Rise Above Our Nature?

A few years back Richard Dawkins wrote an article entitled Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster.  In it, he puts his Gnu sense of morality on display.  He begins by arguing that politicians have a duty to lie when it comes to their private life.  But then he argues we need to probe into the private religious beliefs of politicians (a religious litmus test?).  But then he finally gets to his main topic – adultery.

Dawkins asks, “Why are we so obsessed with monogamous fidelity in the first place?’

He doesn’t like it when adulterers are accused of being cheaters:

Agony Aunt columns ring with the cries of those who have detected — or fear — that their man/woman (who may or may not be married to them) is “cheating on them”. “Cheating” really is the word that occurs most readily to these people. The underlying presumption — that a human being has some kind of property rights over another human being’s body — is unspoken because it is assumed to be obvious. But with what justification?

Property rights?  Me thinks it has to do with two people making a public promise to each other.  So when one person breaks that promise, then yeah, they are cheating the other person. He continues:

In one of the most disgusting stories to hit the British newspapers last year, the wife of a well-known television personality, Chris Tarrant, hired a private detective to spy on him. The detective reported evidence of adultery and Tarrant’s wife divorced him, in unusually vicious style. But what shocked me was the way public opinion sided with Tarrant’s horrible wife. Far from despising, as I do, anybody who would stoop so low as to hire a detective for such a purpose, large numbers of people, including even Mr. Tarrant himself, seemed to think she was fully justified. Far from concluding, as I would, that he was well rid of her, he was covered with contrition and his unfortunate mistress was ejected, covered with odium. The explanation of all these anomalous behavior patterns is the ingrained assumption of the deep rightness and appropriateness of sexual jealousy. It is manifest all the way from Othello to the French “crime passionnel” law, down to the “love rat” language of tabloid newspapers.

From a Darwinian perspective, sexual jealousy is easily understood. Natural selection of our wild ancestors plausibly favored males who guarded their mates for fear of squandering economic resources on other men’s children. On the female side, it is harder to make a Darwinian case for the sort of vindictive jealousy displayed by Mrs. Tarrant. No doubt hindsight could do it, but I want to make a different point. Sexual jealousy may in some Darwinian sense accord with nature, but “Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” Just as we rise above nature when we spend time writing a book or a symphony rather than devoting our time to sowing our selfish genes and fighting our rivals, so mightn’t we rise above nature when tempted by the vice of sexual jealousy?

Let me get this straight.  Sowing our selfish genes is not rising above our nature, but not being jealous when someone else sows their selfish genes is rising above our nature.  If we’re supposed to rise above our nature, why  not stop sowing selfish genes in the first place?  Wouldn’t the most consistent way to rise above our nature be to engage in………monogamous fidelity?


Dawkins then begins to go off the deep end:

I, for one, feel drawn to the idea that there is something noble and virtuous in rising above nature in this way.

It looks to me like this Gnu leader is trying to turn adultery/cheating into a virtue.  All on the basis of his selfish feelings.

 I admit that I have, at times in my life, been jealous, but it is one of the things I now regret. Assuming that such practical matters as sexually transmitted diseases and the paternity of children can be sorted out (and nowadays DNA testing will clinch that for you if you are sufficiently suspicious, which I am not), what, actually, is wrong with loving more than one person? Why should you deny your loved one the pleasure of sexual encounters with others, if he or she is that way inclined?

Does Dawkins think he is coming up with a novel argument?

 The British writer Julie Burchill is not somebody I usually quote (imagine a sort of intelligent Ann Coulter speaking with a British accent in a voice like Minnie Mouse) but I was struck by one of her remarks. I can’t find the exact quote, but it was to the effect that, however much you love your mate (of either sex in the case of the bisexual Burchill) sex with a stranger is almost always more exciting, purely because it is a stranger. An exaggeration, no doubt, but the same grain of truth lurks in Woody Allen’s “Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go it’s one of the best.”

I see.  So the reason we need to “rise above our nature” is so that we can make “sowing our selfish genes” more “exciting.”   Take that, natural selection!

Even sticking to the higher plane of love, is it so very obvious that you can’t love more than one person?

You mean the type of love one gets from the excitement of sowing with a stranger?

We seem to manage it with parental love (parents are reproached if they don’t at least pretend to love all their children equally), love of books, of food, of wine (love of Chateau Margaux does not preclude love of a fine Hock, and we don’t feel unfaithful to the red when we dally with the white), love of composers, poets, holiday beaches, friends . . . why is erotic love the one exception that everybody instantly acknowledges without even thinking about it? Why can a woman not love two men at the same time, in their different ways? And why should the two — or their wives — begrudge her this? If we are being Darwinian, it might be easier to make the case the other way, for a man sincerely and deeply loving more than one woman. But I don’t want to pursue the details here.

Instead of complaining, maybe Dawkins should look into how all those hippy open marriages worked out.

I’m not denying the power of sexual jealousy. It is ubiquitous if not universal. I’m just wondering aloud why we all accept it so readily, without even thinking about it.

And there is that Gnu arrogance.  As if Dawkins is the first person in history to begin thinking about such things.

And why don’t we all admire — as I increasingly do — those rare free spirits confident enough to rise above jealousy, stop fretting about who is “cheating on” whom, and tell the green-eyed monster to go jump in the lake?

In other words, for goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin, Muslima.

Sheesh.  With Harris promoting meditation and psychedelic drugs as atheist spirituality, and Dawkins trying to bring back free spirits and free love, you have to wonder just when is PZ Myers going to help set up that Gnu commune.

On the way to Reason Rally 2

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8 Responses to Rise Above Our Nature?

  1. mechanar says:

    Well the difference between new atheism and hippies would be that we cant expect them to wake up and realize in 20-30 years later and say “well maybe we were not THAT right after all”

  2. What most grates on me is his co-option of such scientifically loaded terms as “natural selection” and “Darwinian” for his contrarian rhetoric, which reminded me of this part of a pamphlet by the Skeptic Society responding to myths about evolution:

    “As well, evolution created the moral emotions that tell us that lying, adultery, and stealing are wrong because they destroy trust in human relationships that depend on truth-telling, fidelity, and respect for property. It would not be possible for a social primate species to survive without some moral sense. On the constitution of human nature is built the constitutions of human societies.”

    But, of course, our New Atheist here is now too enlightened and too evolved to succumb to the illusions of the traditional morality that evolution by natural selection, rather than religions, has encumbered us with. Talk about evolution as a basis for human morality.

  3. Michael says:

    What most grates on me is his co-option of such scientifically loaded terms as “natural selection” and “Darwinian” for his contrarian rhetoric,

    Indeed. It read like an ad hoc, emotion-based rationalization. Another example is his call to “rise above Nature.” From the same guy who has long preached there is nothing above Nature. Go figure.

  4. TFBW says:

    Dawkins said:

    Assuming that … the paternity of children can be sorted out (nowadays DNA testing will clinch that for you if you are sufficiently suspicious, which I am not) …

    Says the man whose current wife is well past child-bearing age. Seriously, tooting your own self-righteous horn is one thing, but Dawkins takes it to the next level by promoting his own magnanimous trust in an affair that is almost certainly not going to affect him.

    Also, what is his mental model of “sorting out” paternity? You do a DNA test and determine that the child’s father is X rather than Husband — glad we cleared that up, now back to business as usual?

    Lastly, one wonders how much of this posturing serves to justify his own behaviour. From wiki:

    Dawkins has been married three times, and has one daughter. On 19 August 1967, Dawkins married fellow ethologist Marian Stamp in Annestown, County Waterford, Ireland; they divorced in 1984. Later that same year, on 1 June, he married Eve Barham (19 August 1951–28 February 1999) in Oxford. They had a daughter, Juliet Emma Dawkins (born 1984, Oxford).

    1984, in particular, was a busy year for Dawkins.

  5. Dhay says:

    Richard Dawkins > … so mightn’t we rise above nature when tempted by the vice of sexual jealousy? … I, for one, feel drawn to the idea that there is something noble and virtuous in rising above nature in this way.

    There’s a discussion of Richard Dawkins’ alleged recent affairs at the Rationalia forum.

    A few FtB commenters have drawn some of the dots surrounding Richard’s intervention in Elevatorgate. As Cornwell herself pointed out in 2010, Paula Kirby was by then Dawkins’ mistress. …

    Whether it was impolitic or not for Watson to criticise an argument Dawkins’ mistress had made while Dawkins himself was sitting right beside her …

    While Richard and I [Cornwell] are not together any longer, we do have a friendship. It has been under a great deal of strain. When Paula, who has been his mistress now for over two years, found out about me she demanded that he end his friendship with me. It has been a struggle and I will be very honest here – extremely painful on an emotional level. I have. The irony is that I would never have become ED [Executive Director of the RDF] if Richard and I were still in a sexual relationship. …

    While I am prepared to be skeptical about the truthfulness of Cornwell’s account to some degree, there is corroboration of her having been Dawkins’ mistress from the deposition by Karen Owens made in the RDFRS v. Timonen, Norton, Upper Branch litigation.

    Looks like Dawkins needs his wife to be “noble and virtuous in rising above” “the vice of sexual jealousy”. Repeatedly.

  6. Michael says:

    Wow. I suggest people check out Dhay’s link, especially the postings by lordpasternack. It looks like Lp is an atheist who has been investigating Dawkins’ Foundation since the Big Forum Blowup. She sarcastically summarizes her findings in one of her postings, by imagining how Dawkins could spin things:

    “Hey – I set up a charity “for reason and science”, with one explicit goal of funding my mistress(es), tax-free. I then proceeded to manage that charity like a negligent, incompetent narcissist – more interested in my ego and public image, than actually making sure the charity was being run well. Not surprisingly – a series of fuck-ups, dramas, lawsuits and resignations have come and gone like frequent bouts of gastroenteritis – and now people are asking me to account for donations that I simply can’t account for, because I haven’t a clue what’s going on….

    And all I have to say is – Christ knows I would probably have got away with all that and more, if I were dealing with religious people rather than atheists. It is surely a great testament to my fellow atheists that they won’t just stand there and take my shit, just because I’m Richard Dawkins. We’re still more moral than you – even if I personally am a bit of a wanker sometimes.”

  7. UpstateIslandersFan says:

    I guess I see a little bit of a contradiction in an arch materialist thinking someone could possibly rise above nature. Wouldn’t that imply that we have some ability to transcend nature or am I missing something really big here. I’m not a philosopher or a scientist, but something about his defense of infidelity by invoking the ability of people to see beyond their nature seems off to me, On a side note, it’s interesting to see how Dawkins’s worldview is so narrowly fixed on seeing all human interaction through the lens of random mutation and natural selection (is it accurate to call that a Darwinian worldview or will someone get offended?). Even one of his supposed knockout arguments against the existence of God is based on essentially subjecting God to the laws of nature. He seemed to argue that a complex being such as a creator would have to have evolved from a less complex organism and such a type of evolution would be very unlikely. It’s a strange argument, because I don’t know that any believer does really believe God evolves or is subject to laws of nature. I dunno. Maybe somebody does. But I thought religions see God as outside of space and time.

  8. Mr. Green says:

    What struck me is how odd it seems for Dawkins to “despise” someone for hiring a detective. After all, a detective — or “detector” — is just something that collects evidence. If the woman in question had behaved in this way without even having the facts, then I think many people would have been disdainful, but she did in fact make efforts to corroborate her suspicions with actual evidence. Surely someone who Loves Science™ would approve of this. Very odd indeed.

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