Monday, July 21, 2008

Genetics Isn't Just for Fascists


I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of our audience members at tomorrow night’s panel discussion with women who’ve sold their eggs are somehow morally discomfited by the whole business without being able to explain why. It sometimes seems as though anything involving genetics or conscious alterations to biology has that effect on people (even on hip, urbane Manhattanites like the ones who may well have heard about the panel because TimeOut New York wrote about us).

I interviewed several prominent evolutionary psychology/sociobiology experts (with some help from one of tomorrow’s panelists, Diana Fleischman) years ago and one day yet really ought to publish the still-unused majority of the material somewhere, but one tiny passage from the material strikes me, years later, as capturing (in a very brief, cursory way) the fact that, all data aside, it is largely a matter of choice whether one sees the Darwinian universe as a brutal one in which only Nazis and velociraptors can excel or as the familiar world we know — with room in it for love and kindness and happiness. Here’s that two-paragraph bit from the old interview:

Biologist Robert Trivers at Rutgers says that perhaps his own greatest contribution to the field “was to show how cooperation and altruistic behavior find a ready home in evolutionary biology…[We] provided biology with a foundation for a sense of justice. So, instead of seeing our sense of fairness and justice as being just cultural artifacts, which might in principle disappear with a different upbringing, you saw that there was quite a biological substratum for why we feel that way.”

Trivers’ view of evolution is upbeat enough that he even incorporated Darwinian themes into a marriage ceremony he officiated in California for two biologists, noting how their love was the end product of billions of years of creatures seeking one another out, intermingling to create something new, and feeling devotion to their offspring and kin. He concluded with Darwin’s comment that “there is grandeur in this view of life.”

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