Michael Egnor

“At Last, the Truth About Love” is the subtiltle of Robert Wright’s recent essay “Why Darwinism isn’t Depressing” published on the New York Times Op-Ed page. Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of The Moral Animal, notes that neuroscience and evolution have left some people, well, downhearted.
He notes:

One commentator recently acknowledged the ascendance of the Darwinian paradigm with a sigh: “Evolution doesn’t really lead to anything outside itself.”

Wright reassures us:

Cheer up! Despair is a plausible response to news that our loftiest feelings boil down to genetic self-interest, but genetic self-interest actually turns out to be our salvation. The selfishness of our genes gave us the illuminating power of love and put us on the path to a kind of transcendence.

Wright asserts, in what has become the Darwinist version of the Nicene Creed (the not-so-Nicene Creed?):

Like it or not, we are survival machines. But survival machines are unfairly maligned. The name suggests, well, machines devoted to their survival. In truth, though, natural selection builds machines devoted ultimately to the survival of their genes, not themselves. Hence love.

He goes on to describe a Hallmark Card version of kin selection, but notes that some non-Darwinian sentimentalists might still object:

Feel manipulated? Don’t worry- we get the last laugh…Genes are just dopey little particles, devoid of consciousness. We, in contrast, can perceive the world. And how!! Thanks to love, we see beyond our selves and into the selves around us.

He credits our Darwin-evolved brains with empathy, which

…would never have gotten off the ground had love not emerged on this planet as a direct result of Darwinian logic…Transcending the arbitrary narrowness of our empathy isn’t guaranteed by nature. (Why do you think they call it transcendence?). But nature has given us the tools-not just the empathy, but the brains to figure out how evolution works, and thus to see that the narrowness is arbitrary.

But what is “Darwinian logic”? Just this: …MUST…COPY…SELF… Nothing else. If our brains evolved purely by the materialistic mechanism of natural selection, there are only three sources of our thoughts and emotions: selection for survival of our genes, or spandrels, which are accidental side-effects of true adaptation, or genetic drift, which is mere randomness. Only one of these mechanisms has any connection to reality — natural selection. The others are accidents, and they bear no relation to the truth around us.
So our purposeful acts are, and can only be, directed at replication of our genes. Love, however adorned, is merely …MUST…COPY…SELF. But then so is philosophy, so is essay writing, so is everything we do, including our efforts to understand everything we do. We’re just replicators.
Can we replicators transcend this darkness? Wright thinks we can. Using our evolved cognitive tools we can imagine that we can break out of …MUST…COPY…SELF… –yet our evolved tools can only purposefully be directed to replication. Our efforts to break out of being replicators must be themselves efforts to replicate, or be merely mistakes, unconnected to reality. By Darwinian logic, everything we do that’s connected to reality is a mating ritual. The effort to deny it is…a mating ritual. Darwinism itself is… a mating ritual. And the only way to feel better about all of this is to pretend that it’s not all a mating ritual. But… that’s a mating ritual!
What to make of this nonsense? Darwinism has given us second-rate science, lethal social policy (eugenics), and puerile philosophy. But Wright is right. Don’t be depressed. Just imagine that Darwinism isn’t true!
No wonder I’ve been feeling so cheery lately.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.