:::this is the way the world ends:::

Reviving a Dead Horse and Kidder Quotes

With the HP fervor going around, perhaps there is no one out there to read this anyway. I have been haunted by a few things from a discussion we had on this blog months ago now, especially after reading Mountains Beyond Mountains. The first was Peters statement that everyting we do, we do to serve our own needs, and the second was Liz’s statement that we are basically selfish. In all fairness, I’m not exactly sure what Liz means with her statement. Finally, J.E.’s statement that genocide and benevolence are both evolutionary means to advance a group.

The thing that has made me uncomfortable about Peters statement is that it seems that every action can be defended as serving a need.

The thing that I have been wrestling over with Liz’s statement is that it can be taken to imply a sort of determinism that denies freewill, which I’m not sure I’m ready to give up yet.

J.E.’s statement may explain why I would make sacrifices for friends and family, but it explains nothing about a character such as Mother Teresa, Paul Farmer, or Simone Veil. I also think that IF genocide can be argued as an evolutionary process, I would in turn then suggest that evolutionary processes, at such times, should be resisted. This thinking is what led some of the Nazi ideas of Eugenics to take hold in the United States during the forties.

I want to make myself clear. This is in no way to be seen as an attempt to convince anyone of anything. It is merely my attempt to try to understand things more fully.

At any rate, I’ll be dipping into the Moral Animal after the Berger book. My sister Kathleen heard Dawkins speak at K.U. a while back and we had a good discussion about his book, I think it’s called The Selfish Gene. I have not read it, but may yet. Though admittedly, I have other things to do.

I feel that Paul Farmer has had thoughts about these kinds of things from quotes of his in the Kidder book. I originally said I wasn’t going to quote the blasted book, but who am I kidding. No one is planning on reading the book any time soon and no one responded to Farmer’s article I posted a link to a while back. So here’s the quotes.

“‘If you’re making sacrifices, unless you’re automatically following some rule, it stands to reason that you’re trying to lessen some psychic discomfort. So, for example, if I took steps to be a doctor for those who don’t have medical care, it could be regarded as a sacrifice, but it could also be regarded as a way to deal with ambivalence.’ He went on, and his voice changed a little. He didn’t bristle, but his tone had an edge: ‘I feel ambivalent about selling my services in a world where some can’t afford to buy them. You CAN feel ambivalent about that, because you should feel ambivalent. COMMA.’

This was for me one of the first of many encounters with Farmer’s use of the word COMMA, placed at the end of a sentence. It stood for the word that would follow the comma, which was asshole. I understood he wasn’t calling me one – he would never do that; he was almost invariably courteous. Comma was always directed at third parties, at those who felt comfortable with the current distrubution of money and medicine in the world. And the implication, of course, was that you weren’t one of those. Were you?”

And then this, perhaps most challenging from Farmer:

“‘When others write about people who live on the edge, who challenge their comfortable lives – as it has happened to me – they usually do it in a way that allows the reader a way out. You could render generosity into pathology, commitment into obsession.That’s all in the repertory of someone who wants to put the reader at ease rather than conveying the truth in a compelling manner.'”


  1. J.E.

    Actually I did just finish Book 7 (which did not disappoint). I’m delighted to see these issues rekindled here.

    However, I must admit that I’m responding more to let you know that I care deeply about these issues than to continue the debate. I seriously doubt we can have a very productive conversation until we all understand evolution in the same way. Nonetheless, here are some brief thoughts:

    I unfortunately used the misleading word “advance” to indicate how certain adaptations, whether they be instinctual behaviors or physical traits, can advance into the next generation by sexual selection. Not to support the commonly held misconception that evolution has the goal of producing a better race or superior species of anything. Alas, the theory of evolution is not something that you can adequately explain in the reply section of a blog.

    It seems clear to me after reading the newspaper in the morning that as a species we have an instinct to kill one another. However, as species with unique abilities to control our behavior (free will?) we would do well to resist those murderous instincts just as those of us who are no longer hunter/gatherers would do well to master our instinct to stuff ourselves with fat and sugar.

  2. Ned

    I’m curious what gives you the idea that we have a different understanding of evolution. Though we may; I don’t know. I admit the suggestion that evolution needs to be “explained” has a bit of a stinger on it.

    I’m fine to leave this conversation until I have finished The Moral Animal, as I know everyone has a lot on their minds.

  3. Ned

    One other thing that I failed to comment on in the last entry was that earlier, when we discussed compassion, being in or out of the “natural order” of things. I think we confused what “natural order” meant. I think you interpretted it to mean, nature itself, or the order of nature, which would then include everything – compassion, yes, but also genocide, child abuse, and reality television.

    What I was asserting when I posted the Weil and Berger quotes earlier was that compassion is often not out first tendency or response to a situation, and therefore, we must sometimes have patience and even resist certain tendencies (or what I was thinking of as the natural order, the way things tend to go) to exhibit this behavior. I was not implying that compassion only came from heaven like mana.

    As far as all coming to understand evolution the same way, there’s a lot to understand and I certainly don’t understand all of it. Most of my knowledge on evolutionary theories comes from Stephen J Gould, who I must admit a bias for over others like E. O . Wilson. I read the Mismeasure of Man while in NY and just parts of his massive Structure book, as well as some essays on art, culture, religion, and evolution. I was quite sadened by his death. I know some of his theories, such as punctuated equilibrium are still under dispute, but I have a feeling this is not what you think we need to come to an understanding on.

    I haven’t read E.O. Wilson but have heard him on NPR several times and have a lot of respect for him.

    I’m glad to hear the Harry Potter did not disappoint. I’ll be interested to hear everyone weigh in.

  4. Pete

    Ned- I appreciate the candor and the pursuit of this question. I do feel, however, that I have not made the viewpoint clear in the way that it was intended as a result of my intentional attempt at sensationalizing the statement. I think we may be applying a judgement or value to the statement or concept as a result which is far afeild of what the notion was really about. If compassion is a normal state of being for humans when all their basic needs are met (a great evolvement because these bonds are necessary for survival as we truly are a communal animal)then we act out of a need to preserve ourselves, find meaning or value in what we do, and to live in accordance with our understanding of a higher power or spiritual nature. I don’t know how else to describe what I am saying and am sure the fault is mine for not better conveying the concept.

    By the way HP 7 was very satisfying. Didn’t expect Snape to kill Hermione in the 2nd chapter though….just kidding. I think it ended as it needed to.

  5. J.E.

    I haven’t read much of Wilson either. Dawkins “The Selfish Gene” is good and of course who doesn’t love Gould. Wilson and Dawkins style can be rather abrasive and pompous but Gould always seemed more down to earth to me. I know that Gould and Dawkins often butted heads. Perhaps a portion of that was a personality conflict.

    I’ve been meaning to read Wilson for a while so that I could read Berry’s “Life is a Miracle” which seems to be a rebuttal of “Conciliance.”

    Ned, while you are reading “The Moral Animal” it seems like I should read a book that will better help me understand your position. What book can you suggest?

    (One bit of trivia on Dawkins which I can’t help but relay here: Dawkins is married to Lala Ward, who played Romana on Dr. Who and was married to Tom Baker (Doctor Who #4) for a short time. Ward and Dawkins were introduced by a mutual friend, Douglas Adams.)

  6. Ned

    Now that this seems to have taken a productive turn, let me open myself up to be completely honest.

    Part of my frsutration with the previous discussion and the beginning of this one is that I felt (whether real or simply inferred incorrectly on my part) that behind your comments lurked the notion that I had some negative view toward the theory of evolution.

    This, of course, is not the case. I could no more feel negative about evoultion than I could about gravity. They are parts of why we are here in the manner in which we are here.

    That said, I have a difficulties making a leap when people attempt to derive moral codes from evolutionary science. Gould has a significant problem with this and states as much in his Structure of Evolutionary Theory, which I mentioned I have read only parts of – his opposition to the “Might is Right” derivation of evolution, which is what you were objecting too as well in your recent email. However, this is not what I understood you to be saying earlier. Gould is skeptical and avoids putting things in boxes, which is why I like his writing. His refutation of the IQ system was, to me, revealing.

    Many critics of Farmer’s have argued that trying to fight TB and AIDS and Malaria in areas of the world where conditions of poverty are such that they foster these diseases is irresponsible because it often creates drug resistant versions of these diseases which, some say, will never be wiped out in these areas. I think this is an example where we have to extract a moral clarity from an intuitive source. Farmer is asked in Mountains Beyond Mountains why, as one of the world’s leading experts on drug-resistant TB and Aids, he spends eight hours trekking through the mountains of Haiti to check and see if one of the rural farmers has continued to take his TB regiment. His answer is utterly simple and deceptively philosphically challenging. He replies, “Because he was sick.” Within this comment is implied one of the themes of the book. There is no nation but humanity. That that rural farmer is as important as a sick American in Boston (where Farmer also works three months of the year). Farmer truly believes that freedom from diseases that have cures or medicines should not be a privelege of the wealthy nations, but a human right.

    In a great article in the now defunct magazine Civilization. Gould argued against some of his Harvard colleagues promoting materialism arguing that that the sum is not equal to the parts. I won’t try to make his argument here (I can’t) but he used math and music as a metaphor to explain that the math systems behind a piece of music by Handel do not effect his emotions when applied to another medium, but as music it stirs his feelings. The single chromosome mutation that gave humans the ability to vocalize and create language can not be taken away to make a human being back into a chimp. Thus, suggesting that the evolution of humans is an extremely complex change with mulitple factors, some of which we have yet to plumb. Francis Collins book also showed me that though we begin to understand much about humans through the study and defining of genomes, we open up hundereds of more questions. Thus, the beauty of life. I have Gould’s Punctuated Equilibrium book and I want to get to it soon. It is actually a portion of his massive Structure book. Of course, the Moral Animal is nearly five hundered pages. So you may hear nothing from me for some time on this.

    Thanks for having the patience to bear this out. I feel that we actually have come closer to understanding each other through this, though complete understanding is admittedly not likely to be possible.

    I haven’t read the Berry book or the Wilson book, though he spoke about Conciliance a lot on the NPR programs I heard, but not enough for me to feel I understand the full implications.

    As far as reading a book from my suggestion. I don’t think it is necessary, but I can think about it. If you’ve read Gould, you probably appreciate how I side with his openness.

    I will say that Mountains Beyond Mountains has continually come back to me.

  7. J.E.

    Short reply — I’m in Tucson with family.

    It would be foolish indeed to use scientific methods to determine morality. I feel strongly that if we are to have a future worth living for we need to understand our cognitive strengths and limitations. I look to science and the theory of evolution in particular not to prescribe human behavior but to describe it.

    I’ll be reading Mountains Beyond Mountains soon.

  8. Ned

    Thanks for this reply, J.E. Though, your statement about description versus prescription is unnecessary. I imagined this to be your position since I have already gleaned that from the Moral Animal since this is something that he touches on early in the book.

    I agree that we should to try to do what’s right while also trying to understand the forces that make us tick.

    I finished King by Berger yesterday and delved into Wright. Berger, in his own way, has a lot to say about those human tendencies.

    It’s an appreciated gesture for you to read Mountains Beyond Mountains; though I only wish I could say it describes my position. It challenges my position as much as anything, or at least how I choose to lead my life…

  9. J.E.

    For those of you who don’t have time to read The Moral Animal, here is a link to the first chapter of Frans de Waal’s book, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. I have only skimmed this but it seems to give a very good introduction to the subject of scientific understanding of our moral instincts.

  10. Ned

    Damnit J.E. another book for my list. Stop it already…

    I found the article to have some very interesting ideas which I would like to discuss, but at a later date… the Westermarck, the Smith quote, even the comment on Dawkins, good reading.

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