Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Morality as defined by an evolutionary biologist

I found an interesting tidbit in my Principles of Anthropology book which I thought I would relay. My textbook, "Humankind Emerging" by Bernard G. Campbell and James D. Loy excerpts a portion of Edwin O. Wilson’s book "Human Nature":
Genes hold culture on a leash. The leash is very long, but inevitable values will be constrained in accordance with their effect on the human gene pool….Human behavior—like the deepest capacities for emotional response which drive and guide it—is the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has been and will be kept intact. Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function.
Thus, according to Wilson, the function of morality is “the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has been and will be kept intact.” By this I think he means that the function of morality is to condone, or cause, behaviors which will lead to the perpetuation of our species.

According to the textbook, Wilson believed that since humans “are a product of natural selection, it is not likely that we should have developed behavior that operates against natural selection. If biological fitness demands altruism, then it will appear in human societies, but if altruism operated to lower individuals’ inclusive fitness, then it surely would never have become established as a common behavior.”

But, some behavior can become established as common even if it lowers biological fitness. The textbook notes this, and then reconciles it with Wilson’s theory:
Much human behavior appears nonadaptive or maladaptive: we can choose not to bear children; we can commit suicide. As Wilson says, the genetic leash is long. Reason has given us freedom from the lower brain centers, the limbic system, which makes animals do what they have to do. We can determine our actions without reference to our limbic needs, and we can if we want to go against our nature—as individuals. But for the species, such behavior would spell suicide. In this sense we are still held by our genes on that unbreakable leash.
I disagree. Our society has reached a level where the rules of evolutionary biology do not apply as much as they used to. The weak, elderly, and slow are no longer culled from the pack by predators, leading to a broadening of the characteristics of "biological fitness." People that once would’ve died off long ago due to genetic-caused diseases, defects, or handicaps can now live to reproduce through the powers of medicine, and in the process thumb their noses at Darwin. Behaviors such as not having children can become common and yet not lead to the death of our species because of our advanced medicines, low infant mortality rate, long life-spans, and general security from threats.

In fact, people that succeed most in our society, if success is defined by wealth, tend to have LESS children then those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, in direct contradiction to the rules of evolutionary biology. Of course, according to the rules of evolutionary biology, success would be defined by which type of individual is propagating itself the best—even if, paradoxically, those individuals may be less healthy (as the poorer segments often are, due to worse medical care and poor diet) and less intelligent (which, as a general rule, the poor often are as well, simply because if they were smarter they would make more money in a capitalist society). Maybe, in this way, the meek truly shall inherit the Earth.

Uh oh, this is the second time in as many days that I’ve written something seemingly sympathetic to the practice of eugenics. So let me clarify. I think that the rabbit-like proliferation of those that would have normally been culled from the pack through evolution is a good thing. When the rules of evolution and natural selection don’t apply as much, it leaves open the chance for the deepening of humanity through the spread of characteristics such as altruism, which before would’ve been weeded from the pack.


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