Mon, Jan 28, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Reframing the ongoing discussion of nature-versus-nurture

By Robert Skidelsky

Although this view of evolution would not have been possible before the discovery of DNA, it is no coincidence that it rose to prominence in the age of former US president Ronald Reagan and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. To be sure, the selfish gene needs to be “altruistic” insofar as its survival depends on the survival of the kinship group. However, it need not be that altruistic. And, although Dawkins later regretted calling his gene “selfish” (he says that “immortal” would have been better), his choice of adjective was certainly best adapted to maximizing sales of his book at that particular time.

Since then, we have turned away from advocacy of selfishness, but we have not recovered an independent moral language. The new orthodoxy, suitable for a world in which the unrestrained pursuit of greed has proved economically disastrous, is that the human species is genetically programmed to be moral, because only by acting morally (caring for the survival of others) can it ensure its long-term survival.

The “hard-wiring” metaphor dominates contemporary moral language.

According to the UK’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, religious beliefs are useful for our survival, by inducing us to act in socially cooperative ways.

“We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering,” he recently wrote.

Consideration for others is “located in the prefrontal cortex.” And religion “reconfigures our neural pathways.”

In short: “Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters,” he wrote.

So we need not fear that it will decline.

Atheists might not agree. However, it is an extraordinary statement for a religious leader to make, because it sets to one side the question of the truth or falsehood, or the ethical value, of religious beliefs. Or rather: all that wiring in the prefrontal cortex must be ethical, because it is good for survival. However, in that case, what ethical value is there in survival? Does the continued survival of the human race have any value in itself, independent of what we achieve or create?

We need to rescue morality from the claims of science. We need to assert what philosophers and religious teachers have at all times asserted: that there is something called the good life, apart from survival, and our understanding of it has to be taught, just as Mill’s father taught him the elements of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. Our nature may predispose us to learn; but what we learn depends on how we are nurtured.

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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