Survival of the Nicest?

I’m working on my second book for this project– Francis Collins’ The Language of God.  After finishing the Dawkins book I felt the need to take a detour into what for me is less heavy reading– namely, Ted Kennedy’s memoir True Compass and Brian McLaren’s manifesto for progressive Christianity, A New Kind of Christianity. I imagine this will become necessary along the way to provide a mental break as I process reflections on this important topic. I have also, however, found that this project keeps relating to my other reading. Kennedy and McLaren have both made their peace with the intersection of science and religion– Kennedy as a public servant and devout Catholic, McLaren as a former English literature professor, turned pastor, turned prophet-of-the-new-church.

But I digress. Along with my books, I make a habit of reading articles from the New York Times and other publications every day via Google Reader. A little while ago, I came across this op-ed piece by columnist David Brooks, whose thoughtfulness I have always appreciated even though I do not always agree with his conclusions.

For those readers who might be worried about filling up their NYT monthly quotas too soon, in a column entitled “Nice Guys Finish First,” Brooks summarized a series of new books detailing the relationship between evolution and cooperation. He argued that “the human mind veered away from that of other primates. We are born ready to cooperate, and then we build cultures to magnify that trait.”

This article caught my attention because it raises an interesting point: why would human beings be wired to cooperate in a story dominated by the traditional “survival of the fittest” narrative? If competition to be the strongest and the fastest and the best got us to where we are today, why would humans have become a species so inclined (usually) to cooperate with one another? Sports and other competitive activities aside, we know when it is best to cooperate. Brooks cites the example of how an infant of twelve months will inform others about something by pointing, something that no monkey will do. I prefer to think of the role-playing game I played with some of my friends the other night, in which the narrator kept trying to get us to “separate” but we refused to do it, and which we won by playing a cooperative game of Jenga (long story).

The conclusion that Brooks reached in his column was interesting: “For decades, people tried to devise a rigorous “scientific” system to analyze behavior that would be divorced from morality. But if cooperation permeates our nature, then so does morality, and there is no escaping ethics, emotion, and religion in our quest to understand who we are and how we got this way.”

I have mixed feelings about this– on the one hand, I agree with Brooks that divorcing ethics and morality and religion from how we became who we are today is a bad idea. Ignoring or minimizing the impact of any of these things eliminates an essential part of the human experience. On the other hand, I’m not necessarily convinced that science shouldn’t try to explain these things– science is a quest for answers, and these are big questions that need to be asked. In the case of the cooperative instinct, the “survival of the fittest” principle doesn’t necessarily mean an instinct to fight– apparently somewhere along the line, it turned out that the most appropriately cooperative person WAS the “fittest.” These things aren’t mutually exclusive.

That cooperation is a positive trait that could have developed by evolutionary means, I (in my humble, nonscientific way) have no doubt. I also do not doubt that “ethics, emotion, and religion” have a role to play in the “quest to understand who we are and how we got this way.” But I still am not sure that I agree with the way Brooks reached his conclusions, and it still fails to reconcile the tension between science and religion. And so the quest continues.

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About Carolyn C.
Recent grad and pursuer of knowledge.

One Response to Survival of the Nicest?

  1. Rosey says:

    The simplification of evolution to “survival of the fittest” fails to take into account the evolutionary dead ends that appear all over the place, the myriad ways the mutations effect species, environmental changes, and any other number of things that help make up the broad picture of evolution as the field of biology sees it. The fact of the matter is, most people don’t want to look deeper into the mysteries of “survival of the fittest” and what ends up happening is that people will end up nodding along with Brooks’ comments, when in fact, he is merely perpetuating the myth of evolution as you probably learned in high school biology (though, horrified at your high school biology — just going to let that go) — that its just survival of the fittest. Coming from an evolutionary standpoint, his argument (such that it is) makes no sense — we’re already looking at it that way.

    What really needs to happen then is not a shift in BIOLOGY, but in the way it is taught.

    Unfortunately, as far as I know, the point of taking science in high school, is to put the concepts of scientific thinking into you, and not the facts. Probably because people don’t like science that much. *SIGH* SO DISAPPOINTING.

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