North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

The problem with Darwinian Ethics

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A pretty concise summary of the problem with trying to extract a set of morals from Darwinian theories:

The statement “The environment selects some beetles to eat their young” serves a function in biology similar to the function the statement “Nature is fallen” serves in theology. Both have explanatory power, but the biological statement tries to be descriptive, whereas the theological statement is clearly normative. Christianity teaches that nature is not what it God intended it to be, and thus nature alone cannot be a guide to moral behavior. Without that normative claim, however, Darwinian philosophers are left with an environment that selects any kind of behavior as long as it gives a species a competitive advantage. If we do not eat our young when resources are scarce, it is only because nature has selected other strategies for our survival. It follows that morality must be either a heroic but ultimately fruitless struggle against our nature or a rationalization and mystification of self-interested behavior.

More on the subject of ethics and biology at the WSJ.


Written by Curt

May 16, 2007 at 5:44 pm

One Response

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  1. “It follows that morality must be either a heroic but ultimately fruitless struggle against our nature or a rationalization and mystification of self-interested behavior.”

    Neither follows, actually. If morality is biologically-based, then it is not a struggle against our nature, because our nature is to be moral. It is also not a rationalization, by definition; the survival of basic moral tenets indicates a selective advantage for those tenets. In other words, there is a physical reason morality prevailed, and that’s because it was the better strategy.

    It doesn’t even matter that it’s a self-interested strategy. A cursory understanding of economics and game theory, of all things, would show you that universal self-interest is a pretty good strategy. It’s the entire reason free markets, or close-to-free markets, are the most successful.

    “Wilson tries his hardest to avoid these dire conclusions, although it is not clear if he thinks evolution is for everyone in the sense that evolution intends to be a benefit for every single human individual, or if evolution is capable of being used by everyone in the sense that people can learn to make the best of the struggle for existence. The former is plainly untrue (presumably, natural selection sacrifices human individuals, like the beetle babies, to their species), while the latter implies that evolution has no force in human society (since we can make of it what we want).”

    This guy likes setting up false dichotomies doesn’t he? Well he’s got something right, but he completely misses the real point. Yes, evolution is deterministic. Our bodies determine how we operate. He can summarize the evolutionary position clumsily by saying, “Biologists think we’re all a bunch of robots,” in order to satisfy his point. But the lack of subtlety is rather amusing. A deterministic being, by definition, is one who acts solely based upon its environmental stimuli. I wonder what this gentleman would answer if asked, “What is a deterministic being with infinitely many stimuli?”

    I know what I would answer, “A conscious one”.

    Therefore in fact both branches of his dichotomy may be true at the same time; funny that he didn’t include that possibility.


    May 17, 2007 at 2:42 am

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