Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Bill Nye on Evolution and Morality: Part 1

I recently viewed a video from Think Big where you addressed a question concerning the relationship between morality and science.

I regret to inform you that I found your answer deficient in a number of ways.

You seem to be somebody who adjusts his beliefs on the basis of evidence, so let me give you some reason to modify your response.

You began by stating that, just as evolution determined the number of fingers we have, our eye color, our hair color, and our skin color, evolution also molded our feelings. In our evolutionary past, those who were selfish died out in our evolutionary past leaving those who were altruistic and cooperative.

Our Evolved Feelings

However, please note that Hitler, Genghis Khan, Ted Bunday, and the 9/11 terrorists have the same evolutionary history you and I did. I suspect that they followed their feelings as much as Ghandi or Martin Luthar King did – only their feelings directed them to inflict huge amounts of suffering.

Since the dawn of time, nobody had a “feeling” that there was anything wrong with slavery. That is to say, we find no evidence of people debating the morality of slavery at all until the 1600s. Even the slaves accepted slavery as an institution – objecting to the fact that THEY had been made slaves but not objecting to slavery per se.

We can say the same about the treatment of women. Even in the 1700s where “all men are created equal” and the idea that slavery was wrong was starting to make itself felt, nobody questioned the fact that it was men who were created equal and women were created to serve man.

The person who beats their spouse, the person who responds to the frustration of driving on the highway by pulling out a gun and killing the person in car in front of him, are acting on their evolved feelings.

There is reason to believe that evolution has selected against inhibitions that would otherwise have prevented rape since rapists, in many circumstances, would have had more offspring than non-rapists. Similarly, evolution seems to have created a species that operates in terms of “tribes” that give preferential treatment to fellow members, but which also has urges to attack other tribes and take control of their resources. If evolved feelings are to serve as our guide to right and wrong then tribal conflict – with manifests itself these days in international and civil wars, racial and ethnic discrimination (including ethnic cleansing), and gang warfare – would have to be considered legitimate, even obligatory.

In short, evolution utterly fails to distinguish the good person from the evil person. All of our traits – good and bad – share the same evolutionary history. We cannot look to evolution to distinguish one from another.

Furthermore, if we look at the paper, I think that the evidence is clear that the claim that evolution has deselected the cruel and the selfish is extremely overstated.

The Pace of Change

The issues of slavery and the treatment of women raise another problem with trying to explain morality in terms of evolution.

It is entirely irrational to think that, somehow, around 1600, some humans in Europe acquired an anti-slavery gene that then spread across the population at such a rate that, by 1870, slavery had been eliminated almost everywhere. Nor is it reasonable to believe that nature was able to select for an “equal rights for women” gene in the course of just a few decades.

The fact of the matter is that these “feelings” that slavery is wrong and that women deserve equal rights did not come about through evolution. They came about through learning. That is to say, it seems quite obvious that whatever “feelings” evolution gives us, we have the capacity to mold and shape them and make them different in the next generation than they are in this generation.

This capacity to make changes in what people “feel” then gives rise to the question, “what changes should we make?” The person who answers this question by saying, “evolution” is not being at all helpful.

The Plasticity of Brains

One of the things that evolution has given us is malleable brains.

Certainly, you don’t believe that your belief that there are 8 planets came about because you have a “belief in 8 planets” gene. You acquired this belief because your brain structure is determined not only by your genes, but by the environment in which you grew up. That environment made you somebody who spoke English. It also planted into your brain a structure that can be called a “belief that there are 8 planets”.

The plasticity of the human brain, in fact, provides us with a huge evolutionary advantage.

While evolution has some influence on our feelings, the fact of the matter is that “feelings” are also contained within the structure of the brain – a structure that we already know to be plastic. Consequently, “feelings” can be learned – molded – through interaction with the environment. As was mentioned above – the “feeling” that slavery is wrong and that women and men should be treated equal did not come from your genes. You learned them – just as your ancestors just a few centuries ago learned to have different feelings about slaves and women.

And just the way that Hitler learned to have different feelings about Jews, Ghengis Khan learned to have different feelings about slaughtering whole populations, and terrorists learn to have different feelings about killing large numbers of civilians.

When it comes to learning feelings, we even know quite a bit about how the brain works. A creature performs an action that generates a reward – something the being desires. This triggers a dopamine response that then goes back and generates positive feelings towards those things that preceded the reward. These things that preceded the reward come not only to be valued as a means for achieving the reward, but they become valued for their own sake. Consequently, a child may learn to share his toys as a means to obtaining praise from a parent. However, this triggers a dopamine response that then alters the brain structure in such a way that sharing becomes valued for its own sake. The child becomes an adult who shares, not because he likes to be praised by his mother, but because he likes sharing.

Evolution created this structure. However, because of this structure, evolution does not fix our feelings. Our feelings can be molded by our experiences – by the interactions we have with our environment.

Furthermore, because each of us is a part of each other’s environment, each of us has the capacity to the “feelings” that others have about killing innocent people, taking the property of others or engaging in sex without their consent, lying or deceiving others into behaving ways that are not in their interest, helping those who are in need. We have the capacity to teach and learn feelings just as we have a capacity to learn and teach language.

The Teaching of Morality

I gave this final argument just a few posts ago, but I want to repeat it here.

Answering the question, “What about morality?” by saying “Evolution” amounts to saying, “Oh, don’t worry. Your child will not be raped. You will not be killed or robbed. Nobody is going to try to cheat you out of your money. People are not going to burn down your house out of anger. Your spouse is not going to cheat on you, and your lover will not put you at risk of catching a sexually transmitted disease. Nobody is going to enslave you. Nobody is going to round you up with others of your kind and send you to the gas chambers. Nobody is going to fly an airplane into a building that you happen to be working in, or set off an explosive vest in the market where you are shopping. Nobody is going to invade your city and slay every man, woman, and child. Humans evolved to be cooperative. Humans don’t do these things.”

It is an utterly absurd response that shows nothing more than the fact that the person who answers by saying “evolution” does not understand what the word “morality” even means. “Morality” is not concerned with preventing harms that humans cannot even inflict because of some genetic inhibitions. Morality is concerned with preventing the types of harms that surround us every day – harms that humans show themselves quite capable of inflicting on others in spite of our evolutionary history. However common they happen to be, we have reason to want them to be less common and we use the institution of “morality” to accomplish this end.

At best, you can say that evolution has only been partially successful at making us cooperative and, in some cases, may have selected for traits that are not at all cooperative. Morality is something that humans have put on top of evolution – to promote and enhance its good features while inhibiting or blocking its bad features.

To confuse “morality” with “evolution” is to confuse the building with the ground on which it is built.


This discussion applies only to the first part of your response – concerning evolution and feelings. In my next post, I will discuss another part of your response – your story about how our feelings motivate us to act in ways that replicate our genes furthest into the future – saving a grandchild over a child where only one can be saved.

That also shows a misunderstanding of the relationship between evolution and morality.

Until then,

Alonzo Fyfe

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