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Evolutionary Ethics, Part II

We saw in my last piece that although traditional evolutionary ethics is not necessarily as awful as its reputation suggests, conceptually it is deeply flawed. It just doesn’t work. Is that the end of the discussion? I, and today an increasing number of philosophers and empirical workers, don’t think so.

We—or rather I (not because this is an ego trip but because I would rather let others speak for themselves)—think that the way to go in philosophy is the naturalistic route. This means that I consider science to be the best kind of knowledge that we have and that inasmuch as possible we should follow its standards and use its ideas. The Earth goes around the Sun. Humans evolved from fish. That’s as good as it gets.

Being a philosophical naturalist does not mean that one thinks that science can provide all of the answers. That is scientism and that is wrong. I don’t think a billion buckets of science could speak to the problems raised by the Tea Party. Being a philosophical naturalist does not mean that one thinks that the only truths are those of science. I think the claim just made in the last sentence is true but I don’t think it is a claim of science. It means that you use science where you can and you respect and try to emulate its standards.

So, back to ethics. Ever since Charles Darwin in the Descent of Man, evolutionary biologists have been trying to give naturalistic understandings of morality. They have been at pains to show why, despite the fact that Darwinian evolution starts with the struggle for existence—nature red in tooth and claw (a phrase of Tennyson, incidentally, not Darwin)—morality emerged naturally as an adaptation to help us to survive and reproduce. At a biological level, morality is on a par with hands and teeth, eyes and genitalia.

In fact, in basic theory, explaining morality is not so very difficult. We humans are social animals. We have all sorts of adaptations to make us such. Large brains, for instance. Lack of killer teeth, for another. One of the most significant adaptations in my opinion is the fact that human females don’t come into heat. Imagine trying to run a philosophy class with a couple of the students sending out strong pheromone signals!

Morality, as Darwin stressed, is another adaptation to make us social. If you like, the null hypothesis situation is that we are all selfish genes. We look after Number One. There is nothing wrong with that. If we didn’t do so, we wouldn’t survive and reproduce. It is one thing to share your popcorn; but if you never had any, you would starve and die. It is one thing to respect the wishes of others; but if every time a pretty girl or handsome guy expressed some interest in you, you deferred to the interests of your friends, you might be a much-liked human being but memories would be all that you leave.

In basic theory, explaining morality is not so difficult. The devil, as always, is in the details. For a long time, people (starting with Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection) thought that the key was something labeled (by us today) as “group selection.” It is for the good of the group that we be moral, and so we are. But group selection, as evolutionists today recognize—and as Charles Darwin sensed and stressed from the first—is fallacious. It is too open to cheating. If everyone has adaptations for the good of the group, even though it occurs at their own discomfort and cost, someone who cheats—who uses the help of others but does not reciprocate—is going to be ahead in the evolutionary game and so will survive and reproduce better than others. Before long, their genes will be the norm, and cooperation will have collapsed.

However, in the past 50 years, Darwinian evolutionists have devised all sorts of models to explain cooperation as an adaptation that benefits the cooperator—“individual selection.” One of the most famous is so-called “kin selection.” Inasmuch as one helps relatives one is helping oneself (biologically), because one shares the same genes and if they reproduce one is oneself reproducing vicariously. Another mechanism, one spotted by Darwin in the Descent, is “reciprocal altruism.” You scratch my back and I will scratch yours. (Still the best book on all of this is Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene.)

Backing the theory is a massive amount of empirical evidence about the widespread nature of cooperation in the animal kingdom. The hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps) work together. So at the other end of the scale (not a progressive or linear scale!) do our closest relatives the chimps. And in between. Birds, for instance, work together a huge amount.

Now, simply cooperating is not morality. Ants are not moral. I am not sure birds are. Although I don’t want to say that there is no non-human morality or proto morality. Probably it is just because I am English-born, but dogs seem to me to get pretty close at times.

So the hypothesis (backed increasingly by theory and evidence) is that to get us humans to cooperate, we have special kinds of emotions. Emotions that tell us that we “should” work together, and that not to do so is “wrong.” You might ask why we cannot just be “genetically determined” to cooperate, like the ants. The reason is simple. Ants are determined in their actions. But if something goes wrong, they cannot recoup and try again or another strategy. It doesn’t really matter, because the loss of a few hundred nest mates is no big thing. Humans have gone the route of having but a few offspring that we cherish. We cannot afford to lose a few hundred kids if something goes wrong. So we have dimensions of freedom not possessed by ants, and part of our biological apparatus is having moral sentiments that guide us in familiar and in new social situations. (This incidentally has nothing to do with free will versus determinism. Mars Rover is determined but has a dimension of freedom when encountering obstacles. We are the same.)

So summing up: The scientific claim is that morality is natural. It is an adaptation produced by natural selection to make us good cooperators. What does all of this have to do with philosophical questions about ethics? Stay tuned.

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