Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Shaw's Argument on the Influence of Circumstance on Shaky Ground

By: Damon M. Petrich

One of the arguments which I read with particular skepticism in Shaw's Back to Methuselah begins in the section entitled "The Humanitarians and the Problem of Evil". Shaw faults Darwin on the social and psychological implications of the banishment of mind from universe that his theory put forth, proclaiming that, "If all our calamities are either accidents or sincerely repented mistakes, there is no malice in the Cruelty of Nature and no Problem of Evil in the Victorian sense at all" (Shaw, pg. 58). Shaw refutes the ideas of Darwin and neo-Darwinians by pointing first to the writings of George Henry Lewes, who proposed that if circumstance indeed does govern character, individuals born and raised, "in English country houses, and sent first to Eton or Harrow, and then to Oxford or Cambridge, to have their minds and habits formed. Such a routine would destroy individuality" (Shaw, pg. 60). However, the fact that individuals such as Winston Churchill and Lord Robert Cecil emerge from similar circumstance with inherently different psyches is seen as evidence against Darwin and Owen by Shaw. Shaw then points to Lamarck's view of evolution in an effort to concrete his thesis by referring to the example of the giraffe which is able to extend its neck through desire and not circumstantial selection.

Many scholars have reached a consensus that environment and circumstance does, in fact, play a large role in the actions and behaviors of Man. Twin studies have long been used to evaluate the influence of environment on both monozygous and dizygous twins. Much of the results of twin studies confirm that twins sharing the same DNA have drastically different outcomes when raised in different environments and have similar outcomes when raised together. One might also look at studies of criminals plagued by psychopathy, most of whom experienced extreme childhood trauma that inevitable shaped their psychological behavior, rendering their free will powerless to the effects of these traumas and giving them an immutable animal desire to commit their crimes. Countless other sociological and psychological studies have led to the conclusion that circumstance is the biggest driving force in human behavior. Many studies of minority groups in North America, often faulted culturally for making up the largest portions of the criminal population, have also concluded that some of the biggest driving factors in their criminal behavior are socioeconomic depression and conflicting cultural values between dominant and minority cultures.

This is not to say that free will plays no part in the human experience, as ultimately we are responsible for the decisions we make. However, the psychological tools we use to make these decisions are largely influenced by circumstance, as exemplified above. Darwin too acknowledged that both free will and circumstance play a part in evolution, but that circumstance plays the more important role in this evolution. Given this, Shaw's argument against Darwin's ideas on the influence of circumstance on human behavior seems to have a weak evidentiary backing and has been proved to be unfounded over the course of the last century and a half.

Works Cited:
Shaw, B. "Back to Methuselah". Complete Plays (vol. 2). US: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1963.

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