Ethics after Darwin

Tuesday 6 January 2009
Dr Donald Cameron, BRLSI Convenor and Trustee

In the 150 years since the publication of the Origin of Species there have been many ethical and philosophical ideas derived from Darwinism. Almost all of these have been mistaken and many quite eccentric. Their common error has been to break Hume’s Law, by deriving a conclusion about value or ethics from a premise that is purely descriptive of facts.
Yet Darwin’s Theory has great importance for philosophy. Our moral sentiments have originated by natural selection as a mechanism for transmitting our genes to future generations. Nothing more. No other input has formed them. This is a conclusion intensely disappointing to some, but no less true for that. Some imagine that evolution would make us violent and selfish, but that is too simplistic; our most ethical feelings are equally the product of natural selection acting upon us as a social animal.
But what conclusion can be drawn? We observe, in the modern context, that our stone-age instincts no longer maximise the transmission of our genes. The individual may speculate whether to follow gut instincts (as most of us do), or to “correct” decisions to maximise gene reproduction, or just to be a nihilist who says there is no purpose in anything. From the pure fact of Darwin’s Theory, no answer can be given to these questions, although the choices have been greatly clarified. This is the central question of ethical thought today.

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The publicity material for tonight’s talk has given rather a false impression. This is not a talk about Hitler! He will not receive more than a passing mention. And it is not even my intention to say that all deductions about ethics from Darwinism are false (although many of them have been) but to show that Darwin’s Theory can be fundamentally necessary to clear ideas about ethical thought and also our theory of knowledge. In fact, I would go so far as to say that philosophy without consideration of the fact that the human mind is the product of natural selection is doomed to failure. But there have been some very wrong conclusions drawn in the past and the lesson from these is that we must be very careful indeed.
But first, I would like to take a look at Hume’s Law. How many people here are familiar with Hume’s Law or the Naturalistic Fallacy or the idea that you cannot get an “ought” from an “is”? [A request for a show of hands seemed to show that few were.]
For those who have not met it, it is the very simple recognition that facts and values are two different things. It seems obvious that information about how the world is cannot tell me anything about how I would like it to be.
Sometimes there is confusion about this. Consider the statement: “That man is drowning; therefore we ought to throw him a lifebelt!” This appears to be an “ought” statement derived from the simple fact that a man is drowning, but it is easy to see the hidden value premise. Most of feel that we should make some effort to help those whose lives are in danger. If we are quite indifferent to someone losing his life, the deduction does not work.
Of course facts can affect our decisions about what we ought to do. If the lifebelt, on examination, turns out to be a cast-iron replica, then we ought not to throw it. The general rule which comes from Hume’s law is that a value conclusion can only be reached, if at least one of its premises is a statement of value, but it may also have premises of fact.
Darwin’s Theory is not a statement of value, but is now a fact established beyond all reasonable doubt. Before I go on, can I ask if anyone here disagrees with that? [No-one did, or at least no one admitted it!]
Any biologist who did not accept evolution by natural selection today would be thought quite eccentric and the only people who remain opposed to it are invariably motivated by religion.
I think the only position we can take on differing religious views is one of committed tolerance. Everyone is entitled to his or her views on religious matters and, as long as they do not lead them to hurt others, it should be no-one else’s business. But I have to say that I have no interest in arguing with creationists. They believe what they choose to believe for reasons unconnected with evidence and arguing by presenting evidence is therefore a waste of time.
Of course, it is not necessary to disbelieve the evidence for evolution in order to be religious. The Roman Catholic Church, having had unfortunate historical experience of trying to suppress science for religious reasons, takes the view that “truth cannot contradict truth” and does not deny Darwinism.
If you do disagree that Darwin’s Theory is an established fact, there is a risk that you may feel that you have wasted your time coming along this evening, because much of what I say is predicated on its acceptance as fact. There will be other lectures in the BRLSI programme this year in which the evidence for evolution will be considered, but this is not one of them. I am taking evolution as a given and working forward from there.
But, having heard my remarks about Hume’s Law, even those of you who fully accept Darwin’s Theory may be thinking that we have settled the matter and we can all go home. Darwin’s Theory is a description of what has happened and is happening. It is purely a statement of fact, but it contains no statement of value whatever. So, on the face of it, it can say nothing about values or ethics, and all those who have tried to use it are doomed to failure.
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Certainly, in the hundred and fifty years since the appearance of the “Origin” there have been many attempts and thoughts about Darwinism and its relation to ethics. Almost all of these have been confused and some have propagated complete nonsense, and have almost all consisted of a breach of Hume’s Law. Yet it remains true, in my view, that Darwin is very relevant to any complete theory about ethics. But first, let us review some of these discredited ideas.
The usual idea has been that evolution was a law of progress and, in the days of Victorian optimism, progress was seen as a very good thing. It is easy to see how such a suggestion of improvement occurs. Looking at the history of evolution, we see a development through simple, single-celled creatures to multicellular forms, fishes, amphibia, reptiles, mammals and finally, to the highest form, man himself. The fact that we humans have designated ourselves the pinnacle of evolution is, of course, quite meaningless. We do indeed have the best abilities to process information, but we are miserable specimens if we look at most other criteria. Many other animals run faster, swim better, or survive better in the cold.
Darwin himself was not immune to expressions of value in relation to evolution. Although most of The Origin of Species is most carefully and scientifically prepared text, Darwin relaxes a little in its concluding paragraphs and inserts some speculative sentences. These are more, I suspect, as a social nicety to round off the work than seriously thought-out statements. He writes: "As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those, which lived long before the Cambrian epoch, we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look forward with some confidence to a secure future of great length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection."
There is, however, as Darwin was probably well aware, a fundamental imprecision about this argument (quite apart from our nuclear-age worries about a secure future). Darwin used two phrases to describe the mechanism of evolution: "natural selection" and "survival of the fittest". He was dissatisfied with both, as each has lent itself to misinterpretation. Natural selection occurred to Darwin as an extension of the process, in which plant and animal breeders achieve great changes in certain species to make them more suitable for human use. In nature, while the process involves no conscious selection, those individuals that are better equipped to survive and reproduce, will have more numerous descendants in succeeding generations. The fittest will survive.
But it is a logically flawed argument to look at this process of development and call it a "progress toward perfection". It is a progress towards greater "fitness", but fitness has no meaning other than "that which is selected". Evolution does not work to satisfy an external standard of value, but rather works towards what evolution happens to produce.
Herbert Spencer, who was a contemporary of Darwin and enjoyed his approval to some extent, took this fallacious approach. He believed that human society had evolved, just as the human species had evolved, and that both were part of the same continuous process. The more a society had progressed along this scale, the more ideal would be its morality and its respect for the preservation of life. Despite this, there was the idea that it was a mistake for do-gooders to ease the plight of the less fortunate in society, which nature would otherwise cull.
One central idea was that because survival of the fittest was a law of nature, it ought to be the law that we accept as morally good. This is, of course, a classic fallacy of the "making an ought from an is" type. The basic structure of human society has undoubtedly been shaped by natural selection, but the form of the modern nation-state has been the result of the interaction between the evolved instincts of our tribal ancestors with the changed environment caused by a rapidly moving human culture. To a Victorian observer it may have seemed plausible that the more developed countries had a higher morality than the so-called "savages". But it is more easily realised today that a primitive village may have a more altruistic and well-adapted morality than is found in the big cities of the developed world.
Some Victorian writers carried the theme of evolutionary progress too far. A typical example was the investigator who measured the average slope of the face of different races. A vertical face was more advanced, whereas a sloping face was more primitive and apelike. By this means he was able to confirm that Europeans were superior to Africans and even that men were superior to women! The idea that one sex of any species could evolve further than the other is, of course, absurd. The physical and mental differences that we perceive between men and women and different races have evolved as adaptations to their different roles and environments.
Although Spencer's ideas have not enjoyed general acceptance, the theme dies hard. Even in the second half of the twentieth century we find Sir Julian Huxley seeming to follow them, albeit in a modern and supposedly "enlightened" version. In "The Humanist Frame" and other essays he writes about the need for a new idea system. Some fragments, which I hope will fairly represent his tone, are as follows:

"When we look into the trend of biological evolution, we find as a matter of fact that it has operated to produce on the whole what we find good....This is not to say that progress is an inevitable 'law of nature', but that it has actually occurred...."
"Our new pattern of thinking must be evolution-centred. It will give us assurance by reminding us of our long evolutionary rise; how this was so strangely and wonderfully, the rise of mind; and how that rise culminated in the eruption of mind as the dominant factor in evolution."
"Our new organisation of thought - belief system - framework of values - ideology - call it what you will - must grow and be developed in the light of our new evolutionary vision."
"The evolutionary outlook must be every field we must aim to transcend nationalism."
"But our thinking must also be concerned with the individual. The well-developed, well patterned individual human being is, in a strictly scientific sense, the highest phenomenon of which we have any knowledge..." [When "strictly scientific" is used in this way, can we assume that words have any meaning left at all?]
"The important ends of a man's life include the creation and enjoyment of beauty, both natural and man-made, increased comprehension and a more assured sense of significance, the preservation of all sources of wonder and delight, like fine scenery, wild animals in freedom, or unspoiled nature; the attainment of inner peace and harmony; the feeling of active participation in embracing and enduring projects, including the cosmic project of evolution."

I have quoted fairly extensively from Huxley, not only because he claims to derive his ideas from evolution, but also because the values that he expresses are very much those of a certain type of fashionable consensus. But the values are not logically derived in any way. They are simply asserted, in the traditional human way. The idea that evolution has produced what we believe to be good and that we should now guide future evolution with our minds to produce even more good may have something to be said for it. But it is quite useless as a way of scientifically establishing what "good" really is.
Darwin's Theory has had a profound effect in the century and a half (almost) since its publication. It must take much of the credit for the substantial weakening of religion that has occurred over the period and, from this important position in the minds of many, it is not surprising that it has found its way into many expressions of values - often mutually contradictory.
For example, J.D. Rockefeller, once claimed: "The growth of a large business is merely the survival of the fittest...The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendour and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God."
At the other end of the political spectrum, some socialist writers have claimed that Marx's theories were an extension and completion of the works of Darwin. To those who admire Darwin's scientific rigour, such an allegation is somewhat annoying, as Marx's "laws" were unscientific in the extreme and enjoyed their wide acceptance because they followed the old rule of telling people what they wanted to hear. Nevertheless, at Marx's funeral at Highgate Cemetery, London, in 1883, Engels claimed in his speech: "Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history."
The concept of evolution penetrated even to the strongly Christian founder of the Salvation Army, General Booth: "In the struggle of life the weakest will go to the wall...The fittest in tooth and claw will survive. All we can do is to soften the lot of the unfit and make their sufferings less horrible than at present." Booth, of course, was not claiming an evolutionary ethic, but was rather regretting a perceived evolutionary reality. Despite his regrets, many of his poverty-stricken charges were extremely fertile and, by biological standards, were not unfit at all.
Perhaps the most notorious exponent of a morality derived from evolution was Adolf Hitler, who was perhaps himself influenced by Nietzsche. In a 1928 speech he said: "The idea of struggle is as old as life itself, for life is only preserved because other living things perish through struggle....In this struggle the stronger, the more able, win, while the less able, the weak, lose. Struggle is the father of all living things....It is not by the principles of humanity that man lives or is able to preserve himself above the animal world, but solely by means of the most brutal struggle....If you do not fight for life, then life will never be won."
Hitler is the perfect example of the misconception of that an evolved human nature would be “red in tooth and claw”. Had Hitler accurately reflected on Darwin's Theory he would have realised that the common human attributes of the love of peace, honesty, morality and mercifulness have themselves evolved and are thus equally justified by the theory. His policy of reckless aggression was, in fact, extremely unfit in Darwinian terms. It denied survival to many of his followers, his movement and himself.
In the early twentieth century, it was seen how powerfully artificial selection could improve our domestic animals. (By improve, we mean from a point of view of their usefulness to humans, not that of the animals themselves.) It seemed obvious that the same idea could be applied to improvement of the human stock. The idea of eugenics today has a very bad name because it could be extended to forced sterilisations, elimination of those considered racially inferior and so on. A degree of selection still remains, however. If, for example, a couple who carry a genetic disease select embryos which are free of the defective gene, I can find little to criticise in that.

For most of the later twentieth century, moral philosophers as well as philosophers of knowledge have avoided evolution entirely (thereby ensuring their own failure).
Those who have admitted its relevance have, quite correctly, been guarded to avoid the naturalistic fallacy, the mistake of deriving an "ought" from an "is". Anthony Flew admits that moral philosophy can be improved by viewing things in an evolutionary perspective. Yet he says "any attempt to deduce norms for human conduct from this theory of the origin of species by natural selection must be as irredeemably wrong-headed as the search in the same area for some guarantee of human progress, some assurance of victory for the right; or, if you insist, the left."
Robert Wright in The Moral Animal (1994), in an otherwise excellent book, says "I'm not claiming that any moral absolutes follow from Darwinism.... But I do believe that most people who clearly understand the new Darwinian paradigm and earnestly ponder it will be led towards greater compassion and concern for their fellow human beings."
I find it difficult to agree with either. Flew is fudging the issue, when he says that no deductions can be made and yet admits the evolutionary "perspective" as a valid input. Wright implies that an understanding of evolution might make us less vengeful as we perceive that our indignation is simply an evolved biological mechanism. He does not explain why it should not make us more criminal when we realise that our sense of guilt is equally only an evolved mechanism.
Avoidance of the naturalistic fallacy, the "is/ought" conflict identified by Hume, cannot be achieved by a half-way house, in which we only commit the fallacy a little bit.
Most of the good thinking in this area has come from biologists while philosophers have largely ignored evolution. For example, John Harris, a very able professor of philosophy currently at Manchester, has produced a useful book on medical ethics called The Value of Life (1985). He only mentions evolution once in the entire book, with the words “Indeed if one or other of the versions of natural selection describe a natural evolutionary progress for human beings, then again while it may be evolutionarily successful, one could hardly describe the survival of the fittest and its corollary, the destruction of the weakest, as a humane (albeit a human) arrangement.” After some other confused speculations, he continues to draw his moral premises from his gut feelings. He completely fails to spot the fact that natural selection and natural selection alone is the only information input that has formed our value sentiments. Without understanding this, a complete philosophy is impossible, although much of the refinement of gut feeling that he makes is both competent and useful.

We have noted the tendency of even the greatest authors to drop their logical guards in their closing sentences. Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) concludes: "We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism: something which has no place in nature, something which has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."
Andrew Brown in The Darwin Wars (1999) says "He does not explain who the "we" are, that have somehow so far escaped being preformed by these all-powerful forces as to be able to turn against them..." Since we have instincts that come from our evolutionary past, some altruistic and some selfish, why would we be likely to choose one over the other? If someone actually tried to put Dawkins’ recipe into practice, I fear that it would end in the most terrifying tyranny. The usual pattern is that ever-harsher measures are required to prevent defection and that these are then manipulated to promote the selfish interests of those holding power. History is already there to instruct us; I would gladly join a co-operation to fight any such attempt.
I am afraid Dawkins has written nonsense, perhaps deliberately put in to deflect criticism from the sillier philosophers (if so, it didn't work as it turned out). I find it hard to believe that his intellect is capable of misunderstanding this. It seems to me more likely that he has set out to confine himself to "is" statements and to build a barrier against any accusation of making "ought" statements. My private correspondence with him in the year 2000 revealed that he still believed, or at least maintained, this view at that time. When one of clearest minds on the planet holds such an obviously false view, it humbles me to check and re-check my own conclusions!
Daniel Dennett in his excellent book "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" (1995) says "Ethical decision making, examined from the perspective of Darwin's dangerous idea, holds out scant hope of our ever discovering a formula or an algorithm for doing right. But that is not an occasion for despair; we have the mind tools we need to design and redesign ourselves, ever searching for better solutions to the problems which we create for ourselves and others." This too, from a first class author, is not good enough. What he saying is that the gut feelings that can only have come from our evolution can be used to correct themselves. It is a long way from a proven solution. And how can we speak of better solutions, if we have no idea what quantity we are trying to optimise?
He says, in the same book, "There is a persisting tension between the biological imperative of our genes on the one hand and the cultural imperatives of our memes on the other, but we would be foolish to "side with" our genes; that would be to commit the most egregious error of pop sociobiology. Besides... what makes us special is that we, alone among species, can rise above the imperative of our genes..." Unusually for Dennett, this wonderfully combines all the worst ways of presenting an argument. He asserts without reason or evidence; he insults the opposition by name calling; he flatters the audience and he smuggles in values by using phrases like "rise above". It is useless to speak of rising up, if we do not have any way of knowing which way is up!
Dennett reproduces an amusing cartoon by Patrick Hardin. It shows a fish pulling itself onto a beach. Higher up the slope there is an amphibian, a reptile and a mammal in an evolutionary sequence. Each creature has a thought bubble saying "eat, survive, reproduce". At the top of the beach is a man in baggy trousers and a sleeveless jumper, whose thought bubble says "what's it all about?". I feel the need to enter this cartoon myself so that I can say "it’s about eating, surviving and reproducing, stupid!"
Susan Blackmore, who will be speaking to us in April, quotes Brodie, who exhorts us to "consciously choose your own memetic programming to better serve whatever purpose you choose, upon reflection, to have for your life". This is not a great contribution to our problem. It seems to be based on the idea that inside our brains, which are made by genes and populated by memes, there is a further nice little person who might control it all. But this is nonsense. The evolved genes and memes are the only information sources and the homunculus does not exist. Blackmore herself, correctly calls all this a cop-out, but stops short of offering a clear prescription.
Edward O. Wilson (1978), in a now famous passage, says "Can the cultural evolution of higher ethical values gain a direction and momentum of its own and completely replace genetic evolution? I think not. The genes hold culture on a leash. The leash is very long, but inevitably the values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool." I agree completely, but this remains an "is" statement. Under Hume’s Law, it can not give an ethical conclusion; it is not a sufficient reason to guide me to what I want to do.
Is everyone familiar with the concept of the meme? I expect that this will be discussed in more detail during Dr Susan Blackmore’s forthcoming talk, but it concerns the idea that packages of information, called memes, can be viewed as reproducing entities as the populate human brains and can be subject to a process of natural selection themselves, based on their propensity to get themselves copied.
It may be true that the memes are "us", just as much as the genes, but this is so in much the same way that the bacteria in our intestines are part of "us". Some of these are beneficial, while others bring disease. We must give both memes and bacteria a very selective welcome. None of these writers give any indication of how we might select between good and bad memes and this leaves the problem of a philosophy of values completely unanswered.
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We have looked at all these failed ideas, but we are left with the problem that we know exactly where our brains, our minds, our moral sentiments and indeed all our value sentiments have come from. They have all been produced by natural selection acting on unstructured matter and no other non-random input has formed them. Our brains and minds are mechanisms whose only discernable purpose is to promote the reproduction of our genes. But this is a fact. Under Hume’s Law it cannot tell us anything about what we ought to wish for ourselves or what we ought to regard as a duty to others. We are in the bizarre situation that we understand the whole problem yet we cannot fine the answer we seek. This, today, is the central question of moral philosophy.
There are many difficulties in emotionally accepting that there is a mechanistic basis of human morality, yet a full understanding of the problem can never be achieved without facing this unpalatable truth. The problem is as old as the publication of the Origin itself.
In The Descent of Man, published in 1871 (2nd ed., 1874), the thesis of the continuity of man and the other animals is put forward as follows:
“It has, I think, now been shewn that man and the higher animals, especially the Primates, have some few instincts in common. All have the same senses, intuitions, and sensations,----similar passions, affections, and emotions, even the more complex ones, such as jealousy, suspicion, emulation, gratitude, and magnanimity; they practise deceit and are revengeful; they are sometimes susceptible to ridicule, and even have a sense of humour; they feel wonder and curiosity; they possess the same faculties of imitation, attention, deliberation, choice, memory, imagination, the association of ideas, and reason, though in very different degrees. The individuals of the same species graduate in intellect from absolute imbecility to high excellence. They are also liable to insanity, though far less often than in the case of man.” (Descent of Man, ch. 3)
But there has always been an emotional difficulty in accepting that we are simply evolved mechanisms following a program that natural selection has formed in us. For some reason that the moral sense is a product of evolution seems indigestible to many people, despite the weight of evidence that Darwin and later authors have provided.
For example, the Rev. Leonard Jenyns, the well known, past member of this institution, wrote a letter to his friend Charles Darwin after his first reading of the Origin of Species in 1859. He said
‘One great difficulty to my mind in the way of your theory is the fact of the existence of Man. I was beginning to think you had entirely passed over this question, till almost in the last page I find you saying that "light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." By this I suppose is meant that he is to be considered a modified and no doubt greatly improved orang! . . . .
Neither can I easily bring myself to the idea that man's reasoning faculties and above all his moral sense could ever have been obtained from irrational progenitors, by mere natural selection ----acting however gradually and for whatever length of time that may be required. This seems to me doing away altogether with the Divine Image that forms the insurmountable distinction between man and brutes. (Letter to Darwin, Jan.4, 1860.)
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We have looked at a number of thoughts, many from very able thinkers, which we must judge to be wholly or partly wrong. Yet it is clear, as many of them have been aware that evolution holds something that is important for philosophy. How can we solve the problem? We seem to know everything about the system that we are trying to understand and yet still have trouble reaching the answer. Let us review what we actually know.
Clearly, it is no use just grabbing some aspects of evolution and, with a lot of hand waving, use it to confirm our existing prejudices. It is not good enough to say that it is natural, therefore it must be right. Dying of infectious disease is natural, but it is right to prevent it.
Humans have been formed by a very long process of evolution by the process of natural selection. We have a complex design which appears to be rich in purpose, yet the only non-random input into its design has been the action of natural selection. Natural selection does not work to any purpose outside itself, but simply selects that which, for whatever reason, becomes more numerous in the gene pool in succeeding generations.
It follows from this that every aspect of our beings, including our minds and brains, their power for logic and inference and their moral motivations have been created by this simple force. The have no purpose in the sense that they do not serve any purpose outside the biological sphere, but their only discernable apparent purpose is to promote the propagation of the genes that built them. We might conclude that there is no real purpose – we are just the product of complex molecules reacting to the environment, yet we profoundly feel a sense of purpose and are going to go on doing so.
When I state that our sense of purpose and our moral sentiments come from natural selection alone, many will say, what about nature and nurture? It is a common belief that we can be educated in our values, and to a large extent this is true. The very plasticity in our values is a characteristic that has evolved, because it is effective in transmitting genes to future generations.
But let us go back for a moment to Hume’s Law. If any value statement can only be derived from a value statement, how can we ever acquire new values? To me, other people trying to recruit me to their values are simply fact information coming into my eyes and ears. How can I reach a value statement from that? This ultimately leads us to the conclusion that all our values must be genetically specified. Certainly it seems true that when others try to recruit us to their values, they present arguments which appeal to values that we already hold.
Also, much of what seems to be a cultural morality is actually a structure of cooperation whose purpose is to better serve the underlying innate desires. For example, we have an innate desire not to die and for that reason we support the idea of the sanctity of human life. We do not need to have thought this out; those who have promoted the sanctity of human life have survived better in the past and, for that reason, it is programmed into our brains by natural selection.
Speaking up for the survival of others is a small price to pay for insurance against our own deaths. Reciprocal cooperation of this type is the basis of most of our social interaction and we devise mechanisms to ensure that the reciprocation is enforced. Laws, money, door locks, etiquette, policemen, taxes, contracts and many other aspects of our lives are simply means to avoid defection from the cooperation that serves our underlying, perhaps genetic, values.
And sometimes these values break down. On our less favoured inner-city estates and perhaps in some countries where civil order has broken down, we find individuals who appear to see no value in a cooperative morality. It may well be that these are perfectly normal individuals, with the same genetic values as everyone else, but who have been conditioned by their environment to expect that moral behaviour will not be reciprocated.
Values, then, are pieces of information describing how we would like the world to be. These include our moral sentiments towards others as much as our purely self-centred desires such as not wanting to die and seeking food when we are hungry. They cannot be deduced from facts about the world and they are there because they have been programmed by evolution.
But this conclusion remains best described as science. It tells us a fact; it is a fact about values, but it does not answer the philosopher’s question: “what values should I as an individual adopt, both in my own interest and in the duty I will observe to others?”
We can observe today that we follow the instincts which we have inherited, but they do not work in an obvious way in the modern context. Changes in communication possibilities make us have sympathy for an ever wider group – not just for our own “tribe”. Art is now something which we consume from professionals rather than being part of the social cohesion mechanism of local groups (Professor Vincent will speak to us about this in July). Some of us smoke or take other addictive drugs. We neglect our children in order to have double incomes and conspicuous consumption. And, most significant of all, contraception has disconnected the sex impulse from the result of having children.
The result is quite bizarre we are a species with abundant resources which is dying out. If the low birth rate continues at its present level, the existing populations of the developed countries will disappear in about 200 years time. They may be replaced by immigrants from elsewhere, but these populations too may experience the same effects at a later time.
Professor Steve Jones will be speaking to us later this year in a talk entitled “Is Evolution Over?” The answer is very clear. Those who reach the decision to be voluntarily childless have the same effect on the future gene pool as those with an instinct to jump out of skyscraper windows. Human behaviour is under very strong selection pressure in the modern age and it would be quite surprising if it were not in a process of change.
But, all this is very interesting, yet it still does not answer our question. Should we care that our instincts are misfiring from their original purpose? Should we care that our peoples will die out in 200 years?
Steven Pinker does not care. In his book How the Mind Works (1997) he says, "...I do know that happiness and virtue have nothing to do with what natural selection designed us to accomplish in an ancestral environment. They are for us to determine. ...I am voluntarily childless... By Darwinian standards I am a horrible mistake, a pathetic loser... But I am happy to be that way, and if my genes don't like it they can go jump in the lake".
But is he right to use the phrase “I do know”? I don’t think he can say that – he would be better to say “I have chosen to believe, based on the gut feelings produced by my ancestral instincts acting on modern circumstances to which they have had no selective adaptation.”
He says our values are ours to determine. What will we use to determine them if not a brain designed by natural selection in an ancestral environment? And what information source can we draw them from?
I think that I probably do care, at least to some extent. But how can we prove who is right? We still have difficulty arriving at a solution although we understand the whole system.
This then, is the central problem of the modern philosophy of purpose (of which ethics is a subset). We understand that our sense of purpose and moral sentiments have come from differential survival rates over millions of years. We understand that there is no other source of information that has had any information input to them. We understand that they do not produce the optimum transmission of genes today despite our almost obscene wealth. Yet this does not give a full answer to the question “What values would I be right to adopt to guide my own decisions?”
Options that suggest themselves are:
1) Follow our gut feelings for maximum satisfaction, but knowing that we are playing out the workings of a misfiring mechanism.
2) Consciously resist those of our instincts which no longer serve the purpose of maximising our gene transmission and adapt our behaviour artificially to modern conditions.
3) Simply do not care what happens, because we understand that it is all a biological mechanism – adopt an attitude of nihilism in which nothing matters.
I cannot give you a certain answer to these questions. In fact, because these conclusions have been deduced from a basis of fact statements without any value premise, I would be in breach of Hume’s Law to do so. And I do not think that we can conclude that Hume’s Law is mistaken. But at least this analysis improves our understanding of the problem of human ethics. What remains is the central problem of ethics, to which there is perhaps no solution except one that we emotionally choose for ourselves.