Evolution and Morality #2


Dear Jane,

Thanks for your e-mail. Regarding your last sentence, I would say, on the contrary, you stated it very succintly and clearly. I don't know if E. O. Wilson would have been better. It seems to me you beautifully express some basic moral principles: to cooperate rather than compete, to make every effort to end injustice and to not steal. Others could probably be added: to not lie, to honor ones parents, to not commit adultery, etc. The odd part is that even tho we feel those moral principles so strongly--we use them daily to judge other people--still none of us lives up to them. Doesn't this seem most strange?

My question would be: Is this universalist morality just one more oddity which evolution has thrown up? Say, like dinosaurs or slugs. Is it, like them, merely destined to disappear or does it have some deeper significance?


Fr. Phil Bloom

P.S. Excuse me for asking what might at first seem to be the same question. I realize I did not ask it very clearly last time and that, according to my phrasing, you answered it fairly.


I think what I get stuck on is the phrase "has thrown up." Because as long as matter has properties--that is, as long as matter is something in particular--almost nothing in the universe is "just thrown up." True randomness is very rare in nature. It exists, as far as we know, only on the subatomic level, and even there it is an open question whether what we see is really random or if its apparent randomness is an artefact of a lack of sophistication in our ability to measure and observe the phenomena.

Religious people, I think, confuse randomness with lack of teleology. The creationist sites I have read often advance on the premise that there are two possibilities: deliberate direction from a creator or chaos.

But that's not true at all. Gravity exists, for instance, because molecules pull on other molecules and if you get enough of them together the pull will be sufficient to hold you in place (or crush you to death, if the planet is large enough). Molecules pull on each other because the atoms in them pull on each other because the subatomic particles pull on each other, etc, all down the line.

There needs to be no teleology here, only the "brute fact" that matter is what it is, to create a very NON-random universe.

In terms of a unversalist morality--I could write one for any living thing, from a geranium plant to a tree frog to a human being to a (fill in the blank). By that I mean that I could codify a set of rules that would describe the ways in which the thing would have to behave to maximize its continued existence in the world and the chances that its genes would be successfully replicated and be passed on in time to future generations.

We tend not to think of such codifications in terms of "morality" when it comes to geranium plants or tree frogs, because we think of human beings having "free will" in a sense that does not apply to anything else on the planet, and therefore being able to "choose", wholly independent of any material process, what to do next.

And that may even be true for, say, the geranium plant. But by the time you get to dogs, cats, large mammals of all kinds, you get beings who can plan their actions in advance at least to some extent, who can make "choices" about their actions and their future actions, who can learn from their experiences. Some animals--most of the primates, for instance, and certainly most domesticated dogs--are even capable of feeling guilt when they have been taught a standard of behavior and then transgressed it.

Where humans differ from other animals isn't in "free will," but in the ability to form and work with conceptual abstractions. As an adaptive advantage, this is incredibly powerful, because it results in a whole host of practical abilities: the ability to project actions into the future and imagine their consequences, for instance, which is present in hunting animals of all kinds, becomes, with the ability to handle conceptual abstractions, the capability of extending that imaging of the future over years and decades and even centuries instead of hours.

A lion, for instance, can look at a herd of gazelles, mentally track their movements and project far enough into the future to figure out that if she comes at the herd from a 45 degree angle the herd will scatter in certain directions and certain directions only. A GROUP of lions can then co- ordinate an attack to take advantage of the planning they are capable of doing.

People, by being able to abstract from situations such as these, can work out the longer term implications: that there are standard ways in which lions attack; that there are therefore ways that will and ways that will not work as defenses against such an attack; that if those defenses are built NOW, when no lions are around, they'll be ready and waiting when lions do arrive.

A universalist morality (as defined above) exists for dogs as well as humans. Humans differ only in that they can formulate it. This ability resulted from the pressures of natural selection, and is essentially an unintended consequence--but the existence of particular rules of behavior which will maximize our continued existence in the world and the chances that our genes would be successfully replicated and be passed on in time to future generations, is not. That is inherent in the our nature as material beings and in the fact that matter is something in particular.

It's not, you see, "thrown up" by anything, but precisely the definition of what we are. It is a material phenomenon but not a random one.

As to whether or not it's destined to disappear--I have no idea. There are actually two questions here: will it disappear in the process of evolution and will it disappear at the end of the universe (assuming the universe to have an end).

As to the process of evolution--if evolution in humans were allowed to proceed, eventually the nature of the human being would change and of necessity the particulars of his morality would change.

But human beings have halted the progress of evolution as it applies to themselves. For evolution to work, natural selection must be allowed to occur, and we no longer allow it to occur. We've learned to keep alive children born with cerebral palsy and other degenerative diseases and to allow many of them to live full lives, including sometimes marriage and children. We do something more dramatic than that--in most western countries, we have eliminated the common fatal diseases of childhood. Our children no longer die of diptheria, cholera, polio, tuberculosis, whooping cough, small pox. We've eliminated most of the other ordinary forms of danger through which natural selection works, too--we've stabilized agriculture, for instance, so that in most western countries, at least, people don't routinely die of famine any longer.

(Consider the following: addiction to cocaine has a known genetic element. Some people can take cocaine or leave it. Many others, once they've taken it once or twice, find they can't put it down and can't give it up and don't want to do anything else. The people in the second category far outnumber the people in the first. And yet, among the Yanomamo indians of South America, who take cocaine the way most American drink coffee, there are virtually no addicts. The Yanomamo take cocaine for days on end during feasts, and then just stop taking it when they go on an extended hunt, no big deal. The reason why is perfectly plain: the Yanomamo have to hunt if they're going to eat, and if they don't eat they die. The genetic trait for cocaine addiction has been bred out of them, because those among them who had it didn't hunt and didn't eat and didn't live to reproduce. On the streets of Harlem or Detroit, however, cocaine addiction will not lead to such dire consequences: there are shelters and soup kitchens, there are welfare rolls and public hospitals, and cocaine addicts are able to stay alive and often do reproduce, thereby passing the genes for addiction down to one more generation. An evolutionary process has occurred among the Yanomamo that has not occurred here, because we have changed the conditions of the environment in such a way that the process cannot occur here.)

So--human beings may intervene in the evolutionary process deliberately, through gene therapy, for instance, and thereby cause evolutionary changes in the human species, but natural ones will not come about it a world in which we are able to manipulate the environment to prevent them from coming about.

As to whether the universe will cease to exist or not--well, if it does, most certainly human universalist morality would cease to exist at that point because humans would cease to exist, and they would therefore not have physical properties which would have inherent operating principles that could be codified.

This seems to me to give human beings, and all living things, their deepest possible significance: the fact that we will one day cease to exist in death gives everything we do enormous significance, because this is the only life we will ever have and every moment of it counts.


Subject: Re: Evolution and Morality/Part 2

Date: Thu, 11 Feb 1999 06:29:37 EST

From: JaneHad@aol.com

To: hfs@brigadoon.com

In a message dated 2/10/99 6:35:48 PM Pacific Standard Time, hfs@brigadoon.com writes:

<< It seems to me you beautifully express some basic moral principles: to cooperate rather than compete, to make every effort to end injustice and to not steal. Others could probably be added: to not lie, to honor ones parents, to not commit adultery, etc. The odd part is that even tho we feel those moral principles so strongly--we use them daily to judge other people--still none of us lives up to them. Doesn't this seem most strange? >>

Excuse the second e-mail, but the other one got so long I was afraid I wouldn't have been able to send it. But it's going to be necessary to read that one to understand what I'm saying in this one. I just hope dividing them up like this will make them easier to navigate.

In the first place, I don't think "cooperate rather than compete" would serve as a universalist principle. Competition is obviously both necessary and good for us, to an extent, the key is the extent. I think what I said was that hypercompetition was not good for us.

In the second place, even a Jesuit knows that "not to lie" couldn't be a moral principle on its own. Being able to trust the ordinary word of one's neighbors is necessary for any kind of society to develop, but at the same time most of us would see nothing wrong with lying to a potential kidnapper about the wherabouts of a child we think he might want to kidnap or lying to the head of a hostile state about the nature or extent of our own nation's defenses.

As to adultery--I don't think you could get that one into a universalist morality at all. It is certainly necessary that men be involved in the lives of their children and that they be willing to help support them and care for them for long periods, but this world has almost universally practiced sexual polygamy in one form of the other. In some cultures, this is formal polygamy and a man is allowed to marry more than one wife.

In the West, this has chiefly been an informal polygamy where men have had one wife but often several mistresses--or rather, powerful men have. And we've built a spectacularly successful civilization in the process, which means that it's unlikely that there is anything inherently bad for us in having multiple sexual partners, at least as "inherently bad" is defined as it would be in Part 1 (Really, Really Long)

As to this:

>>>The odd part is that even tho we feel those moral principles so strongly--we use them daily to judge other people--still none of us lives up to them. Doesn't this seem most strange?<<<

I don't find this strange at all.

In fact, it's exactly what I would expect to come of a material evolutionary process.

We tend to "feel strongly" about the values our parents brought us up with, not the contents of a rationally derived universalist morality.

These values can often be a mess: irrational, illogical, impossible. So a lot of the time, we "fail to live up to" things that we should never have been taught to try to live up to to begin with.

Other things are a result of the transitional nature of all evolutionary creatures: we have developed the ability to see ahead and map the possibilities of the future, but our brain is at the same time hardwired to be well-adapted to conditions on the African savannahs 50,000 years ago.

So, I am in my Forties and I have two children and I want to be a size eight, and in pursuit of that I work out eight hours a week. I want to be a size eight because it has a lot of practical consequences in my life--thinner women are more readily promoted and hired than fatter ones, for instance--and also, of course, for vanity.

But my body thinks I'm crazy. It wants to get thick around the middle--all its hormones tell it its supposed to get thick around the middle. It never wants to be hungry. When I restrict my caloric intake to keep my weight down, it screams for food and more food. A big appetite made perfect sense in a world where famines were common. I no longer live in a world where famines are common (in my nation, at least). I therefore have to contend with a brain that is putting out contradictory demands, and the more basic of these demands--the really primitive ones--are still the strongest.

Creatures evolve to be successful in the conditions that gave rise to their evolution--not necessarily to be successful in the conditions that exist when they are born.




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