behave more or less the way most grandpas behave.

I think for many of us humans, as we grow older, and contemplate (or at least sense) the onset of death, our instinctual drives for reproduction provide us with consolation as we contemplate the thought of little reproductions of ourselves carrying on after we are gone.

Human behavior is a very complex mixture of genetic influences, psychological influences, and cultural influences. Because of this powerful “witches brew” of influences, we engage in activities and experience feelings that mimic those that could be could be accounted for by sociobiology only if we take it in a superficial and simplistically literal way . Although I am not a “genetic” grandpa, I feel like a genetic grandpa and I act like a genetic grandpa, just as billions of adoptive parents (such as my daughter) act and feel like genetic parents. (Just as Random Granddaughter figured out who her [dad] is, one day she will probably snarl, “You’re not my real grandpa—a real grandpa wouldn’t touch slugs in front of me!”)

I’ve heard (can’t document this with a reference at the moment) that “stepparents” are statistically more likely to kill or abuse children than genetic parents. If true, this would be a clue that sociobiology has some merit as a theory.

If I were very clever, talented, witty, curious, well-educated, cynical, and conservative in a post-modern sort of way (kind of like a William Makepeace Thackeray—author of Vanity Fair—of current times), my name might be “Tom Wolfe,” and I might have written the article, “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died.”

As a non-religious believer, I am always intrigued by the reasons people are religious believers. I think the reasons vary, but one reason is, I suspect, that some are overcome by some version of Joseph Conrad’s famous quote in Heart of Darkness, “The horror. The horror.” (As I once overcome with shock and awe when my granddaughter had an impressive accident in her pants on the way home from the park, detailed in a previous version of my blog.)

I think Wolfe’s article is worth reading in its entirety, but I will post a “spoiler” here to make my point—the last paragraph of his essay:

I suddenly had a picture of the entire astonishing edifice collapsing and modern man plunging headlong back into the primordial ooze. He’s floundering, sloshing about, gulping for air, frantically treading ooze, when he feels something huge and smooth swim beneath him and boost him up, like some almighty dolphin. He can’t see it, but he’s much impressed. He names it God.

On the other hand, if I were a talented mathematician, writer and eccentrically conservative British-born writer for the National Review, my name might be “John Derbyshire,” and I might have written an interesting commentary on Tom Wolfe’s article.

Apparently, Derbyshire has moved from being a Christian to being a New Mysterian. As far as I can tell, New Mysterians are radical agnostics with pretensions.



2 Responses to “Keep that Acorn Away from Me!”

  1. mommy Says:

    What is your point?

  2. modestypress Says:

    Thinking about modern life, modern philosophy, and modern science is disturbing and tends to lead toward nihilism.

    Tom Wolfe’s solution (and the solution at worldmagblog) strikes me as the deus ex machina:

    “The phrase deus ex machina (Latin IPA: [ˈdeːus eks ˈmaːkʰina] (literally “god out of a machine”) describes an artificial, or improbable character, device, or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction or drama to resolve a situation or untangle a plot (such as an angel suddenly appearing to solve problems).” wikipedia

    Amuirin’s solution seems to be family values.

    Practically speaking, that is my solution on a day to day basis. I am not sure I believe in it philosophically, though.

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