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Evolution and Ethics
John G. Messerly   Dec 5, 2017   Reason and Meaning  

Man in his arrogance thinks himself worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I think truer to consider himself created from animals. ~ Charles Darwin


1. Darwin and Evolution

Charles Darwin (1809 -1882) was born into a wealthy and loving English family. His father was a physician who assumed his son would follow him into the profession but Darwin, squeamish at the site of blood, decided to study for the clergy at Cambridge. Darwin also had a great love for science and nature, and after graduation, he was offered a job as the naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, a ship that was to circumnavigate the globe. He was chosen because the captain, who couldn’t socialize with his crew, found Darwin amicable company. So Darwin decided to delay entry into the clergy and embark on a five-year journey that provided few comforts and for which he had to pay his own way. His journey would change the world.

When Darwin began his journey in 1831 almost everyone assumed that the world was: 1) about six thousand years old; 2) geologically stable; and 3) designed by an omnipotent creator. But the time was ripe to challenge all of these hypotheses. Evolution had been discussed for nearly a hundred years—including by Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin—and the fossil evidence was already causing a stir, most notably due to the work of the geologist Sir Charles Lyell (1797 – 1875). In the course of his voyage, after observing and cataloging hundreds of species, a new idea slowly emerged in Darwin’s mind. His insight was based on four basic facts, and two inferences from those facts. Here is a brief sketch of the conceptual skeleton of his theorizing in The Origin of Species.

The first two facts come from population ecology: 1) all species have great potential fertility; their populations will increase exponentially if all that are born survive; and 2) natural resources are limited. Indebted to Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population, Darwin realized that in nature there is a fierce struggle for existence since natural resources can’t support all existent individuals. He then combined this logical inference with two facts from genetics: 1) individuals display variation; they aren’t exactly alike; and 2) these variations are inherited. From these facts, Darwin inferred that, in the struggle for existence, some individuals will live longer, reproduce and pass their hereditary constitution on to future generations. This process is called natural selection. Thus: variation + inheritance + struggle for existence + natural selection = extinction or gradual change of species.

To better understand natural selection, consider artificial selection, which Darwin himself used to help explain his ideas. Almost everyone knows you breed specific types of animals to produce certain kinds of offspring. If you want a big dog, you mate big dogs, if you want a fast horse, you mate fast horses. Darwin knew that variations are inherited, but no one in the nineteenth-century understood the process by which hereditary information was transmitted. That would have to wait for Gregor Mendel and the science of genetics.

The modern theory of evolution resulted from one the greatest scientific achievements in human history, the Neo-Darwinian or modern synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s. It combined Darwinian natural selection with Mendelian genetics to form a more powerful theory. This theory was further solidified in 1952 with the discovery of DNA by Crick and Watson which led to an understanding of evolution at the molecular level.

Today, biological evolution is confirmed every single day in laboratories around the world, over and over again. Biological evolution, the idea that we share a common ancestry with all life, is now supported by a broad spectrum of sciences including, but not limited to: embryology, molecular biology, geology, chemistry, genetics, population ecology, ecology, zoology, botany, comparative anatomy, fossil evidence, and more. Evolutionary theory has the same scientific status as gravitational, atomic, quantum, or relativity theories. Simply stated, biological evolution is true beyond any reasonable doubt. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either scientifically illiterate or lying to you.

2. Evolution and Ethics

But how is evolution relevant for ethics? First, any understanding of human nature—crucial for understanding ethics—must take into account our evolutionary heritage. In fact, ethical theories often differ because they use different theories of human nature. Moral theories claim that human nature is basically good, bad, self-interested, rational, sympathetic, radically free, and so on. Surely then the scientific theory of human nature is relevant to ethics.

To understand how evolution applies in various domains consider that Darwin originally proposed a theory about the evolution of plant and non-human animal bodies. Subsequently, in The Descent of Man, he extended the argument to human bodies. Today we have extended evolutionary ideas further—to minds and behaviors. Evolutionary epistemology examines the evolution of minds over time and the evolution of concepts in the history of science and in the developing child. That minds, like bodies, evolve over time is the fundamental starting point of evolutionary epistemology.

Evolutionary psychologists extend evolutionary ideas to human behavior. We now understand human behaviors like courtship, mating, aggression, and religion in a biological context. Evolutionary ethicists begin with the fact of evolution and proceed to explore the connection between biology and ethical behaviors. They ask questions like: Can we derive moral obligations from evolutionary facts? Does ordinary morality oppose or complement evolution? How were moral behaviors selected for? Do non-human animals exhibit rudimentary moral behaviors? Do moral behaviors evolve? Do moral concepts evolve? Can we reconcile a survival instinct with moral prescriptions? In short, evolutionary ethicists want to know how evolution sheds light on morality.

3. Social Darwinism

One of the first philosophers to take note of Darwin’s ideas was his contemporary Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903), the man who coined the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” Spencer believed that the struggle for existence entailed both competition and cooperation; he meant to reconcile biology and morality. But many went further, including the American capitalists Rockefeller and Carnegie, believing that Spencer’s interpretation of Darwin justified cut-throat economic competition. They believed that the idea of the survival of the fittest justified the domination of the rich over everyone else; it justified their wealth and power.

Social Darwinism, the idea that individuals and groups are subject to natural selection, was thus born. It would be used to justify imperialism, conservatism, and racism. Social Darwinism found its most eloquent spokesperson in the Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840 – 1910). He agreed with the greedy capitalists that we should allow the struggle for existence to proceed without intervention. In the ensuing struggle, the strong will succeed and the weak will fail. This is as it should be.

There are a number of problems with this approach. In the first place, there isn’t anything necessarily better or biologically fitter about rich individuals. Many have a lot of money because they were born into wealth, had certain talents that happened to benefit them in a certain kind of economy, or just got lucky. (As the American billionaire Warren Buffet says, in many environments, he would have been one of the weak ones.) Moreover, the whole idea conflicts with our moral intuition. Amassing huge fortunes while enslaving or exterminating others isn’t most people’s idea of moral behavior. And, as we will see, the desire to dominate others is only part of our evolutionary heritage.

4. Evolution and Ethics Opposed

About this time another one of Darwin’s great defenders argued that ethics and evolution were radically incompatible. Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) was a member of one of the most famous families in England and an ardent supporter of Darwin. He defended Darwinism in a series of lectures and debates, of which the most famous was his encounter with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (1805–1873), the most renowned cleric in England at that time. During the debate, Wilberforce sarcastically inquired into whether Huxley was descendent of monkeys on his father’s or mother’s side. Huxley is purported to have replied: “I would rather be the offspring of two apes than a man afraid to face the truth.” A woman in attendance is said to have fainted.

Years later in 1893 at Oxford, Huxley delivered the Romanes lectures, at the time the most important philosophical lectures in the world. There Huxley compared the state of nature or natural processes—nature before human intervention—with the state of art or artificial processes—nature altered by human intervention. These two states are in a kind of natural antagonism. Huxley used a metaphor to make his point. Imagine a piece of land in its natural state that is subsequently transformed by someone into a garden. If this gardener stops cultivating the garden, it will return to its natural state. This image illustrates the natural antagonism between the human created state of art and the state of nature.

Huxley proceeded to argue that while it’s true that humans are part of nature, this doesn’t show that nature and art are compatible. A virus is a part of us, but antagonistic toward us. Huxley thought that natural processes always conflict with artificial ones, a point he reinforced with another metaphor. Similar to how we create a garden by combating nature, we bring about an ideal society by combating our natural tendencies. An ideal society values cooperation, sympathy, and self-restraint; the state of nature values competition, ruthlessness, and self-interest. Thus ethics demands that we oppose, not acquiesce, to nature. As Huxley put it: “Let us understand, once and for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in runny away from it, but in combating it.” (Katherine Hepburn made the same point to Humphrey Bogart “The African Queen,” when she said: “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”)

Huxley believed that ethical progress manifests itself in cultural evolution—the evolution of science, art, religion, politics and other elements of culture. But he also believed that powerful natural forces, operating both within and outside of us, eventually overwhelm all artificial processes, all human cultural creations. Human will continue to oppose nature by creating and developing civilizations “until the evolution of our globe shall have entered so far upon its downward course that the cosmic process resumes its sway; and, once more, the state of nature prevails over the surface of our planet.” It seems, in the end, that we are doomed; nature will reclaim all that it has lost; evolution has little to offer ethics.

5. Evolution and Ethics Conjoined

In 1943, exactly fifty years after his grandfather had delivered the Romanes lecture, Julian Huxley (1887 – 1975) gave the address. J. Huxley, one of the world’s greatest biologists at the time, argued that ethics and evolution were compatible. To illuminate the idea, Huxley looked at the history of cosmic evolution. Inorganic evolution was painstakingly slow, but after eons of time led to biological evolution. This, in turn, led to conscious human beings who in turn brought about a psycho-social evolution. Now education, tradition, and language expedite the evolutionary process, and conscious beings now create ethical imperatives and goals for the species. (Thus ought comes from is.)

The two basic goals of the evolutionary process should be individual development and social cohesion. The goal, or the meaning of life if you will, is the full development of human potential. Huxley also believed evolution was orthogenetic—progressing toward the emergence of new and better forms of being. Ethical behaviors promote this progressive march of evolution toward achieving our goals. This isn’t surprising because in nature there is an unconscious striving toward ends or goals. As Huxley put it: “… [humans] impose moral principles upon ever-widening areas of the cosmic process, in whose further slow unfolding [they are] now the protagonist. [They] can inject [their] ethics into the heart of evolution.” It seems that evolution is the key to understanding both ethical imperatives and, ultimately, the meaning of our lives.

We might also mention the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881 – 1955), who developed an evolutionary Christianity which parallels some of J. Huxley’s ideas. Teilhard understood evolution to be an orthogenesis moving toward an omega or endpoint. According to Teilhard, God made matter which in turn created consciousness, and all three will be reunited at the omega point which is a society of hyper-persons in unity with God. Ethical imperatives are those which promote the realization of the omega point. Thus for both J. Huxley and Teilhard evolution is the key to understand what we ought to do which is, roughly, play our role in bringing about higher levels of being and consciousness.

6. Ethics and Sociobiology

In the mid-1970s a new science emerged which studies the evolutionary aspects of animal and human social behaviors. And that science, sociobiology, defends an evolutionary ethics by reducing ethical behaviors to biological ones. The preeminent spokesperson and the founding father of sociobiology is the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson (1929 – ).

Wilson agrees with Julian Huxley that ethics arises from the evolutionary process, but disagrees that evolution is directed or consciously moving toward some goal. In fact, the great human dilemma is that evolution has no goal, end or purpose. To illustrate, consider that the protective coloring of certain moths doesn’t happen in order for them to survive, nor does it happen because there is a threat from predators. Instead, there are simply random genetic mutations which are then subject to environmental selection. The fact that some moths or Homo sapiens survive is an evolutionary accident. There isn’t anything within organisms that directs them to some end.

To understand ethics without teleology we must show that there is some advantage to ethical behavior; we must show ethical-type behaviors aid survival. The first clue to understanding this came from research showing that the beneficiaries of altruistic behavior in non-human animals were generally individuals who shared many genes with the altruist. While the altruist’s behavior lowered his or her chance of survival, it increased the survival of kin. This biological favoring of genetic relatives is called kin selection. It is why we are more willing to die for our own children than for other people’s children.

In addition, there is a more general altruism observed in both human and non-human animals that goes beyond close genetic relatives. This is called reciprocal altruism because it relies on reciprocity. The biological evidence for it derives from the pioneering work of Robert Trivers (1943 – ) who noted warning cries in birds and cleaning symbiosis as classic examples. Natural selection sometimes favors cooperative behaviors that increase chances for a species survival; self-interest is often served better by cooperation than competition. Thus, ethical behaviors can be selected for.

Wilson also draws a distinction between hard-core and soft-core altruism. Hard-core altruism hasn’t anything to do with reciprocity and is usually directed toward our closest kin. Soft-core altruism depends on reciprocity and is ultimately selfish. Wilson, one of the world’s foremost experts on social insects, has observed that their behavior is mostly hard-core, while human beings carry soft-core altruism to extremes. We specialize in reciprocity between non-biologically related individuals. (I give you a dollar, you give me some candy.)

Furthermore, Wilson argues that all elaborate forms of social organization find their basis in individual welfare. Contracts and other agreements are the kind of soft-core altruism that makes human social interaction possible. The genius of human civilizations the ease with which we make and break these soft-core relationships. But this is a good thing. If altruism were all hard-core we would continually engage in tribal warfare, and the social rules that serve our self-interest would be impossible to maintain.  Buried deep within our brains is the knowledge that soft-core (reciprocal) altruism aids our survival. Moral consciousness emanates from these deep reservoirs.

Recently E. O. Wilson and the philosopher of science Michael Ruse (1940 – ) have advanced a new theory of morality. They reject any theory that asserts that nature evinces values as evolutionary change unfolds because that reads values into evolution. So they reject theories like Julian Huxley’s because it has no biological foundation. Instead, Wilson and Ruse forge a connection between ethics and evolution without committing the naturalistic fallacy. (The idea that you can get ought from is, or values from facts.) They begin with two scientific premises: 1) social behavior of animals is under the control of genes; and 2) humans are animals. Since both premises are true, we are led to a distinctively biological human morality based on kin selection.

Now how did nature make us moral? The clue is our intelligence. We are hard-wired for a number of instinctive behaviors—aversion to insects, fear of snakes and heights, etc. Altruism is also hard-wired since it has adaptive advantages. But how do we understand this with our conscious minds? We consciously understand the biological imperatives underneath morality as objective moral codes. Nature makes us believe in moral codes; biology is the foundation of morality.

What Wilson and Ruse are saying is that the human species has evolved both hard-core and soft-core altruistic tendencies. Evolution and ethics are compatible. However there are no absolute foundations for ethics, moral beliefs simply serve our reproductive aims and help us survive. Ethics is essentially an illusion our genes use to get us to cooperate. If we had a different evolutionary history our ethics would be very different.

Yet this doesn’t lead to moral relativism; which ethical behaviors we adopt definitely matter in terms of our survival. Even without objective foundations, we face social problems that overwhelm biology, so understanding biology is just the first step in solving our problems. Morality is a legacy of evolution, not a reflection of divine verities.

7. Critics of Sociobiology

The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941 – 2002) argued that sociobiology confuses supposable notions of biological potential with the more doubtful notion of biological determinism. It is one thing to say that our genes determine the range of our behaviors and social institutions, but quite another to say that our genes determine social institutions.

Gould, an ardent defender of Darwinism, rejects Wilson’s generalization of the causes of behavior in lower animals to such causes human beings. While human behavior is clearly biologically based and adaptive, humans have gone far beyond other species in developing a non-biological means to transmit adaptive behavior to future generations. This means that human social behaviors like morality and religion have evolved far from the reach of genetic control. Thus human culture, rather than genetic controls, determines virtually all of our social behaviors.

Gould does admit that reciprocal altruism exists, but this doesn’t necessitate a genetic coding corresponding to the behavior. Even though the range of our potential is limited by biology, Gould doubts that there is a genetic base to most social behaviors which excludes the role cultural evolution plays in directing human actions. What evidence is there that genes control specific social behavior? Gould says there is none, and even if there were our large brain can potentially overcome biological determinism.

Another recent critique of sociobiology is the scientist and philosopher Francisco J. Ayala (1934 – ), who has advanced a number of powerful arguments to sever the connection that sociobiologists make between moral norms and natural selection. First, inasmuch as moral norms differ between cultures and across time without a corresponding difference in biology, the theory that morality depends upon biology is flawed. This evidence suggests that culture, not biology, plays the largest role in shaping behavior. Second, human intellectual abilities have the power to go beyond biology. For instance, we may be biologically territorial, but we can decide to forego this instinct.

Ayala also distinguishes between two senses of altruism. We define biological altruism in terms of the genetic consequences of a certain behavior. Genes may prompt these behaviors even though the fitness of the individual is diminished, but such behaviors have nothing to do with ethical norms. They aren’t ethical behaviors. On the other hand, moral altruism concerns intentions and motivations, with the regard we have for others; they have nothing to do with biology. Behaviors may look similar from the outside, but we distinguish them by the moral agent’s conscious intentions. So Ayala affirms that reciprocal altruism in non-human animals isn’t moral behavior any more than we would describe social insects which die for their community as morally heroic.

In trying to explain the connection between ethics and evolution, Ayala differentiates between whether: 1) biology determines the “capacity” for ethics and whether 2) biology determines “particular” ethical norms or principles. He answers yes to the first question, but no to the latter. We are necessarily ethical, but particular norms themselves are freely chosen. The capacity for ethics is intertwined with self-consciousness, a product of biological evolution, but the norms and principles of ethics are products of cultural, not biological, evolution. Thus he agrees with Gould that biology shapes our potential moral behaviors, but doesn’t determine them.

Biology determines this capacity for ethics because of the presence in human beings of three necessary and sufficient conditions for ethical behavior which themselves derive from human consciousness. First, we anticipate the consequences of our actions because we can create mental images of unreal or imaginary possibilities. Second, we make value judgments about actions, ends, objects, and behaviors which we consider valuable. Third, we choose between courses of action. Ayala doesn’t believe that evolution favored certain ethical behaviors, but that it did provide the conditions under which human consciousness, the source of all ethics, developed.

Turning to the question of whether evolution determines “particular” moral norms, Ayala claims that any attempt to justify particular moral norms with biology commits the naturalistic fallacy. Simply because evolution has proceeded in a particular way says nothing about whether it’s right or good. The fact that bacteria have survived for millions of years doesn’t mean they are more or less valuable than vertebrates.  Instead, moral codes come from religious and social traditions. Thus, while morality must take into account biological knowledge, it’s insufficient for deciding which moral codes should be accepted.

8. Problems for Evolutionary Ethics

It’s difficult to advance a specific critique of evolutionary ethics because evolutionary ethics is a generic name for a number of interrelated, but nevertheless oftentimes contradictory theories. However, there is one general criticism of the attempt to derive moral values from facts of nature that we have previously discussed—the naturalistic fallacy. The idea is that we can’t derive values from facts, or ought from is. In this case, it means that just because of ethical behaviors arise in nature doesn’t mean we should value those behaviors.

In addition, there is another problem sometimes referred to as the genetic fallacy. We commit this fallacy when we confuse the origin of a belief or behavior with its justification. Our belief in witches may have originated in our religious upbringing, but that doesn’t mean we are justified in the belief. Analogously, soft-core altruism may have arisen because it bestowed evolutionary advantage, but that doesn’t mean it’s ethically justified. It’s easy to confuse the genesis of an idea or behavior with its justification.

Thus, the critics argue, an adequate ethical theory must explain not only what we do and why, but what we should do. In other words, we must not only explain the nature and genesis of morality, we must justify it. But evolutionary ethicists have a hard time doing this. If they explain the genesis by saying that facts justify values, they supposedly commit the naturalistic fallacy. If they say that facts elicit values, they supposedly mistakenly read purposes and ends into evolution that evolutionists assure us aren’t there. In short, it may be that evolution explains the origin of morality, but can’t justify morality. Or it may be that these objections aren’t valid.

My own view is that too much is made of the naturalistic fallacy. While we may not be able to deduce morality from evolutionary considerations, there is no way to truly understand morality without carefully considering our evolutionary history.

John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website:


I do wish Trump had just played golf everyday likes he wants, rather than being a danger to our survival.

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