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Do we have a soul?

Published on 18 July 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

(Darwin and diplomacy)

Many have been told in their youth that God zapped the soul into one’s body – the “spiritual essence” that makes one human (we messed it all up by committing original sin, but that’s another, over-gloomy, story). The analogy is a “homunculus” – a little person within our person – who is responsible for all the ill and good that comes from us; as the trumpets of the End of Times resonate across the universe it will stand in final judgment. Descartes thought this “homunculus” would be found in the pineal gland[1]. Well, he was wrong. Ever since, the search for the “seat” of the soul has been on. It is not surprising that Darwin too was interested in the question. How he approached the matter, and the way diplomacy played a role therein, is an amusing moment in the advance of human knowledge. “Having one’s face blush for social reasons is unique to humans, and Darwin was interested in knowing whether morally based, shameful blushing was something that certain groups did because their local cultures led them in that direction or whether there might be a strong hereditary component.” Blushing is totally involuntary and can’t be suppressed, so it is a good candidate for being genetically transmitted. “Darwin initiated the first systematic research across cultures by writing to colonial administrators and missionaries all over the world to ask them whether indigenous people in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere blushed with shame.” I can visualize the bemused administrator or diplomat reading Darwin’s letter and, fearful of slighting the great man, calling in a servant to see if he/she blushed. “Indigenous people everywhere did seem to blush with shame. (…) It appeared that “as an important aspect of our conscientious moral sense, human shame reactions surely had to have an innate basis.”[2] Without entering now into a discussion as to whether this “conscientious moral sense” is the part or the whole of our soul, what seems to occur is that we have a genetically based disposition to “internalize” social rules: we “form emotional connections with the rules, so that we feel fine about following them and uneasy about breaking them.” (p. 28) The “uneasiness” is reflexive and instinctive. It may be overridden by other instincts, and willful transgression occurs – particularly if there is a good chance of getting away with it. We have within us a two level structure: the genetically based “disposition” – I’d call it an enabler – allows for the individual to absorb social rules through cultural processes of learning. Whatever its ultimate role in consciousness, I find this interplay between genetics and culture fascinating. It is analogous, by the way, to the approach of genetics in driving evolution: a “tool kit” of genes tells subordinate modules of genes to develop, and how to. Development is structured and layered, not rhyzomic[3]. Much of the discussion since Darwin centered on the question of how social selection could emerge within a “selfish” Darwinian framework. This question to me is overblown – it reflects in part our cultural fixation with individualism. BOEHM’s answer is quite intriguing. Social (group) selection works against free-riding and selfishness: the group will punish non-cooperative behavior, if needed by excluding the culprit, and denying him reproductive rights. Over time – not even too much time[4] – the genes for selfishness get filtered out. Well, this is an over-brief summary, the rest of the 350 pages is devoted to proving the point. As a social group we seem to be subconsciously socially selecting for collaboration, and against selfishness and free-rider behavior. Moral preaching and, foremost, moralizing gossip, are the tools. It does put a hopeful twist to the human condition – does it not? And think of it, diplomacy first put us on the path of knowledge by collecting data about blushing. I blush. (And next time someone sneers about cocktail gossip just answer haughtily: “We are doing social group selection. The future of humanity depends on it.”)

[2] Christpoher BOEHM (2012): Moral origins. The evolution of virtue, altruism, and shame. Basic Books. New York, p. 14
[3] See eg. See eg.: Marc W. KIRSCHNER, John C. GERHART (2006): The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma or Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo). Yale University Press, New Haven; Sean B. CARROLL (2006): Endless forms most beautiful. The new science of evo devo. Norton, New York
[4] The selection coefficient (s) is the incremental difference in relative reproductive success and survival between individuals with A and B . If A has 100 offspring and B 101, then B has an s of +.01. A dominant gene with an initial population of 8 in 1000 and an s of +.01 would reach 900/1000 in 3000 generations. For humans this is 90’000 years.

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