End Notes: Lui-même

In the introduction to her translation of the Divine Comedy, Dorothy Sayers felt it was useful to recall for her readers the nature of the human agent as understood by Dante. In dedicating the Paradiso to Can Grande della Scala, Dante said that the literal meaning of his great poem was the state of souls after death. Its allegorical meaning was the way in which human beings, by the use of their free will, determine their ultimate condition of reward or punishment. In short, we are what we do and are held responsible for it.

Sayers doubtless thought that this notion of human action had been obscured at the time she wrote and had in mind the way in which behavior was wholly accounted for, not by free responsible decision but by inner or outer forces not within the agent’s control. Of course there is nothing particularly novel about attempts to diminish, obscure, or deny human freedom. In the Confessions, St. Augustine tells us of the attraction of the Manichean position according to which he could assign his sins to an evil principle, leaving himself untainted. In recent years there has been a spate of works purporting to describe human beings as hardwired by their genetic makeup such that they are simply programmed to do the things they do, willy-nilly.

Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, taking their rise from the work of Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson, represent the latest entries in the age-old campaign to describe human beings as other than free responsible agents. Wilson won his bones, as Mo Green might say, by his study of ants and doubtless is the world authority on anthill society. He marveled, as anyone must, at the variety of tasks in the colony performed by ants that need no training to do the complicated things they do. How can this be? They must be made that way. It is their genetic makeup that programs some ants to be foragers, others warriors, and so forth. So far so good. This looks like science, and it is.

It was when it occurred to Wilson to look at human society on the model of the anthill that the fun began, and anyone wanting an entertaining account of the sequel could do worse than read Tom Wolfe’s lively and informed report in his book Hooking Up (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000). The analogy suggested is that human beings, like ants, are genetically programmed and do the things they do because of that programming. Genetic biology has certainly had interesting and verifiable things to say about the way in which DNA provides in capsule form, so to say, the future development of an organism. The difficulty is to apply this sort of thing to human behavior. The project might be called My Uncle, the Ant.

However tentative Wilson himself has been, his epiphany has spawned any number of books that present the project as if it had somehow been successfully carried out. Since the step from physiological development to cultural, moral, and religious behavior is a big one, it has been suggested that there is something called the meme that operates in cultural matters as the gene does in physiological. Wilson suggested that our genetic makeup is like a photographic negative that is immersed in the developing fluid of life; what we do is determined by that negative. Well, as they say, it is difficult to prove a negative, and proof is the main thing lacking from efforts to transpose the findings of genetic biology to human affairs. What we have here is one more effort to put forward a bad argument as if it were scientific.

Sassier authors in this burgeoning pseudoscientific industry are given to remarks not unlike the Soviet leader who said that astronauts had not sighted God. Who in studying the genetic makeup of a human being has ever seen a self or a soul? The obvious tu quoque is, who has ever seen a meme? Anyone, scientist or not, interested in encountering the self need only reflect upon luimême.

Anthony Rizzi, a brilliant young physicist, is appalled by the philosophical naïveté of his fellow scientists as well as the way in which all kinds of bogus proposals gain popular credence because they are billed as scientific. Rizzi has founded an institute to address these issues. Interested readers can consult his Web site: iapweb.org. One can only applaud this effort and wish it success.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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