The fittest conscience: new take on evolution

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Suppose you were on a prime-time quiz show and were asked: "What did Charles Darwin see as the prime motivating force in human evolution? (1) survival of the fittest, (2) natural selection, (3) the 'selfish gene,' (4) the moral sense."

Most likely you wouldn't make it to No. 4 before pushing the button. But alas, your run would end there, because the answer is "the moral sense," according to a rather astonishing and provocative new book by psychologist, system scientist, and evolution theorist David Loye.

In "Darwin's Lost Theory of Love," written after a decade of research into evolutionary theory and scientific foundations for morality, Dr. Loye presents the dramatic story of the pioneer scientist seeking to pull together near the end of his life his ideas on the "second half" or "completion" of his theory of evolution.

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Here the concern is human evolution, which Darwin explored in "The Descent of Man," a dense book Loye says has been largely ignored over the past 100 years. His monumental "The Origin of Darwin speaks of 'an ennobling belief in God' as important for human evolution.

Species" focuses on pre-human evolution, and undergirds all subsequent evolutionary theory.

Delving deeply into "Descent," Loye finds Darwin not only exploring the origins of morality and conscience but reaching the conclusion that in human evolution, they are "by far the most important." Darwin says he "perhaps attributed too much to the action of natural selection or survival of the fittest."

For Loye the discovery is galvanizing because it provides hope for developing a more complete and useful theory of evolution for the 21st century, one that goes beyond the neo-Darwinist focus on selfishness as the driving force of human nature and provides a scientific grounding for moral action. It opens the way, he adds, to drawing a link between science and spirituality. "Here is the granddaddy of them all, confirming that what your heart tells you is right is really right," Loye says in an interview. "Darwin is saying: Yes, we're selfish, but there is also this other motivation system, this other thrust that is oriented to others and to doing good for others."

Biology and morality

From his observations of the animal and human worlds, Darwin sees the "social instincts," rooted in biology, as the foundation of morality. Loye details Darwin's perceptions of the development of sympathy and caring, use of language and reasoning about experience, community influence and the power of habit, the capacity for choice, and the moral qualities leading to what we call the golden rule, which appears in almost all cultures.

Although an agnostic, Loye says, Darwin speaks of "an ennobling belief in God" as important for human evolution. Darwin specifically denies that "the foundation of the most noble part of our nature" lies "in the base principle of selfishness."

This flies in the face of the prevailing evolution paradigm, however, a form of neo-Darwinism in which sociobiologists are vigorously pushing the idea that even altruism must be understood as motivated strictly by selfishness. Loye's book will not win any plaudits from that camp.

"The sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists will probably hate it," says Bruce Weber, professor of biochemistry at California State University at Fullerton, who teaches a course covering the range of views on evolution. But "it will be well received by anyone familiar with systems theory, or trying to look at human action in an interdisciplinary framework."

Loye himself is part of a 15-year-old international scientific endeavor called the General Evolution Research Group (GERG), in which researchers from many disciplines are working toward a general evolution theory that would go beyond biology to find related concepts in many fields (i.e. psychology, politics, economics, technology, brain research).

This broad perspective on new directions in scientific research helped Loye find in Darwin intuitions far ahead of his time, he says. "The reason all this material has been overlooked for so long," Loye says, is first, the dominating influence of those pushing the "prevailing paradigm," and second, that Darwin "was seeing at a level science has only reached in the last part of the 20th century."

Dr. Weber - co-author with D.J. Depew of "Darwinism Evolving" - says it is also probably because Darwin's views weren't as fully formed and clearly presented as those in "Origin," or as they appear in Loye's book. He says historians of biology are likely to be bothered by the book, as he initially was, because Loye has pulled together ideas found scattered in Darwin's volume, and put some quotations into more modern idiom to make the book more readable.

But Weber says he then realized the process was one of "hermeneutic recovery." From the perspective of 20th-century science and a systems-science background, Loye is "putting Darwin's text in a new light, using a new interpretive principle ... pulling things together into a pattern that makes a lot of sense," Weber says.

This happens in religion and in science, he explains. "If you look at a passage in Isaiah within an Old Testament context, you give it one sort of interpretation. But if you look at it in the light of the New Testament, you get a very different interpretation. In the light of later knowledge ... suddenly you see a profound statement where before it seemed ordinary" or obscure.

Weber says that within the Darwinian fold, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge did a similar thing when they came up with "punctuated equilibrium" - the notion that evolution was not a very gradual process, but that the fossil record showed that change didn't occur for long periods and then new forms occurred within a short period. Criticized as un-Darwinian, they found in Darwin allowance for their theory.

"Right now, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are hot topics," Weber says, "and they are dealing with really important questions about what human nature is and what we are capable of. They have their own process of interpretation using a very particular kind of Darwinism.

"The importance of this book" he adds, is that "Loye is saying we can still have a Darwinian worldview but not be locked into the 'selfish gene' concept of [Richard] Dawkins. It gives a legitimate alternative within the Darwinian framework."

Correcting history of science

Some of Loye's colleagues in systems-science research say the work is very significant. Ervin Laszlo, founder of GERG and the Club of Budapest, says, "Everyone concerned with our understanding of evolution on this planet owes Loye a deep debt of gratitude." According to mathematician Ralph Abraham, a pioneer in chaos theory, "It corrects an oversight in the history of science which has swerved the modern world off its track." He calls the book "of urgent importance."

Loye, formerly on the faculty at Princeton University and UCLA Medical School, is a prolific and award-winning author. Yet he found editors skittish about publishing his new book, so he took it to the Internet publisher iUniverse. He likes the idea of it being accessible worldwide to break the stranglehold of neo-Darwinism and particularly its "social footprint."

Loye, whose current work focuses on "moral transformation theory," says social Darwinism and its successors pervaded 20th-century culture. Their concept of human nature gave us movies, television, novels, and computer games "full of a brutalizing diet of 'Darwinian' plots and characters." He suspects such concepts helped produce the deadliest wars in history.

The idea that life is meaningless, governed by blind chance in a random universe "has a horrible psychological effect on people," he adds. And that it doesn't ring true for millions of people is evident in the continuing battles over the teaching of evolution in American schools. "The creationists are totally wrong to reject the findings of evolution," Loye says, "but they are right in that their heart is saying that there is something wrong with the idea that life is directionless."

The beauty of this Darwin material, he adds, is that it says life does have direction, and that what moves evolution forward is love and education for moral sensitivity. It tells us that morality "is fundamental in all human beings, and we have to get serious about understanding what morality is, about identifying moral codes and living by them."

Loye hopes borderline creationists will find this material helps resolve the difficulty "by finding meaningfulness, not only in a scientific vision of the future, but in a vision that happens to match with what they feel is a legitimate spiritual vision."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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