Thursday, January 07, 2016

Bill Nye on Evolution and Morality: Part 2

Mr. Nye.

In this post, I want to address another of the claims that you made in response to a young questioner regarding the relationships between science and morality.

You can refer back to my previous post for the earlier response.

Before I go any further, I want to assure you that I am writing to you as somebody who believes that science can answer moral questions. I suspect that you will get most of your criticism from people who assert that science can tell us nothing about morality - like the quote that the questioner mentioned at the start of his question. You would be wrong to assume that I am in their camp.

Strategies for Replicating One’s Genes

You advised this person that whatever strategy he adopts for passing his genes on to the next generation he cannot go far wrong.

Here’s a strategy to consider. Cecil Jacobson was a fertility doctor who, among other things, offered a service to impregnate women from anonymous donors. Only, the donor was not anonymous. Mr. Jacobson used his own sperm to impregnate these women. It is believed that he fathered as many as 75 children this way. If we measure morality in terms of success in replicating one’s genes, Mr. Jacobson would have to come up as one of the most virtuous people alive.

Rape can provide another potentially useful strategy – particularly in circumstances where the rapist can ensure that the person raped will not abort the child (e.g., in a community where abortion in the case of rape and incest has been outlawed).

We can find examples of other strategies in the animal kingdom.

When a new pair of males takes over a pride of lions, they kill the step children (those that the females do not successfully hide or trick the males into thinking they are theirs). This allows them to devote more of their resources to raising their own biological children. Perhaps morality demands the murder of one's stepchildren.

There are also the spider wasps, who lay their eggs inside the bodies of paralyzed but living spiders. The larvae eat the living spider, saving the vital organs for last to keep the food fresh as long as possible.

We also know of insects who devour their mates – sometimes during mating.

When looking at successful strategies for passing along one’s genes to future generations, it is important to note that every form of predation and parasitism that you find in the wild is a successful strategy. If it was not, the species that engage in those practices would not exist.

Another potentially useful strategy would be to form an alliance with a group of more-closely-related beings – a large enough group to have a healthy amount of genetic diversity – and attack and slaughter neighboring groups, taking their resources as one's own.

This actually seems to be a natural strategy found in primates, including humans. It may well explain conflict between nation-tribes, religion-tribes, cultural tribes, gang-tribes, and even sports-fan tribes. As a strategy for successfully replicating one’s genes, Hitler’s plan to wipe out the Jews and the Slavs and to take their resources and land for those who in the German gene pool would have to be judged legitimate if he could only have won the war.

Then there is the other side of the coin. Is it immoral to spend some time playing a computer game, reading a book, or just laying on a hill on a sunny afternoon watching the clouds – and NOT be engaged in replicating one’s genes?

Who Ought I To Save

This relates to the thought experiment that you mentioned. You told the questioner to imagine that his house was burning down and he could either save his child or his grandchild. You suggested that agents will naturally choose to save their grandchild since it will carry the genes further into the future.

Remember that we are talking about morality here. We are not talking about what a person WILL do, but what a person SHOULD do. We are talking about the things that distinguish a good person from an evil person.

Consequently, if all we are going to say is that people will tend to choose to save their grandchildren we are not talking about morality, any more than we would be if we noted that people will choose the chocolate chip cookie over the broccoli salad.

If we are supposed to take this as a moral lesson, then it must be taken as teaching us that a person should choose their grandchild over their child – that the person who selects the grandchild is a morally good person, and the person who chooses the child instead is morally evil.

What if the grandson was adopted from another country – a country far removed from the ancestors of the agent. Would you say that the person was now morally obligated to save his child and let his adopted grandchild burn to death? If we are going to be answering the question, “What, morally, should I do?” with “Do that which maximizes replication of your own genes,” then we would have to condemn the person who opted to save the younger but adopted grandchild for his immorality.

Non-Human Aliens

Finally, I want to ask what you think about morality with respect to an alien interplanetary species.

Let us assume that, a few tens of thousands of years ago, an alien race around a dying star sent refugees to a planet their astronomers discovered that was capable of supporting life but showed no signs of having an intelligent species. However, in the time it took the ship to arrive, we sprang up and took over the planet. We don’t have to worry about being attacked by an advanced race later on. This species, in fact, is only slightly more advanced than us. Their ship only contained enough people (many of them as frozen embryo) to start a viable new colony.

If we are going to look to evolution and genetic similarity as the foundation for our morality, this would imply that our attitude towards these aliens ought to be to destroy them. We have no obligation to share – and we have no reason to engage in any activity that would aid a species that bore no genetic relationship to our own. If, instead, we are going to say that they are beings with equal moral rights, then we are going to have to give up any idea that morality is tied to evolution and genetic similarity. Instead, we are going to have to look for morality in something that we share with these alien beings.


I want to repeat that my response here is coming from a person who believes that science can answer moral questions. However, as is the case in the rest of science, not all theories are equal. Some theories are better able to explain the phenomena in question better than others, and those are the theories we should go with.

The “strategies for replicating our genes” theory turns out to be a poor theory. There are a great many cruel – even deadly strategies that have proved to be successful ways for creatures to replicate their genes. And, of course, there is no moral obligation to replicate one’s genes. There is nothing immoral in letting one’s own genetic line die out and doing something else with one’s time, like reading, hiking, painting, or studying philosophy.

Relating moral worth to genetic similarity has some very dangerous consequences as well. Its consequences are severe enough that we have reason to condemn anybody who would actually try to put this morality into practice.

And “evolutionary strategies” and “genetic similarity” get the answer completely wrong when it comes to the moral treatment of any hypothetical non-human interstellar species. The lack of a common evolutionary history and the absence of a genetic similarity will imply nothing about the moral worth of such a creature.

In other words, I have to say that this is simply a bad theory.

The relationship between morality and science is such that, as our science develops, we will be able to do a better and better job of determining right and wrong. We will work our way closer to a sound theory of morality that can be expressed in scientific terms. However, there is good reason to doubt that the theory we will eventually discover will have a place for “evolution” or “genetic similarity”.

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