EVOLUTIONARY FAIL: A Problem with Naturalism’s Ethics

Written by Wes Walker on November 28, 2014

I’ve lost count of how many times aspects of human nature, however ethereal, have been chalked up to Darwin. It’s come to the point that I wonder how well they understand the difference between evidence and assertion.

Let’s say someone accepts that people evolved from primates. With that starting point, some standard assumptions might seem to logically follow: opposable thumbs, walking upright, dental changes; you know, the physiological changes.

If the theories stopped there, we might begin to discuss strengths and weaknesses of the theories in an emotionally detached way. But they press it further than that.

Natural Selection, somehow, has refused to be limited to mere physiology. In certain academic circles, it has enlarged itself until it holds sway over full whole scopes of human experience.  It has become the one-size-fits-all answer for questions like: Why are so many men unfaithful? (Procreation). Why are people social rather than solitary? (Survival and procreation).  Naturalists even debate whether Free Will is even possible.

Consider our social structures today.  Political terms like “progressive” or “regressive” lean heavily on assumptions that evolutionary theory shapes every aspect of life. This includes politics and economics. “Progressive”. They intend it to mean “more advanced”. Advanced how? Toward some yet-unspecified evolutionary Hegelian Synthesis.

What about altruism, morality, and religious sentiment (among other abstractions)? Where do they come from?  

The story goes something like this: “Faith makes social groups stronger and confers an evolutionary advantage”. Well, that’s convenient. A little like painting the bull’s-eye around the arrow. The end-game of an evolutionary advantage, supposedly, is the propagation of DNA.

Pardon me, but to an outsider, that logic looks suspiciously circular. Step 1) Assume Evolution. 2) Identify human traits. 3) Write a back-story where said trait “creates an evolutionary advantage”. 4) Propose the back-story as evidence (i.e. proof) of evolution. 5) Return to Step #1, “Assume Evolution”.

Notice, in that model, how an organism’s success or failure is measured in birth rate.

Such ideas are either true, or false. If they are true, they should not break down into self-contradiction; when tested, they should fit easily into real-life scenarios.

How could we test them? Two methods come to mind.

First is logic, specifically the law of non-contradiction: About those general human traits with possible survival function — are they in conflict with each other? If so, it suggests that there may be (at minimum) factors beyond the scope of genetics and natural selection at play.

For example, marriage (or some equivalent) is basically a universal human experience, regardless of culture or language. Children are generally the result. Stable family units provide safe, stable environments for offspring. Therefore, Natural Selection favors this behaviour. This paints a picture where evolution would favour patterns of behaviour that result in stable families: like loyalty and fidelity.

But then we hear another argument, also claiming Naturalism. Men are often tempted by sexually available women. A different line of rationale is offered, something like this: promiscuity leads to a wider range of sexual opportunities. This results in more offspring than their monogamous counterparts.

But these two behaviours (and theories) are in conflict.  Promiscuity destabilizes the family unit, and monogamy curtails multiple partners. In fact, if these were truly evolutionary traits, they would be directly in conflict with each other, (like light or dark coloured moths). One would eventually eclipse the other, creating a greater percentage of people predisposed to faithfulness or promiscuity. To suggest fidelity or unfaithfulness to a mate is merely genetic, and not a result of choices, is laughable.

Weighing other “useful” traits that oppose each other would lead us to similar problems. The narrative that religion and altruism create safe, stable communities, and are therefore genetic, runs contrary to examples where the strong, or cunning exploit others through force or deception.

There’s another test we could apply: real life examples.

Measuring these assumptions against known examples of people or cultures, does this theory hold up?  If they are correct, biology is central to our existence.  If so, having children is the measure of successful  biology.

If our ethical system is also a blind product of Natural Selection, we should expect that behaviours leading to large families would be morally superior to those that don’t.

Is that true in cultures? Are Japan, Germany, Spain and Italy (due to low birthrate) demographically among the most morally bankrupt places on Earth? Are Niger, Malawi, Uganda and Somalia (among the highest birthrates) demographically the most objectively good?

Could something beyond fecundity be the true measure of ethics? Would that be a useful metric for the morality of, say, the large families of Mormons, Muslims and Catholics against the smaller families of Atheists, Protestants and others?

Do we measure the moral worth of specific individuals by how many kids they have had? Is “Octo-mom” better than Beethoven? Is Calvin Murphy better than Francis Bacon, or Copernicus?

One last test. Supposing you could pinpoint one historical person with enormous impact on human genetics, we might bring more clarity to the relationship between genes and ethics.

It turns out there is a historical figure genetically linked to an estimated 16 million male descendents.. Pretty impressive, right? That’s an example of genetic greatness in action, right? You’ll recognize his name. He was truly a towering figure in history. In fact, if anybody from history embodied the “survival of the fittest” in the raw sense, he would be the one.

His name is Genghis Kahn.

Image: http://renatiux99.blogspot.com/2008/08/human-evolution.html


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