In my view, most ethicists do not take evolutionary biology seriously enough and most evolutionary biologists do not take ethics seriously enough. To explain why I think this is true, I first need to explain a little about evolution.
We are biological organisms. We are products of evolution by variation and natural selection. Natural selection works by eliminating organisms that are less fit than their competitors. One organism is less fit than another if it is less likely to survive or if it is liable to have fewer offspring. (Fitness is always relative to an environment and, of course, environments are always changing.)
Anything that helps another at a cost to the helper is altruistic. Biological altruism is helping another when that would make the helper less likely to survive or reduce the number of his potential offspring.
Now, it is necessary to adjust things a bit. It is not really the number of offspring that matters but the number of copies of the organism’s genes that get into the next generation in a particular round of the evolutionary competition. If I can either raise one child of my own or help my sister raise three, doing the latter gets more of my genes into the next generation. If I have one child, 50% of my genes get into the next generation (because my partner contributes 50%). If I help my sister to raise three, 75% do. (I share half my genes with my sister and she contributes half, so, on average, each of her children will share 25% of their genes with me.) That’s kin selection.
Second, if two of us co-operate, we two may each do better than any of the rugged individualists in the competition. The result is called reciprocal altruism. My partner in co-operation may do better than I do, but I am still a relative winner – coming in second is a lot better than coming in anywhere near dead last.
Now, if I help somebody who isn’t related to me instead of having my own offspring or helping my sister, I lose any chance to get my genes into the next generation but make someone else a winner. If my genes don’t make it, organisms like me will vanish in short order. And, if I go around helping rugged individualists, they gain, I lose, and, once again, organisms like me will vanish in short order. The long and the short of it is that evolution promotes altruism in some, limited, circumstances, and penalizes it heavily outside those circumstances.
I haven’t mentioned group selection. It is controversial, many thinking that it cannot occur. However, the general principles apply to groups. If members of a group help other members, the group can thrive but if they help non-members as well as members, the group will quickly disappear.
There appears to be no genetic future in being an evolutionary doormat. Consequently, no matter whether we are talking about families, groups of reciprocators, or any other groups, we ought to observe the members be good to insiders and indifferent to or exploitative of outsiders. That the biological way of the world.
The trouble is that we observe that some people help unrelated outsiders with whom they will never develop a reciprocal relationship, a much larger number approves of the helpers, and the view seems to be that the helpers are especially virtuous. For example, there were people who tried to rescue Jews from Nazis, lots of people praise the rescuers, and people seem to be of the opinion that rescuers were the best of the best. Less dramatically, there are people who sincerely devote themselves to helping the destitute and the desperate in foreign countries. Please note that I am not saying that we ought to do these things (or that we ought not) but people actually do them. I am not making a value judgment but a factual observation.
Now, on the one hand, I say that ethicists do not take evolutionary biology seriously enough because they are quite willing to develop theories that say that we ought to help outsiders without showing how the helpers are biologically possible. I don’t think that they can ignore the problem. If we are biologically bound to be partial and if we are not required to do the impossible, we are not required to help outsiders. It follows that any moral theory that says otherwise is false. Ethicists may say that we can afford to wait for the solution. But it is not at all clear that any theory at all will be able to solve the problem and the question then is why we should take seriously the ones that ignore the problem.
On the other hand, I say that biologists do not take ethics seriously enough because they tend to say that helping unrelated outsiders with whom we will never develop a reciprocal relationship is just a mistake and they do not explain adequately why we are so prone to making the mistake. In other words, they fail to respond adequately to evidence that indicates that their position is false.
Ethicists tend to underestimate the importance of biology and biologists tend to underestimate the significance of ethics.
What I have done is come up with an evolutionary by-product theory of morality. This means that individual selection (or kin selection, group selection, or reciprocal altruism) has produced an adaptation for reasons that have nothing to do with morality, that morality is a side effect of the development of the adaptation, and that it is impossible to have the adaptation without the side-effect. This approach enables us to take our biological nature seriously enough without pretending that morality is something less than it actually is. In fact, I don’t think that any other approach will work. Of course, the fact that no other approach will work does not mean that my attempt at the approach succeeds. But I think it is the right sort of thing to try.
Copyright Brian Zamulinski.