Professor's Notes on Evolutionary Ethics 

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·         Natural selection accounts for morality…“It is a heritage of earlier times when less morally inclined and more morally inclined species came under pressure from natural selection.”

·         Moral sense arises independent of Super-Natural/ Divine source

·         Why should we be moral? We are genetically inclined to be; natural selection selected for it. It is not so much a should …rather, it is part of our “genetic heritage.”

Key Figures:

Charles Darwin (19th century) wrote Descent of Man in 1871 to discuss evolution of human consciousness and the evolution of moral sense. Consciousness can be explained via evolution.  

This is followed by the evolution of conscience (moral sense).  Darwin used the utilitarian idea (greatest-happiness principle) to explain the moral behavior of social groups. Darwin would argue: 

“humans are biologically inclined to be sympathetic, altruistic, and moral as this proved to be an advantage in the struggle for existence…”

Edward O. Wilson (20th century socio-biologists) wrote Sociobiology text in 1975, arguing there is a biological bases for social actions; he argues to “biologicize” ethics. He states: "The hypothalamus and limbic system …

flood our consciousness with all the emotions – hate, love, guilt, fear, and others – that are consulted by ethical philosophers who wish to intuit the standards of good and evil. What, we are then compelled to ask, 

made the hypothalamus and the limbic system? They evolved by natural selection. That simple biological statement must be pursued to explain ethics."

The Beginning of Morality in Primates:

In Primates and Philosophers, Frans de Waal’s research supports view that roots of morality can be seen in primates; we can witness a precursor to human morality.

de Waal states: "Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are.”

Primates show reciprocity, fairness, conflict resolution, consolation, empathy.

Harvard biologist Marc Hauser in Moral Minds says there is a universal moral grammar encoded in our neural net.

Boeree’s argument:

Three main instincts that account for morality:

1.      Kin selection: parental responsibilities and care for relatives helps genes survive

2.      Mates: attachment to mates; important esp since vulnerable at child birth, etc.

3.      Sympathy: evolved to be social creatures; usually meant it for our “in group” only but later it became universal or at least it should be (expand moral circle idea)

“The great value of this biosocial view of morality is that it removes the issue from religious and philosophical debate and places it squarely in the realm of the pragmatic.  

Without denying the inherently subjective nature of our goals as human beings, we may be able to agree that one reasonable goal is the maximizing of happiness.  

The question is then how do we educate people to understand that it is in all our best interests to nurture our innate tendencies toward compassion.”


Darwin’s Moral Sense compared to Wallace’s View on Morality:

Alfred Wallace argued that natural selection did not account for human consciousness or human morality. He attributed these to a Divine source.

Charles Darwin explained consciousness, religion and morality by evolutionary processes. Darwin clearly supported in Descent of Man a naturalistic explanation for morality. He challenged Wallace here.

Ken Wilber: article argues that he presents a straw man argument by misrepresenting this field and then attacking it. Wilber states: “Rather than just a mere human emotion, love is cast as a central driving force in the 

Kosmos—the force of Eros itself, pushing all of us along our inevitable return to Spirit.” ["Love and Evolution" audio, June 9th, 2010].  “Love as driving force” not hold up.

Quote from Lane / Diem article: “Humans as a social animal were more likely to survive if they could bond together versus continually in-fighting. To what practical purpose does love serve if everything is destined to decay and die? 

The answer is simpler than we might wish to admit: it makes us commit. And that very act of committing has a survival value, particularly when pair bonding, family bonding, tribal bonding, and so on gives 

one greater resources than merely confronting the world alone.

APPENDIX: These are three questions students generally ask me in class:

1. how can we account for altruism?:  if we think of altruism not as a reification (definition, “to make a thing out of an abstraction”) but a moral tendency to consider "the other" and not one's own need as central then it can fit with Darwin's views here. 

We do this towards our kids, tribe, country, world. We expand the moral circle (to use Singer's words). One can counter that it is all for selfish reasons really since it is about the survival of one's genes. 

Dennett would call this cheap reductionism. I love my children (from an "experiential" view point) not simply to pass on my DNA but the 

love I feel is an emergent property that Darwin would say is to be valued in and of itself. Out of a desire to pass on my DNA, then, emerged love and this trait 

should not simply be dismissed or reduced to something of little significance.

2: how do we account for evil in world today?: Wilson would simply say that there is a generally tendency (again, not an absolutist rule) that humans (due to our evolved neurology) pursue love, bonding, etc. 

If our neurology is different (out of the norm per se) then certainly we would have cases of unacceptable behavior (intentionally hurting others, etc.). When we study neuroethics we will discuss this. 

There is a neurotransmitter that can help explain compassion. Those with low levels feel little empathy...some call this neurotransmitter the moral molecule.

3: finally, are we still evolving?: yes, nature is of course. Humans are still evolving to a degree but with our "second" nature intelligence we can manipulate the environment and 

DNA...if there was a catastrophic event, however, and our manipulation would not work to prevent it or make the best of it we would certainly  see natural selection at play.