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September 19, 2007

where morality comes from

Nicholas Wade's New York Times article, entitled "Is 'Do Onto Others' Written into Our Genes?" started off badly enough that I had a hard time reading it. Stopping would have been a loss, because I appreciated the reference to YourMorals.org, where (after registering) one can take a nifty quiz.

Wade begins: "Where do moral rules come from? From reason, some philosophers say. From God, say believers. Seldom considered is a source now being advocated by some biologists, that of evolution."

First of all, the evolutionary basis of morality is not "seldom considered." It has been the topic of bestselling books and numerous articles. Even the student commencement speaker at the University of Maryland last year talked about it.

More importantly, Wade's comparison of philosophers and biologists is misleading. Biologists may be able to tell us where morals "come from," in one sense. As scientists, they try to explain the causes of phenomena, such as our beliefs and behaviors. We call some of our beliefs and behaviors "moral." Biology may be able to explain why we have these moral characteristics; and one place to look for biological causes is evolution.

But why are we entitled to call some of our beliefs and behaviors moral, and others--equally widespread, equally demanding--non-moral or even immoral? Why, for example, is nonviolence usually seen as moral, and violence as immoral? Both are natural; both evolved as human traits. Moreover, not all violence is immoral, at least not in my opinion. Not even all violence against members of one's own group is wrong.

Morality "comes from" reason, not in the sense that reason causes morality, but because we must reason in order to decide which of our traits and instincts are right and wrong, and under what circumstances. Evolutionary biology cannot help us to decide that. If biologists want to study the origins of morality, they must use a definition that comes from outside of biology. One approach is to use the definition held by average human beings in a particular population. But why call that definition "moral"? I would call it "conventional." Conventional opinion may, for example, abhor the alleged "pollution" caused by the mixing of races or castes. It is useful to study the reasons for such beliefs, but it is wrong to categorize them as moral.

Perhaps I wrote that last sentence because of my genes, my evolutionary origins, or what I ate for breakfast this morning. Whether it is true, however, depends on reason.

September 19, 2007 1:33 PM | category: philosophy | Comments


It's a nice illusion, but it is pointless. Morality comes exclusively from evolution. The fact that we can't explain everything to the last bit does not mean that the general idea is not the right one. That's why it is said that evolutionary anthropollogy (and probably game theory)has made more for the understanding of man than what philosophers have made in the last 2k years. Believe me, I've studied both at length.

Matt Ridley says that if we were Queen Bees, it would be our absolute moral commandment to kill your unborn sisters. If you did not do it, you'd be jeopardizing the whole hive. Fail to kill your unborn sisters and this could be seen (if bees were rational) as a profoundly selfish ans immoral act.

Most things will eventually be explained by evolution. e.g. Why do we form families? Because walking upright and having a big brain were two evolutionary advantages that contended against each other. Being smart meant a big head; walking upright meant a small pelvic canal. The solution that nature (evolution9 found most efficient was to make humans be born premature, i.e. very dependent on the mother (as compared to zebras for example). Having the mother tied down with the child dfuring the first years of the infant's development meant that the only succesful strategy was for the father to provide (technically called a high degree of MPI or male parental investment). When evolution does not make the male so indispensable, families are not formed.

Well, just some thoughts that I hope you and your readers find useflull. Best regards , Javier.

September 26, 2007 1:13 AM | Comments (1) | posted by Javier Bonilla

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