It's probably apparent (at least I hope it is!) that all of the previous posts have been circling around an issue that undoubtedly needs a clear and unequivocal statement in its own right. In part, I think I have been avoiding providing such a statement, as it might seem unnecessarily crude for any of you who have not read the book whose existence is the prime organizing reason for my writing this blog. After writing the previous post, however, I don't see how I can avoid at least attempting a statement that sets all those previous posts in their essential overall context.
That context is of course the life and lives we are all living. The essential question all of us are attempting to answer, possibly much of the time without realizing it, is "How do I want to live my life?" (The implied underlying question––also frequently unacknowledged––is "What is a good life?") The point I am making is that for human beings, the central concern can always be summarized as a moral one. It is in fact the existence of moral concerns that could be considered a fundamental distinguishing characteristic of human beings. Although we can (and do) attribute moral values to other animals, we usually realize in our calmer moments that no other animals on earth are capable of the conceptual distinction between good and bad that is a requirement for "moral" choosing. Moral choice necessarily requires that conceptual distinction, and is thus apparently beyond the range of mental representations that are available to creatures other than ourselves.
The choosing that is characteristic of all other eukaryotic life forms (see below) has two major variants, depending on whether that form is organised around its efficiency for personal survival and that of its offspring, or around its conforming to the overall functioning of the group of which it may be seen as simply a necessary functioning unit. The latter kind have been defined as "superorganisms" in the biological literature, and the apparent individuals who comprise them are defined by their particular specialised functions, as, for example the "worker", "warrior", "caregiver" and "womb" forms that together constitute the identity of a particular termite "community."
Those distinctions may seem clear enough, but they only describe characteristics that can be seen as typical of two kinds of eukaryotic life; they are inadequate as descriptions of prokaryotic life forms (the bacteria and archea), but they are also inadequate for describing us.
It is this last distinction which needs a good deal more attention given to it, particularly since the pioneering work of Ernst Cassirer, Alfred North Whitehead, Susanne K. Langer and Kenneth Burke on human symbolic systems, and that of Carl R.Woese, Lynn Margulis and others on horizontal gene transfer, and its crucial significance for the very evolution of eukaryotic life.
In earlier posts I have commented on the shortcomings of attempts to absorb the implications of the work of Cassirer et al. into a post neo-Darwinist formulation of evolution. Those attempts unfortunately retain many of the erroneous assumptions about motive that Richard Dawkins was struggling to come to terms with––in my view unsuccessfully––in The Selfish Gene. Indeed, my last post commented in part on how motives themselves have been transformed over the course of evolution, and thus, of course, the very ways in which we are enabled or dis-enabled to take them into account.
It's probably been obvious, too, that all of us are faced with a fundamental dilemma––how to reconcile individual expression and fulfillment with the sometimes contrary needs of others of our own species. Unfortunately this is a dilemma that is frequently expressed rather in polarity and conflict between human beings than in cooperation and joint enterprise. The dilemma, or perhaps more significantly, our awareness of it, nevertheless also contains the means of its resolution.
The critical point we have reached in our own development, then, is that, while cooperation within eukaryotic life forms like ourselves is clearly essential for individual survival, lack of cooperation between us is justified by our attributing it to our genetic predisposition––that is, to our widespread preference for seeing others as competitors for survival rather than companions in furthering the fulfillment of our species.This can continue to occur only if we attach our identities rather to the very different groups with which we are affiliated, than to our common identity as human beings.
Our survival may depend on the degree to which we can step back from the polarizing assumptions rooted in Darwinian era competition, and use our shared existential experience to realize the moral potential of our ability to comprehend and take into account the different ways in which we discern meaning in our lives. Morality itself depends on the ability to comprehend not only the motives of others, but also their source. Morality, in short, derives from understanding that others have needs similar to our own, and that we thus may be resources to one another rather than antagonists. It also takes into account an understanding of the responsibility that is necessarily a component of the capacity to choose. The choices available to all other forms of eukaryotic life are determined by their genetic endowment. Ours are not.
Again, it bears saying that all of this is more lucidly argued in the book itself !
Cheers . . .
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