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Morality "After Darwin"

This last weekend, I attended Timberlake Wertenbaker's play "After Darwin" at D.C.'s Church Street Theater.

The first thing to note is that the man playing Darwin looks uncannily like Steve Meyer. Go figure.

Second, the play is set up in a series of Inherit the Wind-induced stereotypes. It is Fitzroy vs. Darwin, the Bible vs. Science, from the get-go--where Fitzroy is pro-flogging and Darwin the enlightened liberal is opposed, and on and on. This was unfortunate. Even if these things were to be historically true, the impression given (to me, at least) is that this has applicability for today, which is false.

And finally, the important part of the play centers around a moral dilemma facing one of the characters. You see, it is a play within a play--so there are Darwin and Fitzroy, but then there are also the actors playing each. "After Darwin" cuts back and forth from the rehearsal of a play about Darwin to the actors themselves. Each of the characters faces a moral dilemma--but it is universally agreed by the characters that Darwin's theory has destroyed morality. So the moral dilemma of one of the actors is difficult for the characters to come to grips with. In the end, one of the characters (a biology professor who wrote the play-within-the-play) says that he knows morality has evolved, but he feels moral obligation nonetheless, so he abides by it best he can.

Now I do not think Wertenbaker intends the play to come off this way, but the whole thing struck me as a reductio ad absurdum. When the professor chose to follow the dictates of morality at all costs--despite claiming to know that morality has only evolved--it seemed to me to show the ridiculousness of the claim that morality has evolved.

It was like seeing a cartoon character standing on the branch which he has sawed off. Sadly, this dramatic climax was probably meant to show that evolution is mystically strong indeed, and so we might have trouble breaking from the illusion that morality exists. That is, it was probably meant to show, in a post-modern sort of way, that we just have to live with the existing tension and contradiction "after Darwin."

All of this seems to me, however, to undermine the case for neo-Darwinism. If neo-Darwinism has implications that contradict our everyday experience of the world, so much the worse for the theory, in my mind--especially if one is, as I am, already dubious as to its scientific merit.