Saturday, August 21, 2004

Evolution of good and evil

Tom recently posted a few remarks on his visit to Blenheim Palace in England, awarded by a grateful nation to John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, for his victory over the French at Blenheim.

In Robert Southey's poem about the battle, a young boy asks his grandfather what the conflict was all about. "What they fought each other for, I could not well make out," the old man replies. He then assures the child that nevertheless "'twas a famous victory."

Human history is full of terrible slaughter the purpose of which we often cannot make out. Aggression is in our genes, no doubt firmly affixed to the male chromosome. Alas, it is most often young men who die, not always certain why they are asked by their ambitious elders to lay down their lives.

Altruism is also in our genes, as behavioral studies* of other primates make clear. Battles rage within our bodies as well as on fields of blood.

*(See Evolution of the Golden Rule by Gretchen Vogel, in the February 20, 2004 issue of Science. Not available free on-line.)