Sunday, 4 March 2012


In a previous post I described 'An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics' by Scott James as 'dismal'. This assessment was unfair and I take it back. In fact, on a second reading, I view the book as a concise, impartial exposition of the state of the art in ethics thinking. I wish I were capable of expressing myself with James's clarity. I ought to have directed my ire not at the book's author but at his intended audience - students of philosophy. To the extent that philosophy is an enterprise concerned with clarifying the ideas being generated on the disputed frontiers of human understanding - perhaps the kindest definition one can offer - it is incumbent upon practitioners to familiarize themselves with the most recent maps. Reading James's book, one receives the impression that most students of ethics are working from charts marked 'here be dragons' at the edge of the known world.

Contrary to my earlier rash assertion that two thirds of the book is devoted to convincing readers that evolution happened, only the first two chapters - 47 pages - address this subject directly. Come on guys! Even Darwin's contemporaries accepted the fact of evolution; all that he did was to supply the mechanism, natural selection. Biologists have been exploring the implications of his astonishing insight for more than 150 years and have made quite a lot of progress. For example, the evolution of altruism has been studied intensively since Darwin's time and, in the last few decades, the problem that he feared represented a 'fatal flaw' in his theory has been largely resolved. Whenever Richard Dawkins or another prominent atheist writes a newspaper article, you can guarantee that some pathetic parish priest will write a letter to the editor asserting that evolution can't explain charity, self-sacrifice or love. This claim isn't just fatuous, it's pig-ignorant. I cannot comprehend how any literate human being can have avoided noticing that, not only can natural selection explain such phenomena, it is the only theory that explains all of them without resort to special pleading.

The problem that caused Darwin the most angst was existence of eusocial insects, for example honeybees or ants, in which worker castes are sterile and work for the benefit of the queen and her offspring, their sisters and brothers. How, he wondered, could a behaviour that required some individuals to eschew the ability to reproduce ever evolve? The manner in which this problem has been studied and resolved is an object lesson in how to approach an intellectual puzzle, one that all theologians and many philosophers would do well to heed. As an undergraduate, I was taught that the problem had been solved by William Hamilton, who argued that a quirk of hymenopteran genetics (female honeybees arise from fertilised eggs and therefore have two sets of chromosomes, whereas male bees derive from unfertilised eggs and have only a single set of chromosomes) implies that female bees are more closely related on average to their sisters (by 3/4) than they would be to their children (by 1/2), implying that their genes would be better served (i.e. copied more often) if sisters worked for the benefit of their female siblings than if they worked for their children. This insight (the 'haplodiploid hypothesis') was regarded as one of the finest intellectual achievements of Darwinian thinking. Amusingly enough, it turns out that Hamilton was wrong. For one thing, he neglected to take account of the fact that female workers work not just for sisters but for brothers (to whom they are related by 1/4) too, and for another he was not aware of the many social animals with conventional genetics that have subsequently been discovered. Here is E.O. Wilson, the founding figure of sociobiology, writing recently on the demise of the haplodiploid hypothesis.

'Hamilton's perception, later called the haplodiploid hypothesis, and intensively promoted (not least by myself, while synthesizing the new discipline of sociobiology in the 1970s...), became firmly entrenched as an explanatory idea in studies of the evolution of animal colonies...It turns out, however, that this is wrong. Hamilton made three mistakes, which have led to the vitiation of his main thesis concerning altruism and the origin of sociality...these developments in sociobiology are in full progress, and surprises no doubt lie ahead. The interpretation I have presented here [that a type of group selection led to the evolution of eusocial insects] may itself in time be swept aside.'

The main point that I wish to make is that explaining altruism depends upon an extremely subtle understanding of the consequences of natural selection, operating within the rules imposed by genetics. A subsidiary point is that, faced with compelling evidence that a brilliant, beautiful theory is unfortunately false, Wilson does what any good scientist would do and ditches the theory. When was the last time you witnessed such humility in the teeth of evidence in a churchman?

But back to 'evolutionary ethics'. Hamilton's concept of 'inclusive fitness' (roughly the idea that genes that favour their own replication, whether the copies exist in their own host or others, will spread) does explain altruism towards kin. Trivers's theory of reciprocal altruism does explain atruism towards non-kin. The old philosophical chestnut 'is an act altruistic if ultimately it is motivated by selfish ends?' is shown by these theories to be not just the wrong question but a meaningless question. Genes that confer on their bearers the propensity to behave in a way that increases the gene's fitness will prosper and vice versa. All acts are ultimately 'motivated' by selfish ends, in the sense that selfless actors (i.e. genes) die out. There are numerous subtle consequences of this simple fact: for example, sibling rivalry; infanticide and conflict between paternally and maternally inherited genes, the last of which may explain certain psychological diseases in the human animal. But the main point, once again, is that there is simply no useful way in which to approach the study of altruism or its reflection, ethics, except in the light of evolution.

We know that we share a common ancestor with all extant life on earth. We know that we share with our closest extant relatives a moral mind. We know that more distant relatives behave in ways that indicate they possess a moral sense, albeit one we don't recognise as a close cousin (female mice, for instance, will be perfect parents to their offspring when times are good but will kill and eat them without a second thought when their own survival is called into question). We know, therefore, that our moral sense evolved. We have known all this for an awfully long time but the news doesn't seem to have reached the people who's mission is to clarify the way we interpret these findings.

Nothing in the preceding several paragraphs is controversial. Everyone familiar with the evidence and not ideologically committed to some theory-from-revelation agrees that this is the way the world works. I'm not trying to bully you into accepting as true something you don't understand. I'm simply pointing out that, if you decline to acquaint yourself with the relevant evidence from natural history, your ethical opinions are precisely worthless. Immanuel Kant may very well, for example, have possessed the most fabulous mind ever to have enquired into the origins of virtue but the Categorical Imperative is nevertheless more interesting to historians than ethicists. Kant didn't know where our ethical sense comes from (he assumed, incorrectly, that it comes from God), so his fabulous mind could never achieve traction on the problem of what one ought to do. It is, in my view, a delightful comment on the enlightening power of science that the comedian Tim Minchin (see here) comes closer to the truth than Kant when he sings 'if you cover for another mother fucker who's a kiddy-fucker, fuck you, you're no better than the mother-fucking rapist...if you look into your mother-fucking heart and tell me true if this mother-fucking stupid song offended you...are just as morally misguided as that mother-fucking, power hungry, self-aggrandizing bigot in a stupid fucking hat'.

1 comment:

grantsconnell said...

'My dear fellow, I wish to thank you, I have been wrong these fifteen years.'