The Confusion of Success with the Meaning of Life
Some strains of Darwinian secularism are speckled throughout with signs of the mansions and vast estates of their most prominent promoters. Such appears to be the case with Matt Ridley’s philosophy, as presented in George Gilder’s review of his book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves:
Reason, to Ridley’s mind, impels us relentlessly forward and upward. Religion, on the other hand, he sees as a reactionary obstacle to growth, progress, and even morality. He cites, for example, the indignation of Israel’s prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, along with Homer, against the pride of the Phoenician traders as typical rants of reactionary traditionalists against the creators of wealth.
Instead — echoing his previous books on the evolution of virtue and the superiority of sexual reproduction to reduplicative cloning — Ridley maintains that moral codes naturally evolve from the rise of catallaxy. Cultures that reach out to immigrants and new ideas gain cultural and genetic innovation. As wealth grows, population growth relents; women instead release their energies into the marketplace.
Reason does not have a self-contained direction; it is dependent on circumstances. To those not living on the proceeds of best-selling books, reason alone may very well lead to the conclusion that the world is cold, unfair, and irrational, and life utterly pointless. Religion, in such circumstances, can reorder the individual’s sense of reason toward productive ends.
This is no linguistic nitpicking; it is a thematic problem with analyses such as Ridley’s. Reason is what allows humankind to take evolution into its own hands in ways broad and discrete, but it requires a larger principle to give it direction. The reference to “immigration and new ideas” is a perfect example: Such intermingling is only fruitful where it provides new perspective on existing principles, and the application of human reason must begin with an assessment of what is worth preserving and what is dangerously attractive. It supposes too much correspondence between cultural evolution and biological evolution to assume a parallel process of “good decisions” through trial and error judged by rates of survival.
As I’m able, I’m reading a book titled The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton, in which the author strives to argue that art is both something more than, say, the weaving of bird nests and something growing out of human evolution. So thoroughly dedicated to the principle of genetic development as a human determinant is Dutton that, in one passage, he gives the impression that he believes that it took a genetic mutation for mankind to cease jumping from cliffs. Those disinclined to such behavior survived, while the other perished. But surely it wouldn’t have taken too advanced a brain to notice a bloody lifeless pulp at the bottom of a high drop and to conclude that jumping would not be wise and, moreover, to warn others of that finding.
Such is the function of reason. Even so, a precondition of its application is the principle that it is better to live than to plummet to death. That brings us back to Gilder’s review:
That a secular-feminist society, feeding on hedonic incentives, can ultimately sustain a functional national defense capable of standing up to the Vandals and Goths of the 21st century is yet to be proven, but the portents are unpromising. Europe is dismantling its military, while the U.S. increasingly regards its own chiefly as an arena for sex-role gaming.
Cultural innovations may benefit individuals for a period of time, but what is supposed to set human beings apart is our ability to foresee pitfalls and to step around them and to carry non-biological lessons from the past that tell us which paths are likely to be perilous. We do so through mechanisms of religion and tradition.