I generally keep a couple, 3 books going, one fiction and one non-fiction, any others some variant like poetry. Sometimes these converge. This past week, as I do most years, I read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. So very well written, brilliant really, that I find something new most times. He makes only 2 references, I think, to the birth of Jesus, as he conveys the Christmas time message that caring for each other is a higher goal than selfish material aggrandizement, that want and ignorance are man’s great evils, and that a person can change themselves and their world for the better.
As I mentioned in previous posts I am also now reading Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. He acknowledges the criticism by others of his use of the word ‘selfish’ here as having some merit. It is very difficult to discuss evolution in solely positivist terms without the introjection of human values. Genes regulate the embryological genesis of the soma and its subsequent activity. If the organism reproduces and passes the genes on to a next generation, those genes remain in the pool; if not, they don’t. Evolution ‘advances’ (or ‘happens’) then when random variations occur in genetic replication that effect the organism’s fit into its ecological niche and these affect which genes fill the pool. Talk of ‘selfish genes’ clouds really the value neutral nature of the life process here. Even saying ‘successful’ reproduction is borderline, because maybe the organism would be more successful in the longer term if some of its genes faded away and others arose.
Here’s the point of convergence between Dickens and Dawkins. The latter writes, “Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”
Dickens, writing in 1843, saw a bit more positive in the early going of humans and that some abandoned generosity for selfishness due to their education by the world. It seems clear enough to me that our culture admits both and that our biological disposition, which has evolved through genetic variation, includes both aggressive actions to gain/protect life’s necessities and possibilities, and empathic actions to connect us as family and a social group. Again, attributing values, whether helpful or hindering, to our genes’ presence, whether expanding or contracting, in the pool puts a veneer onto an otherwise positivistic conception.
Consider next these famous lines from Tennyson in 1850. “Man . . . who trusted god was love indeed/ and love Creation’s final law/ Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw/ with ravine shrieked against his creed.” I know we cannot attribute the brutal struggle for survival to nature while at the same time attributing our compassion to god. Both are natural, as Darwin a few years later in 1859 would begin to espouse. In the reductionist mechanistic universe, life arises and is its own value, plain and simple, and then with further natural evolution some life creates meaning and so on we go from there.
I will finish with two points. One is that the “nature red in tooth and claw” was a favored meme in Victorian times and most novels of that day blindly ignored the full reality of man’s contribution to hardships as they considered man separate from nature. Consider modern versions of Victorian novels, like John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, wherein he adds many historical details like the astounding number of brothels in London because the main role of women then was to marry, and outside of that, they could expect little social support except the illicit kind from philandering males. Also consider Jo Walton’s novel, Tooth and Claw, wherein she strives to create a society based upon the Victorian world view (red in tooth and claw) peopled by dragons. A curious read, that.
The second point is to agree with Dawkins: let us teach generosity and empathy and fair play, let us shape our culture to the degree we can towards prosocial values. Many social-emotional curriculums based on empathy and social intelligence have been developed to do so, at least in this country where we seem to need it a bit more these days than in some of the other industrialized ones. More importantly, we know that such values are passed on in part through the actions of a caring family and in part through the memes (thank you, Dr. Dawkins, for that brilliant term) of our cultural heritage (or not, some cultures or groups pass on memes a bit more concerned with the savage defense of the in group and aggressive control of the out group and please, someone tell me why women are considered more the latter). It is here that artists have always played a large role, so thank you, Mr. Dickens, for contributing to our education in generosity so beautifully.