August 20, 2011


Evolutionary Ethics (Michael Ruse, 8/03/11, The Chronicle of Higher Education)

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.

We are all designists now.

Posted by at August 20, 2011 7:26 AM

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