The “inspiration” for this post – that’s a big word; and I don’t know that what I have to say is inspired or just foolish — and I admit that I’m only flying a kite here — but it struck me immediately I watched the following video, with the associated comments by an animal behaviourist, Steve Pruett-Jones, over at Why Evolution is True. Here’s the video:
You’ve got to admit that it’s simply mind-blowing! Now, the part of the commentary that is really germane to my purposes is this simple statement:
This amazing video illustrates the apparent coordinated movement of individuals in a large school, although in fact the movement of each fish is thought to be independent. How the fish do this remains somewhat of a mystery.
I had just been reading Alisdair McIntyre’s remarks on Homer’s Iliad last night, especially the part where he suggests that individuality is something that is striking by its absence when Achilles decides whether or not to kill Agamemnon for stealing his slave girl (as one of the perks of command), or whether he should behave courageously on the field of battle.
Before I take you to McIntyre, there are two reasons for pointing out the resemblance. First, it may show how human behaviour is much more causally coordinated than we tend to think. That is, it may be that giving reasons for action is a kind of overlay on what is, essentially, an unconscious process that takes place in the brain — though I’m still not prepared to say goodbye to the meaningfulness of compatibilist free will. Second, it is by showing that the group action of a school of fish is really the coordination of hundreds of individual responses — whatever the cues are that the individual fish use to accomplish the remarkable appearance of acting as one being — that it places much more emphasis on the individual than scholastics like McIntyre are prepared to acknowledge even in human populations, where the idea of community is often used to suppress claims of individual rights. It may be that communities work best as a whole when individuals are responding individually to social cues, and that the attempt to impose shape on community reactions — as, for example, the Tea Partiers do when they emphasise things like family values — actually has the effect of disrupting community responses.
Of course, what McIntyre in the end wants to propose is a natural law model of morality, such that morality is built right into the nature of things, so that individuality is always, in some sense, at cross purposes to it. He points out that the Greek use of the word ‘dike’, which is usually translated with the English word ‘justice’, is really not about something as discursive as justice, but presupposes, as he says,
… that the universe had a single fundamental order, an order structuring both nature and society, so that the distinction which we mark bu contrasting the natural and the social cannot as yet be expressed. [Whose Justice, Which Rationality?, 14]
Now, whether that is indeed true is another issue altogether, and I don’t know enough about Homer to be able to say. But McIntyre reinforces this by remarking that when Homer speaks about passion, he does not mean it in the modern sense. As McIntyre says:
All psychology in Homer is physiology. When we use this physiological vocabulary to express what for us now are distinctively psychological notions, we cannot but speak figuratively, at least most of the time. 
Again, I take McIntyre at his word, since I am not in a position to argue the point about the meaning of Homer’s Greek at the time that he wrote, even supposing Homer is an identifiable person in history.
Now, the point is this — and I don’t want to be waylaid by the question of free will, although my first reason for pointing out the resemblance with the ”behaviour” of the school of fish certainly raises such questions: there is a tendency, amongst the religious — and it is evidence in things said by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope, and many Muslims — to minimise the importance of the individual. One of the things that they keep repeating almost without ceasing is that human rights have distorted the whole moral context of modernity. People who talk negatively about assistance in dying, for instance, speak about contemporary individualism as in some sense intense, vicious and destructive. The community, or society, or some specified collection of people gathered in a geographical area: these are what is really important, and we must make every effort to minimise the damage of individualism, which undermines the coherence of community, and stultifies its ability to act creatively in response to the challenges of modernity, whether the economy, science, the impact of human populations on the environment, or what not.
The most notable thing is that those who take this line make modern societies even more unresponsive to what is happening in the real world. Look at the way that religious nuts respond to abortion. While population growth is threatening to undo the world — it’s not just a matter of feeding a few more billions; it’s a matter of providing those extra billions with the requirements necessary for a reasonably fulfilling existence — religious idiocy has focused on abortion (and its religious moral cousin, assisted dying) as perhaps the most significant moral issue of the age. As “Mother Theresa” fatuously remarked in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion.”And, just for good measure, the Roman Catholics and others add contraception to the list of key moral issues. That this is a form of madness is obvious. It responds to no besetting problem in the world at all, and can only exacerbate problems already there. It’s emphasised by religions for the simple reason that it makes religions stand out from the background, and because they’re the only ones harping on such things, it makes them look more moral than the rest of us. But it doesn’t help even a little bit with the issues that should really concern us.
And this, it seems to me, needs to be emphasised again and again. Religious morality is an outrider. It has nothing to do with the moral life. It’s something that no one in their right mind would be concerned with, so it makes religions seem particularly moral, since so many people simply ignore religious morality. That’s why we have the repeated claim that we need religion in order to be moral. But that is simply nonsense. It is simply beyond belief that we should have got this far, and been this successful as a species, if religion were necessary for morality. It is because human populations act morally — that is, looking out for the interests of the whole while looking out for themselves — just like a shoal of fish — that they have endured and prospered. Religion adds that little bit of nonsense that is necessary if religion is to stand out from the crowd, so that the crowd thinks that religion must be necessary. But think of it in terms of that school of fish avoiding sharks. What if a group of fish decided that there was a special way to act, different from the other fish who responded so naturally and almost as one: how long would the fish be successful in evading their predators if this new idea came to govern how fish behaved in the presence of predators? Not very long.
Just by considering the ridiculous antics of the religions today, it is clear that religion must be a deformation of other evolved behaviours of humans. Go back through the ages of faith, and, if Steven Pinker is right, you’ll find that, while religion was one of the dominant forces of society, violence and misery prevailed. Now that religion is on the back foot, things have begun to go better, although some of the idiocy of religion that is playing itself out right now in the economic sphere — and that it is religious is only too evident from the role that religion is playing in the Republican Party today — could very well put the whole process into reverse.
None of this, by the way, is supposed to be an answer to the question of free will. I suspect that, for human beings, acting morally is not just physiology, and that thinking and reasoning evolved for a purpose, purposes which religion is eager to deny or to hijack for its own purposes. The suggestion — and it is only a suggestion — is that the behaviour of a school of fish is a much better way of understanding how human societies behave, and why, in fact, individuality is important. It’s when people try to put a lid on individuality, as religions are so effective in doing, that society suffers, individual creativity is curbed and injustice and violence increases. Perhaps McIntyre is right, and there is a law written into the nature of things. However, McIntyre, I suspect, is also wrong, and we can’t detect this law by following Aquinas and this religious apology for Aristotelian philosophy. This may be what is wrong with religion. It thinks there is an answer, and that we can know it, and there isn’t, and we can’t. Answers evolve.