Dr. Lyle Watson – Hodder & Stoughton 338 Euston Rd London NW 13 BH
To read this fascinating and well documented book is to be shaken by the sheer piling up of evidence which takes evil out of the realm of monsters, aliens and demons, and puts it squarely back where it belongs in nature and in our lives, where it may be terrifying, but can be controlled. To help understand what is happening Watson re-defines good and evil in biological terms. Evil is inevitable, good and evil are one part of a field in which both exist. Some things are right for life and some are wrong. Order is disrupted by loss of balance or by loss of diversity.
Nature has a dark side that deserves our attention. Our world is finely wrought and delicately balanced. It?s hard to accept it was just an accident. Life as a whole is very hard to kill.
1. Good things get to be bad if they are displaced, taken out of control or removed from their roots.
2. Good things get to be bad if there are too few or too many of them
3. Good things get really rotten if they cannot relate to each other properly and their degree of association is impoverished.
Whole chapters then explore the ecology of evil in the natural world until the realm of the human is examined.
We carry a reminder of who we are in every cell of our body. The evidence is strong, we die, but our genes don’t. They never grow old but leap from body to body down through the generations. Genes are simple minded and mean spirited. They have no vision and cannot be expected to have the welfare of the whole species at heart, which is why universal love does not exist.
Generosity and unselfishness are not a part of biological nature. Where such things exist, they had to be learned by working against the trend.
The sad fact is that we are all selfish, born selfish. There are several genetic instructions which seem common to, and appropriate to all life.
Rule one: Be nasty to outsiders
Rule two: Be nice to insiders.
Rule three: Cheat when ever possible
The author then sets out as an arithmetic of evil illustrated abundantly in nature, using these three rules.
Part 11 of the book deals with human nature with its capacity for virtue and its capacity for evil.
It is rightly recognized that the turning point in human evolution was the moment of awakening with the coming of the knowledge of good and evil. Being good and being bad are simply part of being human.
It was the practice of social awareness which provided the selective pressure necessary to give us our much needed prized big brains. Humans are different from the rest of the species in that we have power to defy the genes. We have questioned their authority, rebelled against chemical control and even before we knew who or what they were, set in train a movement which represents a real alternative to their tyranny.
We have invented cultural evolution, which compared to the biological process, happens at the speed of light. We can change our minds and our destines in a second. The break with organic evolution and genetic control has all happened so fast that there hasn’t been time to put appropriate cultural controls in their place. We live in extra-ordinary and fascinating times.
Part 3. Evil Nature.
The only real danger perhaps is already in us, not lurking in some infernal pit.
There is little merit in searching for evil in witches, devils, demons or other scapegoats. We are it. We have meet the enemy and he is US. But that doesn?t mean we can’t fight it.
Recent revelation shows a rampant self-interest in parts of nature that were once seen as relatively benign. A new ethical strategy is needed to help as many as possible to survive. Nature is morally bankrupt clearly and grossly immoral.
Natural selection is a process for maximizing short sighted selfishness. Moral indifference might characterize the physical universe. But for the biological world, a stronger term is needed. The only one that will do it seems is Evil. Mother nature is a wicked old witch, and humans are a part of biological nature.
We acquired big brains because at the time it suited the genes. Very little in the structure of those brains has altered in 3,000 generations. But there have been changes in how we use the potential inherent in those brains, changes which depend less on biology than they do on culture. The changes are independent of the gene in the sense that those acquired during one generation can now be passed on to the next and that is a very different kind of gene.
Rupert Sheldrake, a British botanist who understand natural selection as well as anyone, but who has had the courage to suggest that the creative leaps which provide new adaptations for natural selection to work on may not be accidental at all. He maintains that patterns he calls ‘Morphic fields’ link all life, providing a pool not of genes but of successful habits that, through repetition become more and more likely to appear ‘by chance’. Once something has happened, it can happen again far more easily. This creative field can leap, not just from individual to individual, but from species to species across gaps of both space and time. They pass not just from ancestor to ancestor to their descendants, but also more sideways from one group of organisms to another, even in those of different continents. (numerous examples follow).
I tend to agree with Sheldrake that something else is at work here in producing what he calls ‘evolutionary Plagiarism’. Darwin gave us a process of continuing organic creativity, a living breathing idea. Sheldrake adds to that by making the idea universal. He sees Morphic fields as applying to species as well as individuals, to whole ecosystems; even perhaps to galactic systems. It is possible, he says, that memory is inherent in all nature. Study the migration of birds and animals to their ancestral feeding grounds, a kind of social memory gets passed down from generation to generation. This is cultural inheritance, which has nothing to do with the genes, though it may serve the purpose by enhancing chances of survival.
Culture is in effect, an organism taking a variety of forms, which compete against each other and change and evolve through the medium of their units of inheritance, ‘ the memes’. These appear to pass from mind to mind, spreading contagion of rumour, crazes, fashions, creating short mobs, longer lasting crowds and very long lived social and religious movements. They get embedded in us. Messages too in our case, from a million years old ancestor.
Sheddrake thinks each species stores its own collective memory in appropriate Morphic fields which are drawn from the actual forms of previous similar organisms, and which help share the nature of future members of the species.
Culture is inherited or replicated through myth and ritual, but there is nothing that allows or can explain the creation and origin of completely new ideas. That requires a sort of cultural mutation with someone like Darwin or Sheldrake acting as the mutagenic agent. Animals too get new ideas, setting up fully fledged cultural memes that now exist as established patterns of behaviours.
Morphic fields provide for the transmission of non-genetic information, even over long distances and across barriers of time. Our species can transmit such information by direct cultural contact alone. We have, to an extent, liberated ourselves from strict genetic control and put a rival pattern of inheritance in play. This takes the battle right to the enemy and the enemy is natural selection. Natural selection is the font of all that is just right and awesomely beautiful in nature, but it is also morally and ethically unsound.
Charity doesn’t come easily to us. It is the result of deliberate choice, of a conscious decision to revolt against the tyranny of the genes. We do not find our ethical premises in our biological nature.
We choose them and it is an act of choice, a decision against nature that has set a brand new feisty cat among our moral pigeons.
The roots of all we now regard as evil lie very firmly in the camp, and in the action of natural selection.
Cultural evolution is very much like genetic evolution in that progress can be traced by the effects each has on individuals who receive them. Memes rise and fall in a population exactly as genes do, spreading an environment that is favourable or slipping into extinction e.g. new music, new foods, new fashions, new faiths succeed or fall on their merits.
History, even in this century, has confronted us squarely with our own demonic capacities. We are the products, for good or evil, or our biological evolution. Nature is what we are put in the world to rise above. Rwanda and similar tragedies are evidence that the demons are not just among us. They are us. In a very real sense we are moral creatures in an immoral world. The business of having a knowledge of good and evil isn’t easy. Ordinary sorts of people have contributed to extra ordinary evil, creating major horrors. We happen to be products of natural selection, of genes that are essentially selfish. This system has produced everything in us, both good and evil. It is up to us to provide moral qualities, to give life on earth a conscience. We are the world’s first ethical animals, at mercy still of our biology, but capable of rising above it. The choice is ours. The capacity to choose is what makes us special. I am an old fashioned naturalist, a beach-comber. Watson.