I just had a letter from Mary Kenny which seems to illustrate perfectly the gap between evolutionary and cultural explanations of human benevolence. She’s an old friend, and a thoroughly decent person, so I like arguing with her because I know her heart is as pure as her reasoning is sometimes tangled. Anyway, she read my Gintis piece in Saturday’s Guardian and wrote back as follows:
Andrew dear since you took me to task about faith and evolution, let me respond to you about Norway: there is a hateful side to this Scandinavian ³openness²: enforced levelling which comes under the pharisaical heading of ³equality² (you are not even allowed to have a personal tombstone in a graveyard it has to be chosen by the local authority, who oversees that they are all the exact same height), and what amounts to state control of private life (the Government knows exactly how much you drink). It is all bound up with their particular type of Calvinism. Not that there isn¹t a genial side to the Norwegians I know there is (and they seem to take great pride in telling you that they are, fundamentally, much nicer than those stuck-up Swedes): but give me a bit of privacy, and personal quirkiness in my private life, please. I¹d much rather see people fight to minimise their taxes, in an (evolutionary?) tussle with the State – and retain their individuality.
If my ancestors were kind and charitable (and many of them were), it was because they believed their reward would be in heaven. And I notice among the yobs of East Kent, and there are many, those who have no such belief are very noticeably unkind and uncharitable, as described in the latest Lynne Truss oeuvre…Love, Mary
So I wrote back. I want to write more and more thoughtfully about this, but my first reactions are below the fold, as a place-holder …
The two immediate points I’d make are (1) that you’ve got the timescale wrong for this sort of argument. Believing in Heaven is a cultural thing, and few of your ancestors can have done it for more than 1000 years. There aren’t genes for theological belief. I don’t mean to dispute that your ancestors were kind and charitable, nor that they believed their reward would be in heaven and that they they’d have connected the two. What’s interesting is how you get to the sort of animal to whom that is a plausible, even a possible, reason for behaving, and that’s what Gintis is trying to explain. which is why he wanted a timescale of roughly 90,000 years.
(2) I’m enough Swedish to know that Calvinism can be horrible (and, of course, that the Norwegians are Much Worse than the Swedes). But I think it does exaggerate, almost as science fiction might, some of the tendencies that make it possible for us to live in co-operative groups. Among these are adherence to community standards, The yobs of East Kent will be very conventional in their yobbery. The members of each pack will stick to the rules. It’s just that their standards are depraved.