Friday, April 18, 2008

Ultimate rebellion

Can we rebel against our biology? Can we rebel against our very genes?

Let's take mating as one example. Arguably, the desire to mate is a powerful one, and one inevitably hardwired in our genes. The manifestation of this desire could be multiply realised, but the end result is often the same: the production of offspring.

And let's consider the dangers of overpopulation. Even within highly developed countries where birth rates have been dropping, each new child consumes more resources than several individuals in a developing country.

Yet, there is evidence that we can override our genes and change our behaviour, even in ways that are unnatural. Continuing the example of mating, we have contraception.

Contraception has often been cited as a crowning example of how we have overridden nature and overcome genetic compulsion. In fact, Richard Dawkins uses the example of contraception quite a few times in this context, such as in The Selfish Gene as well as in this interview with the evolutionist:

the evolutionist: So when you're saying we need to "rebel" against our selfish genes and thwart their schemes, what kinds of things do you have in mind?

Dawkins: Well, contraception for a start - a very concrete feat of rebellion...

And again in this interview on the BBC:
"There’s absolutely no logical problem with our wilfully contradicting the 'desires of the selfish genes', we do that every time we use a contraceptive."
Yet I think Dawkins has made a fairly basic but common error in using contraception as a case of us rebelling against our genes.

It appears to me as if Dawkins has mistaken proximate cause with ultimate cause.

The ultimate cause of mating may be the production of offspring. But that's not normally front-of-mind to people in the throes of passion. Instead, it's the passion that is front-of-mind.

It's this passion that is the proximate cause of mating; it's the attraction between two individuals, the emotional compulsion to, um, bond, etc.

In the case of contraception, we may have rebelled against the ultimate level, but have fallen head over heels for the proximate level. So we're actually pandering to our genetic compulsions by encouraging frequent, um, coupling.

A true example of rebelling against our genes might be total, life-long abstinence. But contraception is only a minor rebellion.

Contraception is like eating low fat food. We're conscious enough of the (ultimate) consequences of eating high fat food, but we still seek out (proximately) tasty food.

So it seems our genes are not so easy to rebel against after all.

Why is this important? If we're to rebel against aspects of our genes that are considered undesirable in modern society, we may have to do more than treat the ultimate causes. We may have to tackle the proximate head on.

One example might be our tendency to group people into 'us' and 'them' groups. Another might be status envy. Or we could consider the way we respond to some transgressions against us with retribution firmly in our hearts. These may all have a biological component.

It may not be enough to manage the ultimate - the consequences - without considering the proximate - the deontological or motivational level. I don't yet know to what extent this is the case, but we would do well not to muddle the two.


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