December 02, 2007

Evolutionary Morality

Aaron Snell has offered a good hypothetical pushback for the point made in my last post. The question at hand is: How do selfless human virtues like heroism shoehorn into Darwin's theory of survival-of-the-fittest?

I'll begin by restating Aaron's reply, which I call "hypothetical" because he is not advancing it as his own belief.

Humans are social animals, and as such their social interactions are the context in which morality evolved. When practiced in such a social context, altruism has certain social benefits that ensure a better chance of offspring survival. This then translates into an evolved moral impulse.

As for your objection about the converse "selfish streak", I have seen two counter-arguments offered: 1) this is an evolutionary hold-over from our pre-social past; and 2) individuals sometimes benefit from selfishness in certain social situations, which means both can be present in the behavior of a biologically-programmed human animal.

And here are my thoughts:

When was this pre-social time in our past where anti-social behavior was supposed to be advantageous? All creatures are social creatures to some extent. What is it that makes a prior behavior less valuable to survival simply because we become more verbal and intelligent? I think the unintended implication is that humans are now self-conscious and able to know good from evil — that we have risen to some higher metaphysical plane where we are attuned to true virtue. But as another commenter (Duane) points out, in an amoral, purely material world, there is no good and evil or better and worse in the sense we generally mean those words.

If morality is only evolutionary, then there is no higher morality that stands above whatever evolution delivers. This means that the only thing that could be said to be good is whatever lends a survival advantage. "Good" would be, by definition, whatever successful organisms happen to do. However, we find various creatures acting in many ways, some of which we would think of as very "bad" were it imitated by humans. Consequently, there is no reason to even think of our own behaviors, such as heroism, as objectively more virtuous than the diverse behaviors that we see in other successful creatures.

Evolution only has to do with replication and survival. If it could be said to produce morality it would only be related to what is most advantageous to the survival and dominance of any given species, and it does not care about ethics in its pragmatism. For evolution, any means is justified by the ends. And it seems we could get along just as well by evolution's reckoning if we ate our genetically inferior offspring and killed off our elderly once reaching a certain age. This doesn't fit the model of virtue and heroics as we think of it, since we regard some of the most heroic acts to be on behalf of the weak and defenseless.

Mutations do not appear in communities, which could all share in the benefits of cooperation and heroism; they appear in individuals, and if those individuals do not reproduce, then that characteristic will be lost. Even if heroism may add theoretical value to the community, it still has to be established as a characteristic in that community. Those with the strongest heroic traits would seldom manage to pass their genes on, while those in need of rescue would be perhaps more likely to dilute the gene pool.

We tend to think of some behaviors as being morally superior to others, for example, being heroic, practicing equal human rights, and living in peace and harmony with your neighbors are all considered to be good. But this type of environment is not conducive to allowing the superior genes to dominate. Bacteria are supposed to have evolved by means of the more fit organisms crushing out its competition. It could easily be seen as more advantageous to allow weak and helpless victims to die than to allow the virile gene-carriers to lose their lives in the efforts to save them. Practicing equal rights, welfare, pacifism, and heroism does not seem to be consistent with the spirit of evolutionary progress.

To say that some supposedly bad behaviors are a carryover of primitive times only works if we can say that those behaviors are in a different category from our newer behaviors. For example, we might only be aggressive toward others while we are good toward our own offspring and spouse. Perhaps we can develop the new in one area while retaining the old in some other; like a dolphin is supposed to be a land mammal, which retained its old lungs while developing new swimming apparatus. It seems problematic to the theory to have both the new and the old in the same area, but that is exactly what we find in the area of morality. We find loving parents and abusive parents, heroes and cowards, lovers and rapists, pacifists and warmongers, philanthropists and swindlers.

It might make sense to say that morality can be evolving along a continuum, like legs slowly forming into flippers, but that would imply, for morality, that we were fairly consistent in our moral expressions, wherever we happened to be on the scale. Experience shows that humans exhibit moral behavior along every point of the scale, from heroic to monstrous. Some of us still have legs while others have fully developed flippers, so to speak.

Perhaps moral character could be controlled by something like genetic alleles, which determine eye and hair color, among other things. This would imply that there could be "good" people and "bad" people, just like blondes and brunettes, or at least people who are good and bad in certain areas of morality. This seems a very testable notion, since by this reckoning we should expect to find solid and predictable patterns among kin and, especially, identical twins. But I think it has been difficult enough to establish that things like personalities and preferences are determined by genetics at all; and if not by genetics, then we aren't really talking about evolutionary morality in the first place.

Alleles can also be bred out of the genetic stock, so we might expect to see tribes of incorrigibly noble aboriginals or irreformably wicked savages, as we see blue-eyed Scandinavians and dark-skinned Africans, and their children would be expected to be cut from the same cloth. But we seem to find that there is no race whose infants consistently surprise or disappoint us if we adopt them into our "mainstream" society. And if we claim that this is not so then we can be assured of facing charges of racism.

In the end, this is an idea that sounds good in theory, but it turns out to be circular reasoning: we happen to value certain moral behavior and so we imagine that there is an evolutionary advantage for those who practice it. Unfortunately, it begs the question as to the true source of morality, why we should exalt human morality, and why evolution would have us be repulsed by social practices that would actually improve our genetic stock. If, as Tennyson said, nature is red in tooth and claw, then why should we expect to escape the breeding and discipline of our own Mother?

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6 Comments:

At 12/03/2007 1:00 PM, Blogger ChrisB said...

Dawkins, in his God Delusion, argued that altruism could benefit one's offspring and so was evolutionarily beneficial. The problem is it requires a community to agree with that. If you have one altruist and a bunch of savages, you will soon have one grave and a bunch of savages.

If altrusim is evolutionarily beneficial you can say it would spread in theory, but I cannot see how that would happen in practice unless you start with a bunch of altrustic people. Until you have a sufficient number of altruists, you'll never have an altruist survive long enough to reproduce, and that keeps you from having a sufficient number of altruists.

It's kind of like irreducible complexity. You can't have a group of altrustic people unless you start with a group of altruistic people.

 
At 12/03/2007 8:50 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Good insight, Chris, and thanks for commenting. I think even "civilized" folk have a similar conundrum. Pacifism sounds good in theory, but so long as greed and powerlust exists in humanity the pacifists will be overrun by their first unruly neighbors.

 
At 12/18/2007 7:38 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

I think it is like irreducible complexity, in the sense that the so called insurmountable difficulties are bogus.
I do not claim that the entire edifice of human morality has been explained in a bullet proof way by evolutionary theory. I do claim that there is nothing wrong in principle with the partial explanations we have. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the theist account.

 
At 12/24/2007 9:01 AM, Blogger larryniven said...

Like most people who argue this perspective, Paul, I think you're ignoring some demonstrated facts. First, when you say things like "Pacifism sounds good in theory, but so long as greed and powerlust exists in humanity the pacifists will be overrun by their first unruly neighbors," I have an overwhelming urge to point you to pacifist Switzerland during WWII. Far from being overrun by their really quite power-hungry neighbors, they survived and even flourished. This is only a specific instance, though, and doesn't hurt your general case all that much.

More importantly, when you say things like, "we happen to value certain moral behavior and so we imagine that there is an evolutionary advantage for those who practice it," you're ignoring the numerous studies that have shown moral tendencies in animals. It's not just our moral tendencies that contribute to the evolutionary argument for morality, but also those of our close (close-ish, anyway) relatives (I can find you some of these studies if you like, but Google should do just as well).

There are also numerous problems with your conception of evolutionary morality. Trying to force it to fit an all-nature/no-nurture paradigm (the legs/flippers analogy) doesn't accurately portray the theory itself, as it's a subset of evolutionary psychology.

I think also that your prediction of genetically good people living alongside genetically bad people mistakes a few things. Again, it assumes that a specific moral framework is hardcoded into our genes, which is a straw man. More accurately, one might say that the capacity to have a genetic framework is hardcoded into our genes, at which point your argument would be, "We should have morally capable and morally incapable people living together" - which we do. They're called sociopaths.

All your arguments about what we take to be the metaphysical nature of morality are, in a sense, besides the point. We could believe those same things equally well whether or not evolution was the ultimate source of our moral feelings (this, as I'm sure you know, is Hume's is-ought gap). Moreover, consider the huge theoretical frameworks we've built up around morality - religions and so on. Nobody knows what effect these frameworks have had on humanity's collective opinion of ethical metaphysics, so for you to say that humans - generally and always - take ethics to be objective is a claim without any evidential support to it. (If you like, I can give you a brief explanation as to why strong ethical opinions are likely to win out over weak ones regardless of the actual truth of the matter)

The idea of evolution as a source of moral tendencies in humans is neither self-contradictory, nor is it circular, nor even does it preclude a "higher" morality. Think of it like language - things might actually have objective definitions (a la Plato) regardless of how the various languages of the world come to define them. Similarly, the rest of your arguments would fall apart if applied to language. The only significant way in which language differs from morality is our beliefs - but you understand, clearly, that our beliefs are, at best, weak evidence regarding the metaphysical nature of anything.

 
At 1/09/2008 12:59 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Larry,

I have an overwhelming urge to point you to pacifist Switzerland during WWII. Far from being overrun by their really quite power-hungry neighbors, they survived and even flourished.

Yes, I thought of this counter-example myself. I think the reason that pacifism like this ever manages to survive is that the aggressor is not greatly concerned with it as an identified non-threat during the rise to power phase, and that if the agressive regime is defeated before it can stabilize it will never get to a point of leisure where it can be concerned to assimilate its undefended neighboring resources. In Switzerland's case, it had the added advantage of a troublesome barrier surrounding it, which made it both burdensome to invade and a flank with no need to secure.

you're ignoring the numerous studies that have shown moral tendencies in animals. It's not just our moral tendencies that contribute to the evolutionary argument for morality, but also those of our close (close-ish, anyway) relatives

I don't think I am ignoring the fact that animals have behaviors that you would term "moral." In fact, I made a point at least once of showing that the differences found in animal behavior is problematic for the idea that our notion of virtue is something of objectively higher value than, say, raping females to propagate one's genes or the strong dominating the food supply. As I said:

"However, we find various creatures acting in many ways, some of which we would think of as very 'bad' were it imitated by humans. Consequently, there is no reason to even think of our own behaviors, such as heroism, as objectively more virtuous than the diverse behaviors that we see in other successful creatures."

We may find similar behaviors to our own in other species, but this does not mean that they are the most ideal behaviors for the purposes of survival and reproduction, much less that they are the "best" ones in any objective moral sense.

Trying to force it to fit an all-nature/no-nurture paradigm (the legs/flippers analogy) doesn't accurately portray the theory itself, as it's a subset of evolutionary psychology.

First, my argument was specifically a case against the idea that morality is sourced in evolution. I cannot argue all things in one blog post, and I have argued against other non-theistic ideas regarding morality in other posts.

Second, if morality is nurture-based, then it is essentially a social construction. This opens it to the potential for change over time and culture, and causes it to fall prey to the issues relating to moral relativism, like justifying how heroism is objectively better than any other way we might respond to those in need.

Third, if we are simply a product of biochemistry, then everything that we are and do is ultimately reducible to natural forces — evolution being the author and driver of the biocomputer that is the human mind. All your urges and illusions of social autonomy are merely a byproduct of your nature. Evolutionary psychology is merely the practice of connecting the way we think and act with its evolutionary origin and advantage.

I think also that your prediction of genetically good people living alongside genetically bad people mistakes a few things. Again, it assumes that a specific moral framework is hardcoded into our genes, which is a straw man. More accurately, one might say that the capacity to have a genetic framework is hardcoded into our genes . . .

First, this is not my "straw man"; the idea that morality is an evolutionary adaptation is an idea I've heard many times from materialists, including in the original article that spawned my two blog posts on this issue. I am simply offering my thoughts on this idea.

Second, I might agree with you that we possess what you call a moral "framework." I would simply call it a matter of possessing certain moral "principles" that find particular expression according to culture and condition, i.e., humility, courage, selflessness, charity, integrity, etc. I'm not sure how you would distinguish morality from moral frameworks, but I suspect your idea of a framework would include the general idea that heroism is better than robbery. However, merely abstracting this one or more levels fails to escape my criticisms.

. . . at which point your argument would be, "We should have morally capable and morally incapable people living together" - which we do. They're called sociopaths.

No, I would not argue that; I would have to know more about what you include in a "framework." However, I do note that you seem to judge a sociopath to be a bad thing, but in making the case that this is an example of a morally broken creature you would raise again the problem of sourcing the idea of "correct" moral behaviors and why those behaviors are more to our evolutionary advantage than eugenics and the submission of the weak to the strong.

All your arguments about what we take to be the metaphysical nature of morality are, in a sense, beside the point. We could believe those same things equally well whether or not evolution was the ultimate source of our moral feelings (this, as I'm sure you know, is Hume's is-ought gap).

Sure, we can feel/believe anything we want about morality no matter where it comes from. And the fact that we do heroic things does not mean we ought to any more than the fact that we do selfish things means that we ought to do them. I guess there are two issues being discussed here: what grounds we have for taking heroism to be objectively more virtuous than any other possible behavior, and why we seem to be the kind of creature that values heroism in spite of its apparent lack of genetic advantage.

Moreover, consider the huge theoretical frameworks we've built up around morality - religions and so on. Nobody knows what effect these frameworks have had on humanity's collective opinion of ethical metaphysics, so for you to say that humans - generally and always - take ethics to be objective is a claim without any evidential support to it.

And I might claim the inverse, so at best this leaves us neutral on the question. However, enough have commented upon the similar moral values among cultures and religions (even secularists) that I may not need to offer a defense here. The very fact that materialists often appeal to evolution to explain morality suggests that there is something tangible and particular to be explained.

The idea of evolution as a source of moral tendencies in humans is neither self-contradictory, nor is it circular, nor even does it preclude a "higher" morality. Think of it like language - things might actually have objective definitions (a la Plato) regardless of how the various languages of the world come to define them. Similarly, the rest of your arguments would fall apart if applied to language. The only significant way in which language differs from morality is our beliefs - but you understand, clearly, that our beliefs are, at best, weak evidence regarding the metaphysical nature of anything.

Yes, language and morality could provide some interesting analogs. There may be many ways to verbally express common ideas and objects, which might parallel the way that many cultures can express the same underlying moral principles, like courage and modesty. However, to make the analogy you must first assume that there is an objective underlying morality that we are all attempting to apply within our own context. This begs the question of where those moral principles come from and why we ought to think of them as good and real. It seems to me that a materialistic source for morality is problematic given that alternate behaviors, which are repugnant to us, provide equal if not greater evolutionary advantages.

 
At 6/22/2014 7:13 AM, Blogger Amateur said...

There is no escaping the conclusion that a higher morality must necessarily come from a source outside of the community; it cannot develop within it.

 

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