Materialism, the Mind/Body Problem and Genetics: A Response to David Hawkes

Gabriel Egan


     1. David Hawkes's attack on materialism touches on three areas of interest to me, and in each of them he is inaccurate in his characterization of the field. The areas are: i) Karl Marx's views on idealism and materialism, ii) modern versions of the body/mind problem, and iii) the role that genetics play in social formations. These areas are interconnected since all are concerned with how matter relates to thinking. One modern approach treats the human brain as an organ that evolution has shaped for thinking just as the windpipe has been shaped for breathing, although the brain seems vastly more capable of exceeding its essential role than any other organ. Brain and windpipe both go beyond their essential roles when, for example, we sing to one another, but a full account of why we sing is likely to depend most heavily on what the mind is doing. Yet the mind seems to be simply what the brain does, and the brain is self-evidently a part of the body.

     2. This is the core of the mind/body problem and it has analogues in a number of related questions that have long exercised philosophers including Marx. In its simplest form we may ask whether ideas arise from matter or matter is created by ideas. Some kinds of matter seem to have special powers that give them the appearance of working towards their own ends rather than ours. Money, for example, comprises tangible objects (coins and notes) that appear to interact in ways analogous to sex. Shylock cannot tell if gold and silver are like ewes and rams, but knows that he can make them "breed as fast" (The Merchant of Venice 1.3.95). Is language like money in its combination of a substantial element (audible words, tangible writings) and insubstantial meanings? Does the real economy, the economic base, generate the way we think and feel -- the superstructure including culture -- or is the economy a manifestation of our ideas and feelings about production and value?

     3. David Hawkes argues that the materialist approaches to these questions -- those that give priority to the tangible, substantial, and visible side of each duality -- have been around the longest, since classical times at least, and that they represent the commonsense view of the world. "To the entirely unreflective eye", he writes, "it appears that matter is all that exists, for only matter is perceptible" (Hawkes 2011, 239). Hawkes finds approaches that privilege the material to be at best mistaken and at worst utterly destructive of human values. Materialism reduces everything to matter, and so does capitalism, which rose to prominence in the same historical period; both dehumanize people. Materialism, according to Hawkes, "is capitalism in philosophical form" (Hawkes 2011, 255).

     4. The alternative to a materialist view in which matter causes ideas is an idealist one in which ideas cause matter. This view has few overt adherents any more, although religious faith may be cast in this form with God as the originating Idea of the universe. Rather than settle for either materialism or idealism, Hawkes takes the Marxist escape route of calling them a dialectic. He attributes to Karl Marx and Georg Hegel the perspective that sees

such paired contradictions as the one between ideas and matter as mutually determining. They thought that each pole of the dichotomy brought the other into existence, a doctrine known as 'the interpenetration of opposites'. It would be impossible to conceive of 'matter' unless we also held the opposite conception of 'idea'. It is thus a 'reductionist' fallacy to claim either pole of the dichotomy determines or creates the other. (Hawkes 2011, 243)

This approach invokes the post-structuralist idea that each term in a binary opposition depends on the other for its existence, so that, for example, there is no rationality other than by distinction from madness and vice versa, no nature without culture and vice versa, and so on. Since the point under discussion is metaphysical, not linguistic or cognitive, this post-structuralist claim is not strictly relevant here. More importantly, Marx did not treat the ideas/matter duality as a dialectic. He did not claim that consciousness and social being are mutually dependent with each bringing the other into existence, but instead was quite explicit about the one-way traffic: "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness" (Marx 1970, 20-21). Marx was a materialist, which does not mean that he denied the existence of ideas but that he thought matter capable of generating ideas and not the reverse.

     5. The matter/ideas and body/mind dualities might seem superficially akin to other dualities that early moderns openly discussed, such as flesh/spirit or body/soul. According to Hawkes, Christianity kept idealism dominant over materialism until at least the Renaissance, not least because of the religion's preference for the activities of the mind over those of the body: ". . . the religious imposition of idealism . . . often took the form of a puritanical denial of fleshly pleasure" (Hawkes 2011, 240). However, in Shakespeare at least the flesh/spirit relationship is not only not a dialectic, it is not even a duality. Rather, his characters' conceptual model is of a container (the body) and its contents (the soul), with the latter analogous to air. In Clarence's dream of drowning, water pressure prevents the usual release upon (and literally by) expiration: "the envious flood | Stopped-in my soul and would not let it forth" (Richard 3 1.4.37-38). Released from its containing body, the soul of the recently deceased person was imagined to be floating in the air above those nearby, as when Bolingbroke remarks to Mowbray after their interrupted trial-by-combat that "had the King permitted us, | One of our souls had wandered in the air, | Banished this frail sepulchre of our flesh" (Richard 2 1.3.187-9). Likewise Romeo comments after a fatal sword-fight that "Mercutio's soul | Is but a little way above our heads" (Romeo and Juliet 3.1.126-7). Early modern ideas about the soul are relevant here because Hawkes conflates the soul with the mind and consciousness even though the scholars he is trying to refute do not. According to Hawkes, "all of the materialisms currently prominent in literary studies", including evolutionary psychology and cognitive theory, "share one fundamental assumption . . . that the human subject, mind or soul is an illusion" (Hawkes 2011, 250). Evolutionary psychologists would scarcely spend so long studying the mind if they thought it merely an illusion, but many of them might well dismiss the existence of the soul.

     6. Hawkes likens the selfish-gene principle underlying evolutionary psychology to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century political economy's supposed individual, later labelled homo economicus, who behaves in her own best interests in order to maximize what is good for her. The use of this simplified and abstracted human individual enabled political economists to derive principles and formulae for modelling the wider economy, and although the Latin name was not used the idea underpins Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (1776a; 1776b; 1776c), David Ricardo's Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1821) and John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy (1871a; 1871b). Even in this early form the homo economicus abstraction was not as over-simplified as some of its critics claimed (Persky 1995), but it did rest upon the assumption that an individual's best interests can be reasonably simply defined. This has turned out to be untrue, not least because the determination of best interests entails indeterminacies of time such as the notion of 'discounting the future'. Sometimes it is better to "haue one byrde in hande, then two in the Bushe", as a 1579 book of sayings had it (C 1579, O4v), and sometimes it is not.

     7. Knowing just how much to discount the future so that two birds then are worth one now is a tricky judgement with frequently surprising outcomes. Under pressure from loss of hunting habitats polar bears have recently been seen cannibalising their young (Stirling & Ross 2011), which appears to be a shockingly unnatural development. From the genes' point of view, however, even eating one's own descendants can make sense when the future is heavily discounted, as when early death is imminent. In most organisms, genes push copies of themselves into the future by sexual reproduction and individuals are made to behave as if they have an investment in helping, or at least not harming, their offspring. But in times of crisis such as starvation an individual eating its offspring might be a better strategy for the genes, especially if the offspring need parental support and would die in any case without the parent. In such circumstances, preserving oneself and so securing a chance to reproduce later when the crisis has passed may take priority over the welfare of existing offspring. It might be objected that across the species we find parents actually sacrificing their lives for their offspring rather than eating them. Indeed, the particular circumstances favouring infanticide are probably rare and parental sacrifice may often be a better strategy. One cannot derive a simple rule of parent-child relations without considering the material conditions of existence from the genes' point of view.

     8. Happily, among the more intelligent species various strategies of reciprocal altruism -- helping not only one's relatives but also acquaintances and even strangers -- are highly effective ways for genes to promote their reproduction. This point is widely missed by those who think that focussing on selfish genes validates the ruthless competitiveness of the capitalist marketplace. Hawkes's essay, for example, overlooks reciprocal altruism, as does John Dupré's critique of evolutionary psychology in which the index entry for all kinds of 'altruism' points to just three pages (Hawkes 2011, 253; Dupré 2001). Reciprocal altruism requires brains able to keep track of who has helped whom and by how much and who has yet to repay outstanding debts, and it explains the evolutionary usefulness of emotions such as anger, gratitude and guilt (Hamilton 1963; Trivers 1971; Dawkins 1976, 166-88; Trivers 1985; Pinker 1997, 402-07). In the theologically grounded morality of Shakespeare's time, the injunction to reciprocity embodied in the Christian Golden Rule -- "do to others as you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7.12) -- was supposed to govern relations within the family, the wider community and with strangers. Subtly implied in the Golden Rule is the retributive principle that others will repay in kind whatever behaviour is shown them, good or bad. These others are most obviously individuals around oneself now, but as I argue elsewhere (Egan 2012) Shakespeare imagined and dramatized selfish behaviour that seems advantageous to the individual when looked at synchronically, but when considered diachronically, and in particular transgenerationally, the behaviour is revealed as disadvantageous. Shakespeare was aware that if one's behaviour is inherited by one's children, one faces a kind of Golden Rule played out over time and hence, in crude but I think defensible terms, heredity encourages goodness.

     9. Rejection of materialism is often a disguised rejection of reductionism, a fear that too much is lost in finding simple causal explanations. Hawkes's aversion to reductionism regarding the mind takes him so far in the opposite direction that he reaches a position amounting effectively to religious faith. For example, he rejects the insights offered by evolutionary psychology because they are built on the premise that ". . . human behavior can be explained by reference to the physical structure of the brain . . ." (Hawkes 2011, 238). Indeed they are, but that is the view of almost everyone, not just the evolutionary psychologists. Hawkes's characterization of evolutionary psychology leaves open only two logical alternatives, both of which may be active at once. The first is that the physical structure of something other than the brain also helps to explain behaviour, which is obviously the case since no-one doubts that hormones such as testosterone generated elsewhere in the body have a role in behaviour. The second, and this is what I think Hawkes is really driving at, is that things happen in the brain that are not caused by its physical structure. Those who believe in something beyond the physical structure of reality have fallen under the spell of mysticism and left the rational behind.



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Works Cited

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Trivers, Robert. 1971. "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism." Quarterly Review of Biology 46. 35-57.

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Content copyright © 2012 Gabriel Egan.