Nonfiction by Genre, Science

Review of The Human Instinct by Kenneth Miller

Image result for the human instinct kenneth millerIn 2000, biologist Randy Thornhill and anthropologist Craig Palmer offered an evolutionary explanation for the presence of rape in the human population. In their book titled A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, Thornhill and Palmer argued that rape was a direct product of natural selection; men who raped had a higher fitness than men who didn’t, so natural selection favored traits associated with rape.

As you can imagine, A Natural History of Rape received a firestorm of criticism from feminists and moralists alike. By offering an evolutionary explanation for rape, Thornhill and Palmer seemed to excuse rape. Furthermore, they suggested that rapists were the “winners” in the evolutionary arms race, producing more offspring than their non-rapist counterparts.

Despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution by natural selection, millions of Americans remain ardent Creationists. No amount of evidence can convince them otherwise.

In his forthcoming book The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will (April 2018), Kenneth Miller tries to unpack the reasons why evolution is rejected by so many people. Evolution deniers are concerned about the ontological and ethical consequences of modern scientific theory. Many are perfectly fine with the evolutionary history of fish, but they insist that humans were uniquely created by a loving God.

Today, evolutionary biology is applied not only to human anthropology but also to human psychology, social behavior, and even art. E.O. Wilson has applied his research on ant colonies to the understanding of human behavior. Others attribute our preference for landscape art to our evolutionary history as hominids living in the jungles of Africa.

But how much of the above is grounded in actual science? Quite a bit, actually. Miller cites numerous studies to show that while popular scientists often exaggerate what we can know about human behavior based on evolutionary biology, humans are just as much a product of evolution as other animals; humans and other animals share similar traits.

But these studies seem to undermine human dignity and to preference aggression and selfishness. Creationists consider evolutionary biology as a threat to human exceptionalism and everything that flows from such a lofty perspective on our species.

Full-blown Creationists are not the only ones concerned. While rejecting young earth Creationism as unscientific, Marilynne Robinson is critical of what she refers to as “Darwinism”. In her essay “The Death of Adam”, which I read last year, Robinson bemoans the apparent nihilism inherent in evolutionary biology. Humans are no longer the center of creation. We are the accidental product of a mindless process that favors aggression and selfishness.

In The Human Instinct, Kenneth Miller offers a more optimistic but equally scientific alternative to the brutal nihilism professed by biologists like E. O. Wilson. After a few chapters dedicated to the defense of human evolution, Miller moves to considering the ontological (related to being) and ethical implications of modern science. He too is concerned about justice, free will, and human exceptionalism. But he doesn’t look for answers in the non-material. We are material organisms, and science may one day be able to explain the entire universe in material terms. Still, there are uncertainties inherent in life.

By assuming the role of Marilynne Robinson’s interlocutor, Miller acknowledges that some criticisms of evolutionary biology are worthy of consideration. Anyone who has studied evolutionary biology (as I have) has struggled with the questions of human dignity and free will. If there isn’t anyhing unique about humans, should we model ourselves after ants? Does human life mean anything outside of the context of reproduction? Is free will compatible with evolution? If not, how can humans be responsible for their actions?

Image result for biology textbook kenneth millerMiller’s treatment of these topics is nuanced and well-grounded in science. He exposes the ongoing controversies in the scientific community surrounding the evolutionary basis of human behavior without once denying that humans are animals. Kenneth Miller is, after all, a cell biologist at Brown University and an outspoken critic of Intelligent Design. He is the co-author of the book on the right, which was my biology textbook in high school.

The Human Instinct is a good follow-up to Finding Darwin’s God (1999) and a much-needed alternative to the overly pessimistic narratives promoted by scientists like E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins. It doesn’t offer any definitive answers to the “big questions”, but it challenges popular assumptions about the consequences of evolution on human exceptionalism.

I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review. “The Human Instinct” is scheduled for publication by Simon & Schuster on April 17, 2018.

Nonfiction by Genre, Robinson, Marilynne

Marilynne Robinson’s Blind Spot

Image result for the givenness of thingsI am currently reading Marilynne Robinson’s most recent essay collection, The Givenness of Things (2015). I bought the collection because I enjoyed her novel Gilead and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Man. Robinson is a self-professed Calvinist, and she openly admits that her faith tradition inspires her works. Indeed, nearly all of her essays deal with John Calvin or Puritanism in some way. Calvin has a fairly negative image in the popular imagination, but Robinson believes that this negative image is based more on myth than actual history. She insists that Calvin was quite a meditative writer, and many Puritans in America were abolitionists.

Marilynne Robinson is generally a great prose stylist and her writings are very thought-provoking. I don’t know a lot about the Reformed tradition, but I do know a thing or two about John Calvin’s Geneva. I admire Robinson’s courage in defending a much-maligned historical figure. I didn’t know about the prophetic/social-justice orientated history of American Puritanism before reading Gilead, which has since inspired me to read more of Robinson’s writings.

Unfortunately, Robinson has a glaring blind spot: an uncritical love for Calvin and the Reformed Tradition. In Death of Adam, for example, Robinson condemns the medieval Inquisition, but she almost sympathizes with Calvin’s decision to execute the non-Trinitarian Michael Servetus! Although she ultimately condemns Calvin’s decision, she does so only after explaining WHY non-Trinitarianism was such an attack on the Christian faith. Evidently, Michael Servetus crossed the line, but John Calvin didn’t when he protested the Catholic Church’s sacraments, religious art, etc.

I am part-way through The Givenness of Things, and so far the essays have been hit and miss for me. Robinson’s essay “Reformation” inspired a recent post on the democratizing influence of translation. I appreciate her defense of the humanities. In “Decline”, she examines and challenges our nation’s obsession with science and math education.

But while she is a careful reader of current events, she tends to have a utopian view of both Reformation history and American Puritanism.

In “Awakening”, for example, Robinson suggests that the decline in church-attendance in America is largely due to the Protestant rejection of Calvin. If only Americans had understood their Puritan forbearers, far-right Evangelicalism wouldn’t exist. Everything good in America can be traced to John Calvin’s restoration of the Gospel, and everything terrible can be traced to a rejection of this tradition.

I’ve heard from numerous scholars that Calvin was a beautiful French prose stylist. I look forward to reading some of his writings. I’m sure they are quite thought-provoking and, in parts, even revolutionary. But I don’t find Calvin’s Geneva very appealing. He had a particular vision for humanity, and he was going to bring it about, through force if necessary. I doubt Robinson would have liked living in Geneva either.

I share Robinson’s political vision, but I am not convinced that Calvinism holds all the answers. She could make the same arguments without invoking religion. Using religion to get away with murder is not unique to Catholicism or conservative Evangelicalism. The Genevan Consistory was basically the Protestant version of the Roman Inquisition, but Robinson never addresses the Consistory. She never acknowledges the millions of Calvinists who supported slavery. I don’t think a return to Calvinism (or Catholicism for that matter) would improve American society. There will always be people who use religious texts to maintain power and privilege.

In The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson tells the reader more about herself and her views than about Calvin and his views, even and especially when she is dealing with Puritan history. She presents the Puritans as progressive social justice advocates because she wants American Christians to hold more progressive views. But such views aren’t uniquely Calvinistic or even Christian. I wish she would just state her opinions without pretending that they are inspired by a close reading of Calvin or Puritan history.

But like I said, I’m only part-way through the essay collection. Maybe she will stop referencing Calvin in every other sentence. But I’m not holding my breath.

Nonfiction by Genre, Social Justice

The New Jim Crow on MLK Day

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessThe New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is a reminder to white Americans that racial injustice is alive and well in the United States. Martin Luther King Jr Day should not simply be a day when Americans remember and celebrate the life of a civil rights activist – as if the Civil Rights Act fixed everything. It should also be a time when we reflect on how far we have yet to go. Martin Luther King’s dream has not yet been realized. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, but racism still exists in America.

But most of it is more subtle and more structural. Certainly, there are Americans who still hate blacks (ex. the Charleston massacre), but most would like to think that they are colorblind. Michelle Alexander argues convincingly in her book that our criminal justice system is not colorblind. The War on Drugs has perpetuated racial discrimination in this country, but non-black Americans have no problem with a prison system almost entirely made up of blacks. Whites do drugs at the same rate or at a higher rate as blacks, but police do not patrol their neighborhoods. Whites are not stopped and frisked for drugs, so whites are not found with drugs. Black men are shot down by the police who have been trained to associate blacks with violence. Unfortunately, because the Supreme Court assumes that our country is colorblind, claims of racism are dismissed. Our unjust structures are not considered unjust by our courts, so the system continues unchallenged. This is the new Jim Crow because like the old Jim Crow, black men with a prison history lose their voting privileges (often, for life), cannot get employment, are disqualified for food stamps, and may not even be able to get housing. Our country found the perfect way to strip blacks of their rights without overtly discriminating against them.

On this MLK Day, consider purchasing or borrowing from the library The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. We are not colorblind. Unfortunately, I don’t have much hope things will get better under Trump.

“Although drunk driving carries a far greater risk of violent death than the use or sale of illegal drugs, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person functional and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling. People charged with drug offenses, though, are disproportionately poor people of color. They are typically charged with felonies and sentenced to prison.”

“When black youth find it difficult or impossible to live up to these standards – or when they fail, stumble, and make mistakes, as all humans do – shame and blame is heaped upon them. If only they had made different choices, they’re told sternly, they wouldn’t be sitting in a jail cell; they’d be graduating from college. Never mind that white children on the other side of town who made precisely the same choices – often for less compelling reasons – are in fact going to college.”