“Man is a rational animal.” – Aristotle
“Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.” – Robert Heinlein
I recently read an article by Jamie Hale titled, “Are We Rational Animals?” To summarize the short article, Hale writes that there is growing evidence to support the idea that we are not the rational animals we think we are. This has been obvious to me for some time, but been on my mind a lot lately, especially after defending Abercrombie & Fitch’s Mike Jefferies in a blog a few months ago and the emotional vitriol against me that followed. Even in my last blog, I took so-called rational atheists to task for not being as rational as they pretend to be. And, if I take myself as an example, I’ll unabashedly tell you I can be as irrational as rational on any given day. Certainly, I don’t want to be irrational, beholden to the potentially negative effects of my capricious emotions, ever. It can’t be helped sometimes, though.
If it is true that we are not the rational animals we think we are, if we think and act more irrationally than rationally, why? Is our incredible capacity for reasoning not as incredible as we think we it is? We can tell ourselves that we indeed have an incredible capacity for reasoning, but is it rational to say so or are we rationalizing the assertion to inflate our egos? With these thoughts in the back of my rational mind, I re-read something that made me suspect that ever since Aristotle’s claim about man being a rational animal, we’ve all been going about philosophy the wrong way. That is, so few problems in philosophy have been solved due to the prevailing top-down approach, an approach that begins from the premise that man is indeed a rational animal and that any one person is egotistical enough to think they alone have figured something out. This approach is why no one can come up with a convincing argument for or against, say, abortion, that convinces everyone.
So, I was reading The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick in which he begins taking about the early days of genetic theory and some innovative remarks Richard Dawkins made about genes at the time (which can be found in Dawkin’s book, The Selfish Gene). Dawkins basically said that we do not use our genes; our genes use us. Genes are essentially programmed to get themselves (or the genes in its group) into the next generation and it doesn’t matter how; genes aren’t conscious of what they’re doing, they are just trying to replicate. Dawkins said that if you consider this, it begins to explain many types of behavior that we observe. It explains tribalism, violence, rape, and even self-sacrifice. It explains why we tend to honor the unspoken Social Contract and trust people without any grounds for doing so. It explains why I, someone with no desire to have children, wants to contribute something lasting (an idea perhaps) to the human race. I really do try to ignore this feeling, but I am nonetheless compelled by something other than reason. The mission of genes explains why we – all of us – are more irrational than rational.
Left to nature alone with no nurturing to tame it, the mission of genes readily sees population growth go unchecked. When genes are allowed to run rampant, the effect in the animal kingdom is seen when an animal overpopulates its environment and exceeds the land’s capacity to sustain them. To take an example we as humans can identify with, we used to be haunted (now we’re just jaded) by pictures of starving children in Third World countries where there isn’t enough food being grown locally to feed them while there is little or no education to curb population growth. Starving children are considered a problem and the underlying cause is genes running amuck – it’s an irrational situation. Solving the problem hasn’t worked in the traditional ways; politics tend to obstruct aid for…irrational reasons, I’m sure. Meanwhile philosophers tell us what we should do and then don’t act on their convictions. My point is, in doing philosophy, no one (that I know of) is considering our genes as the actual starting point for solving such a problem. If it is the purpose of our genes to get themselves into the next generation and we are simply the vehicles to get genes where they are going, might this be a place from which to start doing philosophy? One reason to even do philosophy is to tame our genes so that we don’t have to see something like children starving. (We also do philosophy that leads to science, which makes products that placates our genes’ need for certain comforts.)
Let’s return to the issue of abortion and begin from the premise that our genes are trying to get into the next generation and we are compelled by our nature to get them there. On the face of it, considering the needs of our genes alone, abortion should not be permissible. Now other factors in the argument for or against abortion can be considered. Should anyone but a pregnant woman have a say in what happens to her potential baby? That may depend on the needs of the group or society that is otherwise going to support her baby, whether through her job, family support, or some other way, what have you. (Of course, how large a group or society should be to have any say, if they have any say, is open to debate; based upon the needs of our genes, of course.) What about a woman that becomes pregnant due to a rape; should she be made to carry a fetus to term? That may depend upon how far into the future a group or society wants a gene prone to such violence to propagate*. See how now we can ask which genes should and should not be allowed to propagate. If we allow all genes to go forward, anything becomes permissible and no philosophy or argument for or against something like abortion will ever do for everyone. Or we can select for some traits in an attempt to subvert others and construct some guidelines for what should be done (taking into account any number of auxiliary circumstances) when a woman becomes pregnant. I’m not saying an issue like abortion isn’t complex, but we cannot debate such an issue if our starting point is whatever position you’ve already taken on the issue. That’s the top-down approach which in any given group or society ultimately kowtows to mob mentality. Mob mentality should never do for a species that considers itself rational.
(* This is assuming there is a genetic explanation or component to rape. I’m sure that on occasion something as horrible as rape it is due to a prevailing culture, but I believe cultures are ultimately the expressions of genes. Culture have to be since without people, there are no cultures.)
We can't do anything to curb being irrational until we admit how irrational we are and why. It's sort of like admitting you're an alcoholic before you can stop yourself. Recognizing what role genes play in our lives - sorry, the other way 'round - can be as much a starting place for philosophy as any other, so why not try it out since all the other starting points have pretty much failed?
Since this idea is new to me (and probably even weirder to you) I haven’t yet taken the time to consider to just what extent approaching philosophy in this manner is useful, if at all. If it fails, it fails. No biggie. But, like rational atheists who think a world run by people like themselves would be better than it is now simply because they couldn’t do any worse than the people who have traditionally run the world, I don’t see how this possible new approach to philosophy could do worse than how Western philosophy has played out so far. Not that it’s been all bad…