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Robert Wright on Darwinism and Free Will

In his book The Moral Animal, evolutionary psychology proponent Robert Wright explains how Darwinian biology undermines traditional beliefs in free will and personal responsibility. Wright notes that Darwin himself understood the basic problem his theory posed for free will, but new scientific findings have gone far beyond Darwin:

 Darwin doesn’t seem to have suspected what the new Darwinism suggests: that… the ‘delusion about free will’ may be an adaptation. Still, he got the basic idea: free will is an illusion, brought to us by evolution. All the things we are commonly blamed or praised for—ranging from murder to theft to Darwin’s eminently Victorian politeness—are the result not of choices made by some immaterial “I” but of physical necessity… Here Darwin has unearthed the most humane scientific insight of all—and, at the same time, one of the most dangerous.

Darwin… saw that determinism, by eroding blame, threatens society’s moral fiber. (p. 350)

According to Wright, the discoveries of genetics and neurochemistry are increasingly giving people the picture that “we are all machines, pushed and pulled by forces that we can’t discern but that science can.” (p. 351) Although this picture of reality springs from biology in general, not Darwinism, “Darwinism will increasingly frame this picture and give it narrative force” because natural selection provides a compelling explanation for why we are programmed to do what we do.

And what is that explanation? Wright argues that according to Darwinism, human behavior is largely controlled by selfish genes seeking to replicate themselves:

Emotions are just evolution’s executioners. Beneath all the thoughts and feelings and temperamental differences that marriage counselors spend their time sensitively assessing are the stratagems of the genes—cold, hard equations composed of simple variables. (p. 88)

Genetic control of human behavior is so all-encompassing according to Wright that “in many realms” human beings are “all puppets”:

Understanding the often unconscious nature of genetic control is the first step toward understanding that—in many realms, not just sex—we’re all puppets, and our best hope for even partial liberation is to try to decipher the logic of the puppeteer. The full scope of the logic will take some time to explain, but I don’t think I’m spoiling the end of the movie by noting here that the puppeteer seems to have exactly zero regard for the happiness of the puppets. (p. 37)

Wright does imply that human beings may be able to liberate themselves from their genes—at least in part. However, if free will truly is “an illusion,” how human beings are supposed to do this remains unclear.

Discovery Institute

Discovery Institute promotes thoughtful analysis and effective action on local, regional, national and international issues. The Institute is home to an inter-disciplinary community of scholars and policy advocates dedicated to the reinvigoration of traditional Western principles and institutions and the worldview from which they issued.