Beyond Evolution: Human Nature and the Limits of Evolutionary Explanation
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In this controversial book O'Hear takes a stand against the fashion for explaining human behavior in terms of evolution. He contends that while the theory of evolution is successful in explaining the development of the natural world in general, it is of limited value when applied to the human world. Because of our reflectiveness and our rationality we take on goals and ideals which cannot be justified in terms of survival-promotion or reproductive advantage. O'Hear examines the nature of human self-consciousness, and argues that evolutionary theory cannot give a satisfactory account of such distinctive facets of human life as the quest for knowledge, moral sense, and the appreciation of beauty; in these we transcend our biological origins. It is our rationality that allows each of us to go beyond not only our biological but also our cultural inheritance: as the author says in the Preface, "we are prisoners neither of our genes nor of the ideas we encounter as we each make our personal and individual way through life."
contingency of our practices. From the point of view of his questioning, the sceptic demonstrates the infirmity of reason, but in so doing, he also demonstrates its ability to step outside the particular content of any given set of beliefs or practices, and to assume the role of transcendent judge. It is, of course, our nature as self-conscious, reflective agents which enables us to assume this role. But when we reach the limits of our beliefs or practices it is not a role we can do anything
epistemological assurance. (Remember that the theory of evolution is as much about lack of fit, as much about bodging and the exploitation of random coincidences of organism and world as about superintelligent design.) What I now want to suggest is that we need not draw such negative conclusions from evolution, but before doing this I need to clarify just what follows from the anti-justificationist reasoning of the last chapter. That argument, it will be remembered, was directed against Lorenz's
in its full and multifarious concreteness, particularity, and instability. And then again, there can be no a priori presumption that there has to be an account of the world on which all observers, from whatever vantage point and with whatever sensory apparatus, can agree. In a way the problems associated with the interpretation of quantum mechanics serve simply to underline this point. The comparatively unproblematic parts of quantum theory are the empirical predictions at the level 92
in knowledge and power. A restriction of moral sensibility and moral concern to historical limits is bound to seem arbitrary and irrational, as indeed it will be. We 174 Morality and Politics can neither justify an attitude of complete indifference to the sufferings of others, however distant in space or culture, nor can such an indifference be maintained without a coarsening of our moral sensibility to those closer at home. On the other hand, if a stress on principle leads, as it may, to a
about the same time as the first amphibia? What, in any case, is the significance of talk of vast tracts of time in the absence of creatures who can plan, reflect on what they are doing, and come to an awareness of the passing of time, and hence of tasks accomplished fast or slowly? What is more significant than the mere passage of time, whether this is long or short, are the transitions in emphasis in human culture from activities which are directed to survival and reproduction to those which