For regular readers, it should come as no surprise that I’m a Darwinist. Of course, labeling yourself as such immediately opens you up to backlash.
Darwinists are immediately grouped with genetic determinists. The mistake in doing so is significant. Darwinists, including Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond and Stephen Pinker, believe that what we are is shaped by evolutionary forces, including natural and sexual selection. But that doesn’t necessarily determine who we are. Humans (and contrary to popular belief, it appears we’re not alone in this) have a conscious mind. The challenge is that the conscious mind is always working in close step with our unconscious drives, habits, rules and behaviors. It makes us human, infallible, sometimes irrational but, on the whole, fairly effective in our environments. The evolutionary mechanisms we have are remarkably flexible and adaptable.
But every Darwinist I know says that we have the ability to reach beyond the tyranny of our genes. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it is possible. We aren’t simply robots playing out our scripts. We can determine our own destiny, based on the ideals that govern us and our society.
In various books, authors have offered examples that refute simple genetic determinism. The use of birth control and the chastity of religious orders are just two. These run counter to the single mindedness of the Selfish Gene.
One of the most remarkable examples was brought forcefully to me this week when I watched a documentary on Gandhi. Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolent resistance and his ability to get an entire nation to join him is an amazing show of the force of rational free will. It runs counter to every inherent defense mechanism evolution has endowed us with. In fact, Gandhi’s ability to steel the will of India to transcend their instincts, while the British allowed their scripts of aggression, fear, greed and violence to play out, is perhaps the greatest triumph of will over base instincts I can think of. It’s a rather random thought, but a refreshing example of the magnificence of human will when we put our rational minds to something.