Friday, February 01, 2013

Evolution Accounts for Morality?

I get discouraged from time to time.

I would like to see the atheist community embrace reason and evidence-based conclusions. Many claim to value this as a virtue. Yet, "You know them by their deeds." By that standard, they fail.

My most recent disappointment - one that has recently caused me to throw up my hands and ask, "Why do I bother?" - is this entry concerning the top 10 myths about evolution at

10 Evolution Can’t Account For Morality: As a social primate species we evolved a deep sense of right and wrong in order to accentuate and reward reciprocity and cooperation, and to attenuate and punish excessive selfishness and free riding. As well, evolution created the moral emotions that tell us that lying, adultery, and stealing are wrong because they destroy trust in human relationships that depend on truth-telling, fidelity, and respect for property. It would not be possible for a social primate species to survive without some moral sense. On the constitution of human nature is built the constitutions of human societies.

The fact is, evolution can't account for morality.

Neither can religion, by the way. This is not an either-or question. Evolution cannot account for the size of the Earth or the existence of the moon, but this does not imply that we must turn to scripture to find the answers. There is a third alternative.

Morality requires a community of two or more individuals engaged in intentional behavior (beings acting on beliefs and desires). It requires that some desires are malleable - they can be changed through interaction with the environment.

Once you have these elements, then you have a situation where one member of the community has reason to alter the environment in such a way so as to cause others to acquire desires useful to an agent. A community engaged in using environmental factors (e,g., praise, condemnation, reward, punishment) to promote desires generally useful and inhibiting desires generally harmful is a community with a moral system.

One can say that evolution accounts for the fact that we are creatures that engage in intentional action, and the fact that some of our desires are malleable - which is everything that morality needs. But that is far different from what is claimed above.

For one thing, this "deep sense of right and wrong" is often wrong. People have - or have had - a deep sense that interracial marriage or homosexual relationships are wrong. Many Muslims have a deep sense that creating depictions of Mohammed are wrong. They kill their own daughters in "honor killings" out of a deep sense that their daughter's behavior was wrong.

These facts - and a huge list of similar facts all conveniently ignored by the "evolution accounts for morality" crowd - tell us two things about this "deep sense of right and wrong". First, that its objects are learned. Second, if it did have an evolutionary explanation, it provides us with no way to distinguish between evolved evil and evolved goodness.

Nobody can think that this is a sensible answer to the question of morality without turning a blind eye to huge portions of human history - a history in which this much-vaulted evolved "sense of right and wrong promoting reciprocity and condemning selfishness" cannot be found, and a "sense of right and wrong promoting war, slavery, rape, conquest, and genocide" can be found in its place.

Seriously . . . look at any great evil that was done in human history. Take, for example, the Holocaust. Did evolution prevent it? Answer: Obviously not. Can we count on evolution to prevent something like that from happening in the future? Answer: Of course not. If you wanted to try to prevent something like that from happening in the future, does "evolution accounts for morality" say anything useful? No. It's not even relevant.

In its ability to ignore inconvenient facts, people tied to the view that evolution accounts for morality prove to be just as adept at any theist. They see that there are circumstances in which evolution favors altruism and cry, "evolution accounts for morality!" They utterly ignore the fact that evolution also invented the parasite and the predator - and perfected organisms for these roles as well.

Evolution accounts both for some of our altruism, and for some of our predatory and parasitic behavior. Under some conditions, predatory and parasitic behavior is just as useful or better than altruism and a highly evolved liar, rapist, or thief can have a great deal of evolutionary success.

If we are honest about the facts of the matter, this deep sense of right and wrong is easily attached to behavior that is predatory or parasitic. Rape and racism - tribal bigotries targeting people who do not look like us - the disposition to slaughter or dominate them and take their resources - or to take them and use them as resources (for sex or for forced labor) are all perfectly comfortable with the fact of human evolution. And they have all been found in certain moral codes.

Let's grant (as I think we must) that evolution accounts for some altruism. This falls far short of accounting for the fact that altruism is good. Evolution accounts for chins and male nipples, but it does not force the conclusion that they are good.

Religion - unlike "evolution accounts for morality" is actually an attempt to account for the goodness of altruism. Evolution can merely acount for a portion of its existence.

Ironically, it is also the case that the altruism that evolution does acount for is entirely amoral. If Jim's altruism can be attributed to some genetic disposition, then it makes absolutely no sense to say that Jim deserves praise or is in any way responsible for those altruistic acts. That would be as senseless as saying that Jim is responsible for and should be praised for his genetic makeup.

Furthermore, if morality is in our genes, why do we need to reward reciprocity and punish excessive selfishness? Isn't it supposed to be the case that reciprocity and selflessness are accounted for by our genes?

This, in turn, brings up a logical problem with the idea that evolution accounts for morality. If it were true that evolution accounts for morality, then, "I evolved a sense that you should be put to death" implies "you deserve to die." What actions are wrong? Well, those actions that we evolved a disposition to punish. Is homosexuality wrong? Well, to determine this we need to look at whether humans evolved a disposition to kill homosexuals and feel justified in doing so. If they have, then homosexuals deserve to die - at least according to the thesis "evolution accounts for morality."

There is much more that I could say on this issue - but this post is too long already. Yet, what I said so far should be - should have long ago been - more than enough to discredit the idea that evolution accounts for morality.

I really wish and hope that the atheist community would be one that respects reason and evidence. Yet, the fact of the matter is that the atheist community is made up of human beings, and humans (not just religious humans but all humans) are disposed to grasp onto ideas and embrace them in the complete absence of reason and evidence. Though I still hold out hope - sometimes badly shaken but always present - that, slowly, some group of people can actually adopt these attitudes.

Do you want an answer to the objection that "evolution cannot account for morality?"

Here it is:

Evolution does not have to account for morality, any more than evolution needs to account for the boiling point of water. Morality is fully and adequately accounted for by the fact that we are intentional agents with malleable desires. From this, it follows that there are dispositions that intentional agents generally have reason to promote, and have an ability to promote by altering the experiences of others (through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment). Nothing more is required. Specifically, people have reason to promote through praise those interests that tend to help others, and to diminish through condemnation those harmful to others. Evolution accounts for the fact that we are intentional agents with malleable desires. Therefore, evolution accounts for all of the prerequisites for morality.

This view is fully compatible with the fact that there has been and continues to be a lot of evil out there that was not or is not being prevented. It tells us how we can identify moral error and make moral improvements. It does not justify punishment in terms of, "I have evolved a disposition to feel justified in killing you; therefore, you deserve to die." It answers the real-world concerns of those who look to religion to answer moral questions - to prevent the evil that continues to exist and that our evolved history fails to prevent.


Grimeandreason said...

I agree entirely, though I would add that the content of morality is explained by cultural evolution. Morality is defined by your cultural identity, its exclusivity defined by how much cultural production is monopolised. In the case of the Holocaust, the Nazi's subjugated a generation to total, ideological culture, thereby shaping societies sense of morality sufficiently far enough for the final solution. It could happen to any society given such control over cultural (and therefore identity) evolution.

Unknown said...

Certainly, evolution does not help us figure out what to do ethically - we simply require an understanding of the desires, beliefs and agents in play. I would add here though, that an understanding of evolutionary psychology can be helpful in figuring out our desires, but if we did know our desires perfectly well, then it would not be required.

However, I think the response contained in the post above is not the most charitable reading of the quoted passage. The quotation appeared to be responding to (something like) the following argument: "Evolution does not explain why we have such incredibly powerful moral emotions/why an objective morality exists, therefore God exists and science is wrong" or something else equally confused. Now, evolution does have a role in explaining why we feel such strong emotions, and why people think that morality 'is an objective part of the world' (or something). The argument is that 'a strong feeling of right or wrong, and corresponding actions of condemnation and praise, are evolutionarily advantageous, therefore they would be selected for naturally and thus the reasons why we believe in morality have been explained'. This is an adequate response to the former argument, and has nothing prescriptive to say, just descriptive (aka isn't evaluating reasons for action, is just describing things).

So, don't feel sad about atheists making mistakes!

Nolan said...

In my experience, many use the term "morality" to mean the feelings of right and wrong, cultural norms concerning right and wrong, or the fact that cultures all create some sort of moral code. In this sense, evolution does account for morality.

But I agree with the content of your post- that evolution does not account for things like "oughtness" or for what actually is worth condemning and praising, or what actions are worth promoting. In that sense, the desirism sense, evolution does not account for morality.

I agree though, that in most ways, your use of the term morality makes more sense, and tracks better with how most people use the word.

Joshua Bennett said...

"Furthermore, if morality is in our genes, why do we need to reward reciprocity and punish excessive selfishness? Isn't it supposed to be the case that reciprocity and selflessness are accounted for by our genes?"

No, of course not. If altruism is solely a product of genes, then an animal without the genes for altruism would benefit at the expense of altruistic animals. Thus, his genes would spread and altruism would decline in the gene pool. Populations that evolve the capacity to recognize and punish selfish behavior therefore have an evolutionary edge over those that don't.

It seems you've a shallow understanding of what the evolutionary basis for morality actually is.

Joshua Bennett said...

Whoops! That final sentence should read, "It seems you've a shallow understanding of the actual argument for an evolutionary basis of morality."

David Pinsof said...

It seems there are at least two ways in which the term "morality" is used. One way defines morality in terms of the emotions and cognitive algorithms that evolution built into our nervous systems that underly culturally universal moral norms, practices, and behaviors -- e.g. the neural systems underlying guilt, sympathy, gratitude, anger, empathy, love, loyalty, reciprocity, fairness, disgust, "ingroup" and "outgroup," a concern for one's own and others' reputations, and the capacity to forgive transgressions and reconcile conflicts. These capacities and emotions undoubtedly have an evolutionary basis: their rational has been uncovered in game theoretical simulations of the evolution of cooperation, they emerge early in human development, their design features reflect their evolutionary functions, and they have been demonstrated in a wide variety of social species, especially in our closest primate relatives. To say that evolution accounts for morality, in this sense, is almost certainly true, and banal. To say, on the other hand, that our evolved instincts and intuitions can tell us what we "ought" to do in any given situation is almost certainly false. It seems to me that, if charitably interpreted, the author was referring to the evolutionary basis of morality in this first, descriptive sense, and not in the second, normative sense. Emphasizing how evolution can account for morality in the first sense is useful in order to counter mistaken beliefs about the evolutionary process, namely that it can only produce selfish, competitive, and cruel organisms, and that therefore only god can explain our altruistic tendencies. To be sure, cultural evolution plays an important role as well, but culture must necessarily interact with our biology in order to exert any change on human behavior. Therefore, a complete explanation of moral change must take into account both biology and culture (Steven Pinker does an excellent job of this in "The Better Angels of Our Nature).

Joshua Bennett said...

@David: Right on! Except for this:

"To say, on the other hand, that our evolved instincts and intuitions can tell us what we "ought" to do in any given situation is almost certainly false."

Only if you think there is some disembodied "ought-ness" to the universe. In reality, "ought" has no meaning outside of human judgments based on the cognitive algorithms that evolution gave us. It really does boil back down to biology, even from this second point of view.

David Pinsof said...



Let me clarify: I do not think there is a disembodied "oughtness" to the universe. But there are various ways you can define "oughtness" that refer to real things in the universe, like the maximization of collective utility, the harmonizing of competing preferences and interests, the maximization of positive emotions (e.g. happiness, gratitude, aesthetic pleasure), the minimization of negative emotions (e.g. pain, depression, humiliation), the kinds of rules and institutions that optimally rational agents would agree to, etc. etc. If, by "oughtness," you are referring to any of these things, than our instincts are probably not a reliable guide to what we "ought" to do. If by "oughtness" you mean some mystical essence, then yes, I agree with you, that kind of "oughtness" does not exist.

Lunch at Table 54 said...

Similar to most books I own on Atheism this article was a deep row to hoe for 65 year old high-school grads! I'm not sure I can attribute my morality to evolution any more than I can attribute my IQ to evolution although I would certainly agree that evolution gave me the ability to reason moral issues in the same way as I acquired through evolution the capacity for intelligence. Of course the ability to reason and the ability to learn may differ from human to human either by choice or by cause. Never-the-less, we at Table 54 enjoyed your discussion.


@blamer said...

AF, don't ye be discouraged! I've read your other posts and overall agree with your blog's framing of morality. Just like other commenters here, it's just this criticism in the OP that's uncharitable, because what you've criticised lacks nuance intentionally.

1) We know "Evolution can't account for morality" is a (naively framed) myth, and one that we're hoping sites like continue debunking head on! This must be done --and is-- by pointing out that "morality" evolved with our primate nature. And then it says --as do you-- that we then built "human societies".

2) There's no suggestion anywhere here (far beyond the moralizing of religious right) that "morality" involves everybody agreeing on what's immoral. Though I suspect liberal discussions about morality --even here-- aren't yet far enough away from monotheism's upsetting framing of an ethical dilemma as a choice between group loyalty & sin.

3) I vaguely detect that some consider "morality" to be a phenomenon to be described better (as with bonobos), whilst others consider it a uniquely human invention that we're all engaged in via language (text-based in this instance). Perhaps some clarity could be gained if we realised that the former is moralizing that we're no better than apes, and the latter is moralizing that we're even more confused by culture than they. I mention this only to point out that, without meaning to, we're unavoidably frustrating the hell outta folks by putting our own spin on morality, instead of insisting on wikipedia definitions as the evolution-advocates' pseaudo-doctrinal starting point when venturing into ethicists-speak ;)

@blamer said...


Alonzo Fyfe said...


I do not understand the relevance of much of what you wrote here.

Other than to say that when you "put your own spin on morality" then your arguments are at risk of becoming equivocations.

It would be like discussing atheism by "putting my own spin on atheism" and defining it as the rejection of god because of some traumatic childhood experience.

If you are not talking about what people ought or ought not to do, then you are not talking about morality. And no argument you provide demonstrates that a study of evolution can tell us what we ought or ought not to do.