Evolution and Morality

Does evolution have moral implications?

It is taboo to discuss the implications of evolution for human nature and society. It is called “Social Darwinism” and dismissed as “discredited”, “pseudoscience”, “bigoted” or simply “evil”. We are not supposed to think rationally about the implications of evolution for human beings. This taboo exists because evolution seems to conflict with established moral and social views. In particular, evolution conflicts with the moral value of altruism: the belief that we ought to be nice to one another.

Evolution has no direct moral implications. Evolutionary theory is a truth theory. It tells us how the world is. Morality, on the other hand, is a value theory. It tells us how we should act, or how the world should be. Evolution is on one side of the is | ought gap, and morality is on the other. There is no way to reason from an “is” to an “ought”, or vice versa. Evolutionary theory doesn’t tell us how we should act, any more than physics does.

However, like physics, evolutionary theory has implications about the consequences of our actions. Logically, value does not depend on truth, but pragmatically it does. We might really want a building with a certain design, such as an upside-down pyramid or a house made of straw, but if physics tells us that it will fall over or blow away in the wind, then there is no point trying to build it. Likewise, there is no point trying to create a social utopia if evolutionary theory predicts that it will fail. Our choices are not just based on what we value. They are also based on what we believe that we can do. Like physics, biology is a major constraint on what we can do.

Evolutionary theory also gives us a better understanding of ourselves. Evolutionary theory constrains psychological theory, because the brain is a biological form that has a biological function. Knowing that we are reproducing machines has many implications for psychology, and those implications might conflict with our myths about ourselves.

Having said that, I will argue that evolutionary theory conflicts with morality in two important ways:

  • Evolution implies that altruism cannot evolve. We are not actually altruistic. Society is not based on altruism. Professed altruism is a pretense. In other words, morality is a lie.
  • Evolution implies that altruism is self-defeating. Altruistic social policies, such as welfare, undermine society. In the long run, they will produce dystopian outcomes and/or social collapse.

These implications are not moral claims, but they have a devastating impact on moral beliefs.

The belief that morality is a lie has a profound effect on moral beliefs, even though it is not a moral claim, but rather a truth claim about the nature of moral beliefs. If you understand that your moral intuitions are just internal conformity and obedience, not awareness of objective good and evil, then you no longer believe in good and evil.

Evolutionary theory doesn’t imply the non-existence of God, but it does lead people toward atheism, because it conflicts with religious explanations and narratives. It provides an alternative theory of life that fits the evidence and doesn’t depend on the notion of God. Likewise, evolutionary theory doesn’t directly negate moral values, but it does lead to moral nihilism, because it conflicts with moral explanations and narratives. It can be used to construct a theory of human nature and society that has superior explanatory power, and doesn’t require the notion of objective good and evil.

Some try to resolve this conflict by claiming that altruism could and did evolve, and that human beings are naturally altruistic. Since Darwin proposed his theory, there have been many attempts to derive altruism from evolution. Such attempts are not driven by the desire to explain reality. They are driven by the desire to eliminate the conflict between evolutionary theory and morality, in the same way that creationism is driven by the desire to eliminate the conflict between evolutionary theory and religion.

Of course, the simplest way to eliminate the conflict is to reject morality as untenable and unnecessary. However, for most people, moral beliefs are deep assumptions that cannot easily be discarded. So, there have been many attempts to fit altruism into evolutionary theory.

Kin selection theory is one attempt to make altruism consistent with evolutionary theory, although it only predicts altruism among close relatives. It invokes “kin selection” to explain every apparent instance of kin altruism (such as worker bees caring for their sisters). However, it is somehow not falsified by the far more abundant examples of kin competition (such as queen bees killing their sisters). This is a type of cherry-picking fallacy. The theory cannot explain the former without being falsified by the latter. Kin selection theory has no predictive or explanatory power.

Scientists are not immune to ideological bias and blindness.

As a general rule, living beings invest energy in their own offspring, not in other individuals, even close kin. There are a few exceptions, such as worker bees, but those exceptions have exceptional explanations and are not explained by kin selection. (See Bees are not Social.)

Evolutionary theory also implies that altruistic social systems are self-defeating. This implication is so obvious that a special label was invented to dismiss it without argument: “Social Darwinism”. If a society subsidizes free-rider reproduction, then that society will eventually accumulate a large free-rider population, which will inevitably lead to the collapse of the society or the abandonment of its welfare policies. The modern welfare state is self-defeating.

Evolutionary theory implies that charity isn’t really altruistic in the long run. Charity might allow a large population of unproductive people to survive and reproduce, but that population will eventually perish when society collapses or changes to be less altruistic. In general, charity is futile unless it has a compensating mechanism to limit free rider reproduction. We understand this principle well enough when it applies to geese or ground squirrels (“Don’t Feed the Wildlife”), but we ignore it when it applies to human beings. Even if you accept the premise that we have altruistic moral obligations, charity fails because altruism is self-defeating.

There is another way that evolutionary theory conflicts with morality. Evolution, nature and even life itself would be judged evil by an altruistic moral standard. If altruism is good, then nature is evil.

Of course, nature is not a conscious agent that acts intentionally, so strictly speaking nature is not evil. However, if a conscious agent did what nature does, most people would judge that agent to be evil. Nature is not kind to its creations. Nature brings sentient creatures into existence to fight over limited resources, and most die without reproducing. Life is necessarily selfish and violent. There is no karma in nature. Selfishness is rewarded and altruism is punished.

This knowledge is extremely problematic for most people.

You could say that it is irrelevant, because what is natural is not necessarily good, and vice versa. To conflate “natural” and “good” is the naturalistic fallacy, or (in the opposite direction) the moralistic fallacy. It is a fallacy because it leaps over the is | ought gap.

However, simply differentiating between “natural” and “good” does not resolve the conflicts that are created by understanding the true nature of life. Most people with moral beliefs intuitively view life as good. If life is evil, then how can altruism be good? It would simply be rewarding and perpetuating evil. What is the point of preserving any life, including one’s own? Even if I were somehow an exception to nature, how could I do good in a world that is fundamentally evil?

An accurate understanding of nature is devastating to moral beliefs.

Instead of rejecting either morality or evolutionary theory, there is a third option: reject life. Efilism is a philosophical position that rejects life, or at least sentient life. Efilists keep the moral value of altruism, but they invert its conclusions. For efilists, the greatest moral good would be the complete annihilation of life.

The simplest solution is to discard morality. We are not compelled by logic or evidence to believe in objective good and evil. However, because we acquire moral intuitions very early and use them extensively throughout our lives, moral beliefs are very resistant to change. For most people, it is easier to reject the truth about life than to reject morality.