7. Practising Evolution
When I tell people that I am an Evolutionist, they often reply: “what’s that?” For them evolution is science and therefore it could not contain sets of morals and laws by which to live. They see science and religion as separate; one is practical and the other is spiritual. Can evolution be a spiritual belief system in its own right, one by which a person can live without recourse to any of the traditional religions?
One characteristic I have noticed of people who choose Evolution as a belief system over the traditional religions is that they often come from a scientific, possibly biological, background. These sort of people, subject to a large dose of logic in their scientific training, seem less inclined to separate humans from other animals. We have evolved from other non-human animals. While we may have developed beliefs systems considerably more complex than any other animals, we are animals all the same.
People point to our elaborate artifacts as a major difference and it is indeed a large difference. While the other ape species have produced a few artifacts, these are minor compared to our buildings, computers and rockets. People also point to our religions as unique and say that these too separate us from non-human animals. But let us say that some tragedy befalls human kind and they are no more. Could anyone say with certainty that with this dominant and repressive species gone another species of ape could not, in a few million years, evolve to fill our place and so develop similar artifacts and religious belief systems? I doubt it.
It is my belief that Evolution will in time, possibly over hundreds or thousands of years, gradually replace the traditional religions we have today as people come to understand and appreciate science. It will be the final belief system and its success will be due to it being a system that has minimised myths and maximised logic.
If we take religions broadly as cultural belief systems that tell us how we came into existence, provide some moral system for living while we are alive and what happens after death, then no one would question that evolution explains the first and last criteria. That is, we came into existence through evolution and after death we die with no afterlife. We leave behind only genetic traces in the form of genes passed to children and cultural traces in the form of the conversations we have had and books that we have written. However, whether evolution provides a moral system is not so clear. Can we deduce from evolution a system of behaviours; that is, a system of rules and morals by which we can live?
We have within us genetic ideas to seek happiness and in this respect it is hard to go past the Bentham/Mill utilitarian view that the ultimate goal should be personal happiness, but not happiness at the expense of another’s happiness. Evolution though, seems more ruthless than this in that happiness should be the goal even if it is at the expense of another’s happiness (see note 5 on altruism). Evolution’s law-of-the-jungle opportunism is for the survival of the individual at any cost (and others with whom genetic and cultural mutualisms have been established). Help will not be given to strangers. Evolution supports selfishness rather than selflessness. If our behaviour was just genetically driven, it could be a very ruthless belief system with little forgiveness or charity. But life is also cultural and so laws have been created where ruthless behaviours can be repressed and punished and so this way of living is unlikely to produce happiness.
Religions contain ideas for the model believer to allow them to approach some sort of spiritual perfection. Many of these behaviours, such as forgiveness, charity and humility, are aimed at progression to some afterlife or rebirth. Perfect members are given titles such as ‘saint’. Perfection for the evolutionist would be adopting a set of cultural beliefs that best address his/her particular genetic ideas. By so doing a person will maximise happiness. It is still necessary to suppress those bits of law-of-the-jungle opportunism that are antagonistic to other members of the society and whose practice is likely to bring the society’s retribution. This ‘seeking of happiness’ without unduly reducing the happiness of others, is the moral system of Evolution.
To achieve this we must examine our personal genetic ideas very carefully so as to determine what ideas would be best to retain. Unwanted genetic ideas cannot be disposed of however through introspection we can adopt new cultural ideas that will override and redirect them. That is, we can mask the effect of many genetic ideas with new cultural ideas in much the same way as genetic opportunism has been reined in by morals (cultural ideas). As well as masking genetic ideas, we must eliminate detrimental cultural ideas and replace them with better cultural ideas. Such an approach will create an Evolutionist.
Cultural ideas can be obscure or even known unconsciously. We learn how to drive cars, catch trains, operate houses, and to use a computer. We learn the language, customs, economic systems, and religions of the day. We also often learn intolerance, racism, and bigotry. We take all this cultural knowledge for granted and it is rarely challenged by the young mind because it is not yet developed enough to mount a challenge. That is, most cultural ideas reach prominence as there is little other cultural knowledge in the mind to struggle against. It is here that the bad cultural habits of previous generations can survive and so be retained with little opposition. For many people, little thought will go into questioning how these cultural ideas came into existence in the first place and whether retaining them is worthwhile. In this sense, our bodies are receptacles for the genetic and cultural knowledge of our parents and the cultural knowledge of our societies.
What are some bad or misleading ideas that need to be replaced? I use the word ‘bad’ here in the sense that they are ideas that need to be overridden, replaced or masked. New cultural ideas that replace these bad ideas could be part of a moral system for the evolution belief system. This replace of genetic and cultural isdeas is best illustrated by example.
An example of bad genetic ideas could be those for taste; ideas that were fixed in primitive times. Taste for sweet, salty and fatty foods, as these were presumably scarce, evolved to give the greatest hormonal reward. These foods are now available in abundance. Cultural belief systems that address these genetic ideas include potato chips that are high in fat and salt and ice-cream and chocolate that are high in fat and sugar. This genetic situation can be made worse by boredom from an uninteresting life where eating becomes one of the few pleasures. People who inherit strong genetic talent for these tastes yet fail culturally to check them, will end up obese. This strong talent could also be seen as a genetic myth in that the genetic ideas are not valid in today’s world. Cultural belief systems for the manufacturing and advertising of chips, chocolate and ice cream that hide the health risks are bad for these obese people. An Evolutionary moral would be to override such genetic beliefs.
Another example of genetic knowledge that is out of synchronism with the modern world could be the quarrelling that often arises between parents and teenagers. Hormonal changes within teenagers generate libido and their thoughts turn towards the opposite sex. In primitive times they would be starting families of their own. However this is delayed in modern societies probably because the volume of knowledge needed to function in them is so great that it takes some time to learn. The breaking of the parent/offspring bond at puberty can be seen to occur naturally in other species. In lions and elephants the males leave their mothers and form groups of their own. For these species, mothers lose interest in their maturing male offspring and may even drive them away. However, in many modern human families, both male and female children can remain in the home well after puberty and this unnatural event can often lead to conflict. The children become moody with trivial incidents becoming major conflicts. Parents wonder at the change and wonder what they have done to cause it. When this quarrelling can be seen as a genetically normal part of growing up that is designed to separate teenagers and parents much of the conflict can be resolved. Evolutionary morality would contain cultural ideas that explain the mechanism behind this conflict to parents.
The genetic drive to reproduce can be very strong. In some countries it is a necessity as children provide the social security of the parents. In primitive times, war and disease kept populations in check so it was genetically advantageous to maximise one’s family size given enough food to feed them. But today, as there are so many people on Earth, an unrestrained genetic desire for breeding should be overridden with cultural ideas. An example is China’s one-child policy. The government reasons that the country will be physically unable to support future populations should the old birth rate be allowed to continue. Generally, if the Earth’s population continues to grow, then eventually the environment will be degraded to such an extent that biological forces will cause a large correction in the population, probably through disease or famine. Having more than two children would be considered a form of genetic nurturing greed for the parents in that they are demanding an increased share of the world’s resources than that needed to replace themselves. Their actions in regard to childbirth are therefore immoral from an evolutionary viewpoint in the sense that future generations will suffer from these actions.
Genetic greed can come in many forms. Americans make up four percent of the world’s population, yet they produce over twenty five percent of the atmospheric pollutants. Their inherited cultural knowledge has produced an excessive lifestyle that they are reluctant, or even unable, to abandon. The American government of the day acts aggressively toward other countries that threaten to interfere with the supply of materials that make this lifestyle possible. A reduction of happiness for future generations, not just in America but in other countries, will be the result of this greed.
Bad cultural ideas also need to be overridden. They include the repression of women who are often the victims of tribal customs where their treatment is as little more than objects for male possession. They may be denied education, given to a husband not of their choice, forced to marry at a young age, circumcised, beaten, and so on. They are reduced to the status of servants of men. As this cultural practice has been passed down through generations of men they think it a normal and possibly a desirable behaviour. For men, cultural ideas for the repression of women address their genetic desire to minimise their workload and maximise their control. From the woman’s eye-view all this repression is male selfishness as the cultural ideas enslave her. Unjust tribal customs have caused, and are still causing today, untold misery. Religions are unlikely to change this repression as they too originated from male thought and are often sympathetic to the repression ideas. None of this repression would have any part in an Evolution belief system.
Other cultural ideas can be good in moderation but bad in excess. Cultural ideas for excessive work can mentally imprison a person. As we need money to live work must be done. A lucky few have managed to find interesting jobs, but for many, work is ordinary at best and for some it is dull and repetitious. One would think that, as we have transferred most physical work to machines, we should only need to work one or two days a week. But people seem to be working longer than ever. This is because our needs, defined by persistent advertising, rise in proportion to output. Economic cultural belief systems that tell us that we need bigger houses, more cars and more frequent travel evolve by aligning with genetic ideas. The result is more hours of work rather than less. One step to increased happiness might be to recognise that we need considerably less than we think (or are told) we do. Evolution would contain cultural ideas for restraint and moderation and these ideas are likely to increase our happiness.
An undesirable cultural idea in religions is that for an afterlife which has allowed a sado-masochistic theme to develop in many religions, particularly Christianity. The idea that we must suffer in this life through self-flagellation, penance, confession, pilgrimage, and so on, in order to reach some sort of perfection and so an afterlife is a common idea. Such cultural beliefs would be pushed aside in Evolution. Here we are free from an afterlife with some sort of judgement as to how we conducted ourselves while alive. As there is no afterlife, enjoyment can be sought here and now without guilt.
There would also be no requirement for pacifism. Such a belief is also part of the sado-masochistic theme and would not be part of an Evolution moral system. Turning the other cheek and suffering under some tyrant without reaction, remaining in a loveless marriage (due to marriage vows), forgiveness of a person who continues to torment you; none of this would be part of evolution. We should not allow others to infringe upon our own happiness.
The above examples are general. More specifically, each person is unique genetically, and so each must choose those particular cultural systems that match his/her personality. One person might be happy living a quiet life on an island while another might love the bustle of a city life. There is no point in reversing roles where both are unhappy. The person who likes islands should live on an island and the person who likes cities should live in a city. The cultural ideas we choose to have should address those particular genetic talents that we inherit.
Finding out our particular genetic beliefs and the correct cultural ideas to address them is not necessarily easy. The genetic ideas are fixed and many of the cultural ideas have been absorbed at an early age and have become habit. From this habit a regular and predictable supply of hormonal washes is obtained. Why risk some new cultural belief system even if it does look attractive? The new cultural system is untried and so the hormonal rewards are uncertain. The more habitual a person is, the harder it will be for them to examine and change their resident ideas. These ideas can be good fighters in the struggles to prominence in the mind and will soon expel any new ideas that challenge them.
Many people allow these early ideas to direct their thoughts with their validity rarely challenged. This is deflating; we think ourselves important, and we think that we largely control and direct this struggle, but I fear that we have overestimated our control. People generally act out those genetic and cultural ideas passed to them with little to no change. Some people however, manage to control and to redirect their idea struggles more than others. Such people have been referred to as ‘disciplined’, ‘strong willed’, or ‘determined’.
It is time for us to get strong willed and ask: what is my genetic and cultural knowledge, and is any of it superfluous or detrimental to my needs? What ‘bad’ genetic and cultural ideas, such as in the examples above, have I resident in my mind? However, the very word ‘need’ is tainted because many of the things we think we need are really just things our genetic and cultural ideas tell us we need. These sources are biased, and to follow them may not lead to happiness. Wrong genetic or cultural ideas may set a course for the growing child that does not lead to happiness. The only hope here is that, in later life as an adult when some mental control may be regained over one’s life, the expression of these ideas can be checked and modified. Sometimes travel to different countries helps by allowing us to experience a new set of habits; a set of cultural ideas that may well be different from our own. We can then see our own ideas in a different light. It is this type of ‘standing back’ that we need to do with one part of our mind in order to see the other part.
Another method that might be helpful is meditation. By clearing one’s mind, the ideas within it can be seen more clearly. The process of meditation, whether through chanting, dancing, yoga or just sitting quietly, can be a pleasurable activity in itself. It produces various hormonal washes and so happiness. Many ascetics have advocated this activity as one that brings great rewards through knowing oneself. It is even possible for meditation to become addictive. Some religious devotees cannot go without their morning and evening meditations so habitualised have they become to the regular hormonal washes that they receive from these actions. Meditation is a genetic concept and a trip to the zoo will find numerous types of meditative addictions in the form of animals pacing up and down in their cages in repetitive patterns for relief from boredom. We will do the same if we find ourselves on some isolated railway station with five hours to wait for the next train.
Another way to change the cultural ideas of the mind might be to find a group of people who have many of the ideas that you also wish to have. As we are social animals there is a tendency to go towards the average of the people with whom we mix. Over time this new set of cultural ideas to which we have exposed ourselves will begin to win struggles in our minds and replace some of the unwanted ideas.