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Evolution Doesn’t Select for Ethics

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Natural Selection

The second most incorrect thing people say about evolution is that it is the survival of the fittest. (The most incorrect award has to go to the claim "it doesn’t exist"). The problem with this framing is that it sets up a picture of evolution-as-craftsman, carefully scrutinizing genetic variations and selecting and nurturing the most promising variant.

But evolution isn’t selecting for, it’s selecting against. Instead of survival of the fittest, it’s the persistence of the just barely workable. If an organ or a social structure is stable, it has the potential to last. Put simple, evolution favors local maxima.

Local Maxima

If you want to get to the higher peak, you need something more directed than evolution or some pretty brutal selection pressures. So even if we believed that evolution was favoring moral improvement, it would be easy for progress to come to a halt far short of its potential.

But it’s worse than that. The z-axis in the graph above isn’t ‘goodness of group dynamics’ or ‘considerate feelings for others.’ It’s simply successful reproduction. Evolutionary psychologists can come up with elaborate explanations of how altruism could be part of a local maxima (or a Nash equilibrium, if we’re talking game theory), but that’s a long way from claiming it’s a necessary property of all local maxes or just the global max.

It’s easy to find counterexamples of stable evolutionary strategies that strike us as morally abhorrent. This one comes from Science as excerpted by TYWKIWDBI, and concerns gelada baboons:

If a newcomer ousts the chief monkey, it’s bad news for the group’s females. A wave of death sweeps through the unit, as the new male kills all the youngsters whom his predecessor fathered...But that’s not all. Eila Roberts from the University of Michigan has found that the new male’s arrival triggers a wave of spontaneous abortions. Within weeks, the vast majority of the local females terminate their pregnancies. It’s the first time that this strategy has been observed in the wild...
It’s obvious why the incoming males kill any existing infants. Female geladas don’t become fertile until they stop raising their existing children. Assuming no abortions, they go for three years between pregnancies. That’s longer than the typical reign of a dominant male. So, a newcomer, having finally won the right to mate, has few opportunities to actually do so. To make things worse, his females are busy raising someone else’s children. His solution: kill the babies. The quicker he does this, the sooner the females become fertile again, and the sooner he can father his own children.
But why would a pregnant female abort her own foetus? Roberts thinks that it’s an adaptive tactic in the face of a new male’s murderous tendencies. Since the male would probably kill the newborn baby anyway, it’s less costly for the female to abort than to waste time and energy on bringing a doomed infant to term. Her future offspring, conceived more quickly and fathered by the incumbent king of the hill, will stand a better chance of survival.

It’s stable states like these that mean I have little patience for evolutionary psychology or some spins on natural law as a foundation for ethics and obligation. Evolution is a wholly amoral process, so why would I expect that it would preserve and amplify whatever signal points us to the Good and the True?

Some atheists seem to think evolutionary psychology will excuse us from thinking about metaphysics, and some natural law proponents think that by studying our own physical bodies, we can intuit their form and proper function. I’d love to hear commenters on either side explain how they can distill moral instruction from a blind process that can’t take ethics into account.


The one counterargument I want to dispatch in this post is the idea that evolution promotes moral behavior because it has given us an intelligence to recognize moral behavior and to modify ourselves appropriately. This is just saying that evolution has brought us to the point where we can actively and deliberately subvert evolution. This is true, and I’m glad to welcome you to the transhumanist club, but it does not suggest evolution is directed towards moral behavior or reflection.
Originally posted at Unequally Yoked. Used with author's permission.

Leah Libresco

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Leah Libresco was raised in an atheist household before graduating from Yale University in 2011 with a BA in political science. She gained notoriety as an atheist blogger who focused on such diverse topics as math and morality. She often wrestled with Catholic ideas and her blog, titled “Unequally Yoked,” started as a place where she could interrogate and consider arguments raised by her then-boyfriend, a practicing Catholic. Readers were startled in June 2012 when Leah announced her conversion to Roman Catholicism. Leah has since been interviewed by CNN, MSNBC, and several other media outlets. Follow Leah through her blog, Unequally Yoked.

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  • I don't have a direct response; rather, a few observations. I have often thought about this topic, and have had trouble finding a cogent argument that can completely dismantle evolution as a possible mechanism for the presence of morality. These are the things that I find in favor of evolution -

    Natural selection acts on the individual, but it is the population that evolves. If cooperation were an evolved behavior, one would expect that populations would evolve to be cooperative within a population (the more genetically related individuals) but not between populations. And, one does see this to a large extent in human behaviors - "like" groups are cooperative, but "unlike" groups have been warlike and aggressive towards each other. I do find it difficult to imagine how cooperativity could have been favored in the first place on the level of the individual, and yet it is also difficult to imagine how eusocial insects like bees and ants could have evolved their complicated and group-favoring population structure. However, how "cooperation within the population" could have become "cooperation between different populations" is also hard to imagine. Clearly "most" people would agree that it is better for both like and unlike groups to get along and be at peace with one another.

    If a population evolves to favor cooperativity (as opposed to murder, antagonism, aggression) - a local maxima - then there will always be "cheaters" that take advantage of the situation, which the population must punish in order to prevent such behavior from destabilizing the society. Cheating would only be profitable, however, as long as the majority of the population does not cheat. For example, during a bacterial infection if most of the bacteria produce metabolically expensive toxins that enable the growth and survival of the bacteria, a small percentage of the bacteria can get away with not producing the toxin, which benefits their own survival as they don't have to waste resources on toxin production. However, if their growth outcompetes the toxin producers, they themselves will die off because they don't have the ability to produce the (important) toxin. So, it is to the advantage of both cheaters and noncheaters that noncheaters predominate. And one could say that this is the way our society seems to operate as well. Although some "cheaters" get away with and benefit from non-cooperative behaviors in the context of a cooperative society, for the most part the population punishes cheaters.

    Another comment is that although we clearly have the capacity as individuals to develop exquisite consciences, the development of conscience is not 100% natural - it is also learned behavior, and shaped by parents and later oneself. I feel like that fact could go either way. It certainly appears that a few individuals are born without the ability to develop a conscience, in the case of kids who grow up in "normal" homes and then turn out to be ruthless murderers, which is an argument in favor of a genetic, "evolved," component. Of course, that is anecdotal evidence.

    I do agree that it seems highly improbable that ethics could have evolved, especially since even though we do not necessarily act morally, we at least have a sense of what proper morality is (a point made by C.S. Lewis), and if we are logical we "know" that it should be applied equally to everyone regardless of race, gender, etc. However, I simply cannot rule out evolution as a source for morality easily in the conversations I have in my mind on the topic. :)

    • It's quite possible for groups to cooperate with unlike groups when it's to their mutual advantage. Look at international trade. Employers will send jobs from within their group to unlike groups when they can profit from it. It doesn't matter to them that the government of the unlike group allows horrible working conditions and has a deplorable human rights record. Employers will gladly cooperate with that group to make money, while still keeping them at arm's length socially.

      Your point about a ratio of cheaters to non-cheaters is an important one. The non-cheaters will predominate, though the cheaters are the ones who will prosper. We call them the One Percenters. They need lots of non-cheaters around to exploit and do the actual work. They will keep the non-cheaters from cheating by deceiving them into thinking that if they work hard and play by the rules, they will prosper.

    • Dian Atamyanov

      Yes, if we're logical, but morality does not always concern logic, and people do not always apply logic when developing their moral understandings. This egalitarian view is a relatively modern idea, and one that isn't as widespread as we might like. One big piece of evidence for this is unfolding as we speak, namely how ethics concern homosexual individuals. Although some major breakthroughs have been made in some places, and are continued to be made, it is evidently true that the bigger part of societies on this planet do not regard homosexuality as "normal" or "morally acceptable".

      To a great extent morality is externally learned behaviour facilitated through participation in different groups (families, social circles, societies, etc), to another extent it is internally processed. The development of empathy (not only in humans as we now know) coupled with a highly capable mind can enable us to be influenced by others and to be able to influence both ourselves and others as to what is and is not moral.

      In that regard, it is of course not evolution that has lead to morality, but rather our social behaviour and our common capacity for thought, but this behaviour as well as our brains have both been developed by our evolution as a species.

  • Generally a very good overview of evolution and ethics. I'll suggest a different viewpoint on it: Evolution *does* select for ethics. Just not Christian ethics. It does not select for what we would call virtue. I would redefine ethics as that which perpetuates an organism's genetics through the way it interacts with other organisms. In effect, game theory as ethics. Dawkins' selfish gene. This is just my definition. But it would seem to answer Leah's question of how we can distill moral instruction from a blind process that can't take ethics into account. It morally instructs us that game theory *is* the ethics being taken into account. We have to power to actively and deliberately subvert evolution, but when all is said and done, we don't really do it.

    • I would like to add to this as well. One of the greatest evolutionary traits is language. Human language being the most robust allows us to share knowledge in greater amounts than any other species. This sharing of knowledge is what makes humans so resilient and adapted to survive (we go to a knew place and we can communicate the weather, what is safe to eat, etc.). And language is one of the key aspects of culture, which you could also consider an evolutionary trait (the ability to create culture, not any individual culture). This knowledge about culture is just as useful as knowledge about the environment. And we can use this knowledge to develop rules that help survival and reproduction. This is why cultures so often have rules regarding morality, which are completely different than rules directly influenced by evolution to increase cooperation. And just as evolution is not a perfect process, cultural ideas also sometimes get things wrong.

      So what I'm saying is not only does evolution get credit for our inborn morality, it also receives credit for allowing language and culture, which is pretty much everything we've ever known. The good and the bad.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      Virtue is what changes survival of the fittest into ethics. I can't call the selfish gene ethical any more than I can call Dawkins ethical.

      • Diogene 66

        I hope you understand that your predication is only based upon a religious approach ?

        Well... Then... why not ?

        Problem is, that this kind of thinking has bever been able, as far as I can see, to unravel —and, even less, understand— the complexity of our global environment (i.e. : the Universe).

        Firstly : how do you define "virtue" ?

        Then, how do you demonstrate that it "changes survival of the fittest into ethics" ?? By what specific process ?

        • TheodoreSeeber

          The councilar method.

          • Diogene 66

            Kinda taciturn, hey ?

            It's a bit short..
            You could develop a bit further

            Are you refering to "Vatican II" council ??

          • TheodoreSeeber

            I'm referring to the meta method in general- of which Vatican II is just the latest incarnation in Catholicism, but which exists in other religions and stretches back in time to the pre-Christian era as well. It is a method of developing philosophical truths, which go by the name "virtues". The scientific method is a subset of the same principle, using the new invention of the printing press and peer reviewed publication instead of general council debates, but it is the same basic idea.

  • Alonzo Fyfe has a much better and much simpler analysis. And happily, he has blogged on it many times. Some selected details:

    "Evolutionary psychology will have a lot to say that will be relevant to
    the moral facts that do exist on planet X. Evolutionary psychology will
    provide us with a lot of facts useful in determining what the moral
    facts are. However, nowhere in deducing the rights and duties on Planet X will I
    claim that there exists a particular right or duty merely because the
    people have evolved a disposition to approve of it." http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2013/02/evolved-sentiments-and-moral-content.html

    "Morality itself is not an evolved disposition to favor or disfavor certain actions. Morality is a consequence of the fact that we evolved malleable desires, thus we evolved the capacity to influence the desires others acquire by altering the environment, and that we have reason to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires." http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2009/02/relationship-between-evolution-and.html

    "Think of the eye. How much is evolution responsible for he principle of optics that govern how light behaves as it passes through matter with different densities? Answer: none. How much is evolution responsible for the development of an organ that uses these principles - however imperfectly - to provide an entity with information about its surroundings? Answer: A great deal. The proposition that evolution cannot account for morality is no myth; it is a fact. However, the proposition that evolution created beings capable of using morality is not a myth. It is a fact." http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2013/02/a-non-religious-non-evolutionary.html

    • There are some good points there, especially about facts that relate to our evolved desires. There are facts about how we feel and think about morality, although the concept of "moral facts" was well taken apart by Hume, long ago.

    • Diogene 66


  • Max Driffill

    Firstly I don't think that the work of evolutionary psychologists seeks to halt an broader discussion of moral behavior. However it does seek to answer questions about the evolution of morality and the limits of human moral instincts, which do seem to be a very real thing. Given that it is on these instincts that much of our later discourse on ethics, virtue and morality is built, and by which such discussion is navigated this seems a useful project.

    I am not sure why anyone would think that the moral instincts which evolved in small hunter gather tribes would be optimized for a world post agricultural revolution.

  • Sample1

    This is a good article.

    It made me think of George C. Williams who said, "Although there is no questioning the heroism of those who 'rebel against the selfish replicators' their task seems very nearly insurmountable. I question whether anyone can formulate a broadly acceptable moral system that will not in some respects be constrained by the legacy of generations spent as selfish and kin-selected replicators."


    • Jon Hawkins

      Not sure if I correctly understand the quote, but I think Philippians 1:9 offers a good explanation to what I think the quote means (assume love=morality): "And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in your knowledge of depth and insight;"

      In other words, the more we understand our nature and our purpose as human beings the better we will be able to create a moral law that is universal and humane.

      • Sample1

        A nice sentiment but that doesn't seem assured. In fact, that's the gist of what the quote is getting at. We have billions of years of genetic baggage that won't necessarily fit into the overhead bin, as it were, on our journey to a better tomorrow. It's a struggle every time to squeeze it in; a struggle worth enduring, imo.

        In reply to:

        the more we understand our nature and our purpose as human beings the
        better we will be able to create a moral law that is universal and


  • Diogene 66

    I suggest that... there simply is NO such thing as "bad" and "evil".

    These are not "transcendental" concepts, existing by themselves outside of human thinking...

    I certainly don't want to revive, here, the Late Middle-Ages' « Querelle des Universaux", but the example quoted in the article (alpha males monkeys wringing the neck of "alien" offsprings), demonstrates it quite well...

    In nature, there is only one alternative : either "it" works, or "it" doesn't.

    Then, millions of years thereafter, comes a myriad of naked apes, marvelling about «how beautiful is that rougeoyant sunset» (which, actually, is nothing more than red wavelenght passing obliquely thru the atmosphere !), OR : « look how "evil" is that manta, which devours the male who has just impregnated her » !

    Poor, naïve naked apes...

    If we try to link that approach to the evolution process, we could propound that "evolution" just happened to unrolled in such a way that —after billions of unsuccessful tries, as usual— it finally came up to the present-day modelization of our neuronal circuits [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuronal_network ] in such a way that "it" found it most efficient, for the good functioning of the whole terrestrial biosphere, that this circuitry of ours induces us to "think" (!) that it is "GOOD" to... «help thy neighbour», and that it is "BAD" ( = not-working satisfactorily) to kill ones' grandmother —for example.

    Of course, as everyone can see, even without glasses : this is yet... what is called a "work-in-progress".

    We, poor humans, have still a long way to go, before these neuronal imprints are engraved deeply enough in ALL walking brains on the surface of this planet.

    But we should remember that Rome hasn't been built in one day !

    Shouldn't we ?

    PS : May be you can notice that, as Laplace proudly replied to Napoleon : «What about God ? Well... Sire, I didn't need to take "that" component into account, in my substantiation ! ».

  • Doug Shaver

    I agree that evolution does not select for ethics, if you're referring to any particular ethic. It does not select for specific injunctions such as "Don't murder" or "Don't steal."

    But evolution did select for our intelligence and empathy, which together make ethical thinking inevitable in a social species such as ourselves.

  • Darwin proposed that creatures like us who, by their nature, are riven by strong emotional conflicts, and who have also the intelligence to be aware of those conflicts, absolutely need to develop a morality because they need a priority system by which to resolve them. The need for morality is a corollary of conflicts plus intellect:

    Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection… Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed, or anything like as well-developed as in man.(Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)

    That, Darwin said, is why we have within us the rudiments of such a priority system and why we have also an intense need to develop those rudiments. We try to shape our moralities in accordance with our deepest wishes so that we can in some degree harmonize our muddled and conflict-ridden emotional constitution, thus finding ourselves a way of life that suits it so far as is possible.

    These [priority] systems are, therefore, something far deeper than mere social contracts made for convenience. They are not optional. They are a profound attempt--though of course usually an unsuccessful one--to shape our conflict-ridden life in a way that gives priority to the things that we care about most.

    If this is right, then we are creatures whose evolved nature absolutely requires that we develop a morality. We need it in order to find our way in the world. The idea that we could live without any distinction between right and wrong is as strange as the idea that we--being creatures subject to gravitation--could live without any idea of up and down. That at least is Darwin’s idea and it seems to me to be one that deserves attention. [Mary Midgley, “Wickedness: An Open Debate,” The Philosopher’s Magazine, No. 14, Spring 2001]

  • Morality and agreed upon moral laws arose among and between humans, just as language arose, and the whole of human society and culture. They arose as humans interacted with humans. Is God ever in danger of truly losing anything or getting sick? No, but humans face the possibility of a variety of losses due to other humans or natural events every day, along with inevitable losses like loss of health, loss of memory, decrepitude, death. Hence one could easily argue that the origin of agreements to try and diminish instances of such losses is a primarily human and inter-human concern, and therefore morality, as well as moral laws and laws regarding health and safety all originate first and foremost with societies of humans.

    Moral values, like moral behaviors appear to have more than one basis behind them, by which I mean morality does not appear to be driven totally by one's conscious mind, nor does it appear to be something that is totally due to genetic predispositions, nor totally due to repeated lessons from birth that eventually become ingrained behavior patterns requiring little to no thought.

    And the "moral" question appears to be a sub-division of all questions regarding what humans find agreeable and disagreeable. The vast majority of us like

    1) being healthy rather than chronically ill or in pain;

    2) eating rather than starving;

    3) having at least a little money rather than living in abject poverty;

    4) sharing peace and happiness rather than living in fear of having our lives or belongings taken from us at the whim of others or at the whims of natural accidents, diseases and disasters.

    Such "choices" seem undeniably obvious to us, being a species with a long shared biological background, large brains, similar sensory organs, similar nerves that record similar feelings of pain and pleasure, and a similar psychological need to feel wanted and belong, rather than mocked and shunned, and a hunger to be in the presence of other members of our species like our family and others who stimulate us physically, verbally, and mentally. Hence, joys shared are increased, while sorrows shared are reduced. (Two notable exceptions would be psychopaths and sociopaths--who often show signs while very young that they have a much diminished sense of empathy; or, complete hermits who attempt to isolate themselves from the family or society in which they were raised.)

  • A child cannot fend for itself on its own. Hence developing a conscience that connects one with others is essential for survival.

    "Ethical sense/conscience" explained? The desire to conform / seek approval from others, begins as early as age two

    It develops from a seed planted early in life, namely the desire to conform, which is also linked to the desire and effort by the child to gain approval from their parents. To quote Will Bagley (not from the article)... "In the human species, there is a kind of emotional biology where "approval equals survival." Human beings are very socially oriented, in spite of all the macho independence talk. Biologically, humans are actually quite weak physically and their strength is in a kind of social unity with the family being the basic unit. In earlier phases of history, a child could not really fend for itself on its own. The heroic stories of children who were cast out of society and managed to survive and even thrive were the exception that proves the rule, showing how much this did not happen, since these heroes were like legends. I deal with this a lot in my healing work, tapping into the "inner child" that still holds this belief that social approval equals survival. As a manipulative control strategy, many psychopaths will use social condemnation as a tool to control others and get their way, because most humans have this inner child within them and can be controlled through this. I find, too, that there are trolls that use condemnation tactics, very psychopathic in intent and flavor, to try to create a false consensus to shift political opinion. You can find them dancing away on nearly every RT video on youtube. Curiously, if a person does not have this "approval equals survival" meme running in childhood, they have a high tendency to become a psychopath (usually as a result of a highly toxic family environment where getting approval is so terrifying that the mechanism shuts down, the person gives up). It seems that the formation of our 'conscience' has a lot to do with the childhood effort to gain approval. It is like the seed that evolves into ethical thinking."

  • john

    quick question, l don't believe this is directly related to the above, but is still in the realm of evolution. Where is the evidence that evolution is a guided process and not something completely random. If ape became man then how did man attain original sin, and how can man be created in the image of God if he is a product of the ancestor. Probs not that quick hahadont

  • Doug Shaver

    it does not suggest evolution is directed towards moral behavior or reflection.


    And therefore . . . what?

  • Jai

    I've never understood the fascination with this topic. People on both sides, those who want desperately to find some reason why our 'morals' must come from evolution and therefore be 'natural', and those who want desperately to find some reason why our 'morals' DON'T come from evolution, and therefore must come from some invisible magic man in the sky. This bizarre need for something to be 'natural' in order for us to embrace it.

    I'm no biologist, or expert in evolution of any kind, but here's one hypothesis from a laymen; both 'moral', cooperative behaviour AND 'immoral' savage behaviour occur in nature, and probably BOTH are essential for the survival of a species, and most of us today have decided - using our sentient intelligence - that one is preferable to the other. I've seen arguments from both sides who seem to grasp at an example of
    evolution either producing 'ethical' or 'unethical' behaviour as though that's the ultimate proof either way. Seems to me if both behaviours can be seen to occur in nature than both behaviours are produced by evolution.....which is actually pretty obvious, when you just consider that we humans DO both behaviours.

    OR....both 'moral' and 'immoral' behaviour are just side effects of evolution that are only indirectly caused by it, and we have just chosen to divide it into two and apply meaning to each.

    Either way, I really don't understand why both sides find possibilities like this so disturbing - it seems some people really need to believe that their concepts of 'right' and 'wrong' are objective in order to be important. There seems to be this need for people to establish that our 'morality' exists outside of our heads, and is therefore 'real', and not just a product of our imaginations. As though anything that only exists in our heads as a concept is therefore worthless, and there's no reason for us to use it.
    But LANGUAGE is only a concept that exists solely in our heads - are you going to tell me that language doesn't 'exist' and is therefore worthless and meaningless, and there's no reason we should use it? If not, then great - try living without language for a few days and see how far it gets you.

    I don't get that at all. I'm perfectly fine with my 'morality' being subjective. The universe doesn't care about something like rape, as far as 'objective reality' is concerned, rape is neither good nor bad. But we are not objective creatures, so we'll decide subjectively whether rape is good or bad, and I will ally myself with everyone in the world who decides it is a bad thing. And I'll hold disgust for anyone who decides they like rape, and will do everything within my power to oppose them - and yes, that does mean I am unfairly forcing my subjective views onto rapists.

    The point is, I don't particularly care about the rights of rapists to rape, or murderers to murder, or thieves to steal - and I question the mentality of anyone who does. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

  • ClassyGuido

    Evolution doesn't particularly select for ethics, no. We live in a world (or Catholics might say the Universe was set up that way) where intelligent individuals with ethical principles seem to have produced the most stable and successful societies.

    Ethics seems to be the mass application of what was evolutionarily selected for when the tribe was the largest social unit.