Breakfast With Darwin: Morality, Mortality, and the Genetic Imperative

By Lawrence Biemiller

New York -- It seems I may have been misled -- by Mrs. Neff and Mr. Shivers in high school, later by Professors Grushow, Pinsker, and Ugolnik ("Dante named names," says Susan Montez, one of my favorite poets). In class after class, they had me reading Hardy and Hawthorne, Thackeray and Trollope -- fat, droning novels, Hardy's especially -- when it would have profited me much more to read Darwin. If The Mayor of Casterbridge has anything meaningful to say to an 18-year-old, I can't think what it is. But The Origin of Species, I later discovered, tells you how life is really organized, what its ground rules are.

Regrettably, it also raises the thorniest kind of questions. Why get out of bed in the morning only to spend the whole day serving some thoughtless evolutionary imperative? Why wash the breakfast dishes? Lately such questions have been nagging -- nagging enough to bring me to New York in hopes of finding answers.

My fascination with Darwin began some years ago. Truth be told, it sprang from discussions with various friends about fidelity. The males of our species, my friends' stories confirmed, are genetically programmed to spread their DNA as widely as possible, in a vainglorious and sometimes uncontrollable attempt to assure their genes' survival. No doubt you see evidence of this among your own acquaintances. Recognizing it as one of evolution's givens, even if that doesn't offer moral guidance, at least explains why fidelity has been an issue for so many people over so many centuries.

So I took to citing Darwin whenever the issue came up, which was often, and also I took to reading science-section stories about evolution. I began looking to Darwinian principles to explain all kinds of other messy human phenomena and epiphenomena -- even, for instance, car phones. When you think about it in a contemporary context, Darwin's explication of the way we compete for survival just about predicts the invention of car phones. In our society, information is a commodity valuable enough to be competed for -- indirectly, it's what many of us trade for food and shelter. So the faster you get information, the better your chances in the competition, the fitter you are for survival. And apparently the economic benefits of having information outweigh the danger of acquiring it at the same time you're trying to navigate in the ebb and flow of traffic.

The more I looked around me, the more I found that Darwin's principles could seem to explain almost everything, good and bad. I recoiled at the wasteful number of choices my Safeway's cereal aisle presented -- sugar-frosted, all-bran, vitamin- enriched, fat-free, honey-nut. Then I thought of species competing for scarce resources, winning or losing because of the slightest advantage or disadvantage. Retailing's parallel is the cereal aisle, with its crowded shelves and its plump, sugared raisins. The genius of capitalism is that it is evolution's precise economic equivalent: The principles of capitalism and evolution are largely the same.

Hardly breaking news. But as various pieces of Darwin's puzzle began to fit together in my mind, the messy, post-religious world seemed to make more sense, become more rational, almost comfortable. I should say here, in case you haven't guessed, that I've never been one of the world's great book-learners -- I'm no good with abstraction (algebra was a torment; philosophy was, and is, beyond me). I learn best from my own experiences and observations, and from those of my friends. When I found Darwin predicting car phones, when I could see his theories confirmed at the Safeway -- well, it's a fine thing, supposing you understand such marvelous machinery.

Then I chanced to read Nicholas Wade's science column about evolutionary biologists in the January 29 New York Times. The biologists now argue, he wrote, that life began when a precursor of DNA somehow managed to get itself reproduced. Citing the biologist Richard Dawkins, Mr. Wade wrote that "the central purpose of evolution is the survival of DNA, not of the beings that are the DNA's temporary expression." Being only a chemical, he noted, DNA can appreciate neither the fact of its survival nor the wonders of the "ever more baroque intermediaries" that its blind quest for reproduction has engendered -- mold, moss, maple, mouse, merganser, man. Which is to say, neither Mozart nor Mendelssohn was of particular interest to DNA, except as a father. And as far as DNA is concerned, as far as the whole machinery of evolution is concerned, you and I are the absolute equals of mangrove trees or mosquitoes or moray eels. As long as the chain of chemicals gets copied, it matters not by what.

Leaving us where, if you think about it? Staring crossly at the breakfast dishes in the sink, wondering why we should bother. And that's before we read the obituaries, counting people dead of H.I.V. -- which, for all the misery it's wrought, for all the friends it's taken, is nothing more than the grim, efficient machinery for replicating DNA's equally thoughtless cousin, RNA.

For months I turned these thoughts over and over in my head. Then I made some calls, set up some appointments, brought my copy of The Origin of Species on the train. What's the point of being a journalist if you can't ask the right people tough questions? But I'd never tried out questions like these -- What about fidelity? What about a system that cherishes Mozart no more than a mosquito? What about getting up every morning merely to serve a dumb chemical's need for replication? Good answers proved hard to find.

"My wife calls it the nasty reductionist scientific point of view," said Todd Disotell, a professor of biology at New York University. "Which I espouse. If evolution is going to work, you have to have a mechanism, and DNA is that mechanism. There's no reason not to have a Mozart, but no reason to have one."

As for fidelity, Mr. Disotell said, "Men are dogs." Then he reconsidered: "Well, not all men may be dogs, but there's a little dog in all men." The genetic imperative, he said, is this: "Spread your genes out there with as little effort as possible."

I asked about morality in general. "Genetically, any single cheater wins," he said. "We see that."

Great. I called uptown to Susan Montez, my poet friend, who teaches at Norwalk Community College and who, like Dante, names names. We went to dinner with her restless 5-year-old, Randy, at a Dominican place in Washington Heights, up around 185th Street. The restaurant was crowded with people of every color happily having conversations in several tongues. Ms. Montez told me she'd been rereading Melville, looking for answers to a question that sounded familiar: "Is there order in the universe, or is there no order and we're just putting order on it? The thought of being a random accident is just so hideous."

"I want there to be a divine plan," she said, adding, "Sometimes I walk around and think I'm supposed to be meeting the people I'm meeting." Back when she was still a travel agent, before Randy was born, she'd gone to Argentina in hopeless pursuit of a client she'd developed a crush on. Instead she met a guy named Alberto, wrote a poem called "Buenos Aires Notebook," and because of it got a publisher for her first book of poems, Radio Free Queens. She sees this as evidence of a divine plan. As for her latest crush -- she's prone to them -- "He won't give me the time of day, but it doesn't matter, because I've started writing my third book of poetry -- I can redeem it that way."

Redemption, now that she's brought it up -- is that what I'm after? Is redemption the same thing as meaning, or is it more? I have to admit I'm stuck here, feeling like I'm no better off at 37 than I was back in high school with Mrs. Neff and Mr. Shivers. Can someone tell me what I should do now? Read more poetry? Take on Melville myself? Or concede, evolution's ground rules notwithstanding, that the affairs of humans are messy beyond all of DNA's imperatives, all of Darwin's explication -- and that hidden somewhere in the mess, where maybe only poets can find it, is the still-astonishing, still- unexplained essence of our humanity.

Copyright © 1995 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published October 20, 1995.