Author’s Note: There is some bad language in this clip. To see how it ties into the overall topic of the piece, watch it to the end.
A fascinating conversation about genes and biological evolution was had recently on Late Night at Ratburger. I do not profess to have any real knowledge of this subject. I have exposed myself to it only on the fringes, meaning that I understand it as a means of explaining how it is that humans can have an innate fear of snakes or lions. I think the topic plays a relatively basic role in Charles Murray’s Bell Curve in that there seems to be some evidence that I.Q. can be linked to inheritable traits within the different races and ethnicities. (This hypothesis is what got Murray in trouble with his book.) Many who are much more conversant on this topic than I will tell you that there is more than just “something to this” idea, and on many levels I have to say that they make a strong case. I guess, if I had to identify one flaw in the topic, it would be that relegating the human experience to nothing more than an uncontrollable product of gene conditioning over the course of however many centuries appears to strip away one of the key elements of mankind: free will.
I suspect that many of the proponents of the bio-evolution theory will vehemently disagree with explanations of this or that, and say that I am wrong simply because, as I stated, I am rather ignorant of the topic. And that may be, but one cannot help but reach that conclusion when listening to how this topic is explained. For instance, one simple explanation for how a society can go from barbaric to civilized is that the genes of the barbaric adherents are killed off because of social mores adopted by the civilizing portion of the population. The theory seems to say that the barbarians’ genetically imposed tendency toward violence is killed off leaving only the lesser violent/peaceful genes in the population to reproduce. It is plausible enough, but would said theory cut the other way: that prior to this critical mass of civilized people being able to control that society such that it can weed out the violently disposed members, that, in fact, the violently disposed members would have already weeded out those more genetically inclined to become civilized?
As stated before, I am not a scientist. I have no compulsion to read about science in my free time or follow this or that scientific breakthrough. That is not to say that I do not read anything scientific, it is just not the topic of the books you will find on my nightstand next to my side of the bed. That said, I do understand one thing about science and this is that in most circumstances–I say most, not all–things do not happen without some sort of catalyst. A society cannot go from violent barbarism to peaceful and civilized without some outside force, whether that be a process over generations or overnight. Evolution does not work that way. My understanding is that there is some process between Point A and Point B. If you are inclined to believe that man evolved from the Great Apes, you must understand that this process did not go from The Ape to man as we see it today overnight.
However, that process did not just begin either–I do not think anyway. It would seem to me that evolution is closely tied to adaptation, which means that there must be something in the immediate environment causing the existing thing to need to change something in order to thrive in that new environment. So where it becomes more efficient for a creature to move up-right on two feet as opposed to having to use its arms along with its legs for propulsion, that change had to have been caused by something outside the genetic make-up of the creature, otherwise why change? If it ain’t broke, why try to fix it? Which brings me to why I have some issue with the notion of biological evolution (or whatever it is called). If the changes that occur are dependent on outside catalysts, then the decision must be made by the changing organism to adapt to that catalyst and thus free will.
In a physical sense, it would appear to be quite simple really. There is not much free will involved when you are talking about adapting to situations in order to procure food because the impulse here is the need to eat. So if it becomes easier for a creature to reach a fruit off of a tree branch by standing up-right and there is no easier way to either gather food or reach the fruit, the act of standing up-right no longer becomes about choice so much so as it just imprints genetically and the evolved creature no longer has to think about standing up-right. But when bio-evolution is used to explain things like emotions, I.Q., or societal norms, the theory, in my opinion, treads on shaky ground.
The example given on the LaRaMU call was that of the Germanic tribes. Barbaric? No doubt. Eventually civilized? Without going down the path of defining “civilized,” let’s just stipulate that, yes, the peoples of today who are descendants of the Germanic tribes are civilized. Was that the product of genetics? I do not know for sure, but I will pose this: the change from barbarism to civilized did not just happen. Something has to have been the cause of the change or else why change? I suppose one can come up with all sorts of examples of things “just changing,” but I think the fallacy there would be to use physical changes “just changing” as a substitute for emotional and intellectual changes “just changing.” Can physical objects simply change without some outside force? I suppose they can, and I am willing to accept such a notion when presented with examples–and I am sure the proponents will bring them. But I do not think that non-physical traits of mankind can be explained in the same way because I just do not believe that mankind works that way. The idea seems too fanciful and as much a product of faith as any religious explanation for what I am talking about.
Going back to the barbarism-to-civilized example, if genetic imprints exist making members of that society more inclined to violence, and one cannot change genetics–as it seems to have been stated on the phone call–then how did that society become civilized? Are genetics determinative? For some things, certainly physical attributes, sure, but for that more difficult level of humanity, the psyche? I just do not know and I lean toward no. People can be persuaded. People can be self-educated. Revelation comes to everyone and that revelation can have a profound impact on the future course of the person affected. Or is that just a product of the genetic make-up of the person being susceptible to revelatory events completely changing their lives? In my estimation, the desire to distill the human condition to some unchangeable, scientific explanation that locks mankind into an unbreakable cage denies mankind its humanity. What makes us human is our ability to use our physical as well as our psychological abilities in ways that no other creature can. And to explain away our ability to think, feel, love, hate, mourn, celebrate, etc., to being nothing more than a pre-programmed response based on genetics turns us into robots incapable of changing how we see and interact in the world around us.
Theologically, I fully accept the idea of predestination. As I understand it, predestination is simply God’s plan for each and everyone of us. But to me that makes sense because God–at least the Christian God–is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. He is the Alpha and the Omega. We are told that He knows the beginning and the end, and that is the important part to predestination in my view. For how can He be all those things and NOT know how things will end for each and everyone of us? It seems that science, in some respects, is claiming to have the same ability, that one can look at my family tree and make determinations about my political views, religious views, job choice, personal wants, who I seek out as friends, etc. I think ancestry is important for one to know because on some level it is important to know from where one comes. But it is not determinative. One of my relatives, a Scotsman, put down an insurrection against the British Crown in Ireland. It was that campaign that brought the McReynolds family to Ireland because he fell in love with the Irish landscape. But anyone who knows me would tell you that my ancestor’s adherence to an oppressive authority such as the British Crown against the Irish seems to have been genetically washed out of me. I have no love for the British Crown, tyrannical authorities, or putting down just revolts. Maybe that is putting a very simplistic spin on things, but each and everyone of us is an individual and, although our physical characteristics certainly are determined by genes, genetics cannot explain those non-physical traits that make us human.