Evolution: Evolutionary Ethics

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Evolutionary ethics attempts to use the biological theory of evolution as a foundation for ethics. As such, its history is closely linked with the development and popularization of evolutionary theories starting in the nineteenth century. To a large extent, the history of evolutionary ethics is associated with efforts to find alternatives to religion as a foundation for moral law. The growth of industrialism, the establishment of German biblical criticism, and the rise of science all contributed to growing secularism during the middle of the nineteenth century. Like other attempts to extend an understanding of biological evolution to the human situation, evolutionary ethics has been highly controversial. Although various evolutionary ethics were proposed throughout Western countries, its greatest popularity was in the Anglo-American world. The history of evolutionary ethics is divided into three phases, the initial Darwin and Spencer period, an early-twentieth-century period, and a contemporary period.

Initial Period: Darwin and Spencer

When Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, he avoided discussion of human evolution as well as the implications of his theory for an understanding of human society. He was fully aware, however, that others would immediately extend his theory to cover human evolution and that the implications of his work would be discussed. In his Descent of Man (1871) Darwin tackled these issues directly. Of central concern to him was the "moral faculty," the possession of which he considered the most important difference between humans and all other "lower animals."

Darwin's theory of evolution attempted to understand the origin of contemporary animal and plant life in naturalistic terms, that is, without reference to any supernatural causes. Since humans, according to his theory, were considered to have had a natural origin, Darwin approached the problem of the origin of the moral faculty as he did other physical and mental traits. His general approach in trying to understand the origin of complex traits, such as the human eye, was to depict them as part of a continuuminstead of focusing on their unique or unusual aspects, he depicted them as part of a series. In the case of the eye, for example, he constructed a series of traits starting with simple, light-sensitive cells on the skin of a primitive organism and ended with the highly complex vertebrate eye. This allowed him to illustrate how, over time, a trait could change by small increments from one end of a spectrum to the other, from simple to complex. He used this approach with the moral faculty and claimed that it was the natural development of the intellectual capacity of social animals.

Any social animal, according to Darwin, that attained an intelligence that was close to human intelligence would develop a moral faculty. He explained the moral faculty in the following manner: With increased intelligence, early humans attained the capacity for various sentiments (e.g., courage, sympathy), and these gave advantages to the group. Groups with these sentiments survived better than those without them. Over time, one of these sentiments evolved into a moral sense that helped consolidate the group and gave it increased survival value. Darwin was aware of the ethnographic literature of his day, which suggested that all human groups had sets of ethical beliefs, and he felt that in time people would understand the adaptive value of these beliefs. Darwin did not attempt to justify moral beliefs by reference to their origin. He was primarily concerned with how they came about.

In contrast, Darwin's contemporary Herbert Spencer sought justification for ethical positions. Spencer elaborated an ethical theory that he believed had evolved from nature, and he argued that his system was natural and prescriptive. In his Social Statics (1851) Spencer derived a basic principle for ethics: "Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man" (p. 121). This principle allowed individuals to seek what gave them pleasure, and in his later Principles of Ethics (18791893) he elaborated an evolutionary philosophy to explain how seeking pleasure (and avoiding pain) drove the evolutionary process in biology and psychology and was therefore a natural principle on which to base ethics.

Spencer's evolutionary ethics was more Lamarckian than Darwinian. That is, he did not stress the adaptive value of the moral sentiment but rather emphasized the inheritance of acquired characteristics and thought of nature as moving to a predetermined goal. For Spencer, a natural process was moving human evolution toward a state where duty became pleasure, mutual aid replaced competition, and the greatest possible individual freedom existed.

Contemporaries did not always carefully distinguish between Darwin's ideas and those of Spencer. And numerous supporters of evolutionary ethics combined ideas in new and novel combinations. Consequently, evolutionary ethics varied considerably. In the United States, John Fiske emerged as the most energetic supporter of evolutionary ethics. Fiske was an admirer of Spencer, but he believed that evolutionary ideas opened up the path to a new, reborn Christianity. Fiske's religious orientation was somewhat unusual in the evolutionary ethics tradition. Leslie Stephen in England was more Darwinian, and he believed that evolution provided the foundation for an agnostic, liberal morality. Other important supporters of evolutionary ethics were Woods Hutchinson in the United States and Benjamin Kidd in Britain.

Evolutionary ethics had support, but also a number of critics. Two of the period's major evolutionists, Thomas Henry Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace, were strongly opposed to the position and wrote critical works arguing against it. Huxley, citing David Hume, argued that describing what "is" does not give one the authority to proscribe what "ought" to be (the famous IS/OUGHT distinction). Wallace took a quite different approach in his critique and was drawn to a spiritualist view of moral thought. He rejected both Darwin's and Spencer's positions on ethics and contended that evolutionary biology could not provide a foundation for ethics.

Of greater importance, the philosophic community was nearly unanimous in its rejection of evolutionary ethics. The leading figure at the time in ethics, Henry Sidgwick of Cambridge University, dismissed evolutionary ethics in his major work, Methods of Ethics (1874). He wrote that the justification of evolutionary ethics depended upon one of two arguments. The first, going from a description of a moral belief to a belief in its validity, he rejected because he contended that such an argument merely tells about a custom and is of no value to ethics. The second specifies a hypothetical "natural state" of humans and society and goes on to use that state as a foundation for ethics. He rejected it because he felt it was a confused position; any impulse, desire, or tendency can be considered "natural." How can one deem a particular one significantly natural without some prior justification? According to Sidgwick, ethics is a systematic examination of beliefs about what is right or wrong, with the goal of constructing a rational system of moral ideas. From his perspective, evolutionary ethics was not an ethical system but merely a discussion of how ethical systems may have come into being or a discussion of various held beliefs. It was not to be taken seriously as constructive ethics.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Sidgwick's condemnation of evolutionary ethics was repeated and extended by the Cambridge philosopher G. E. Moore. His arguments are the ones most often cited in criticism of evolutionary ethics. In his Principia Ethica (1903), Moore rejected evolutionary ethics along with other forms of naturalistic ethics, all of which he claimed were based on the "naturalistic fallacy." He meant by this that attempts to explain the "good" by reference to some property were not valid. The "good" is a simple notion that cannot be defined as pleasure or an evolutionary adaptation. Moore's critique was aimed at more than just evolutionary ethics, and his writings served to redirect ethical writing. American philosophers were no more accepting of evolutionary ethics than the English. William James and John Dewey, both sympathetic to and influenced by evolutionary ideas, rejected evolutionary ethics.

Early-Twentieth-Century Period

Evolutionary ethics entered a new phase in the early twentieth century due to changes in evolutionary science itself and the extension of evolutionary ideas into a broad worldview. The most outspoken supporter was Julian Huxley, grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley (who had been so critical of the position in the previous century). Julian Huxley is famous for being one of the architects of the Modern Synthesis, the neo-Darwinian theory that stressed Darwin's original insight that natural selection of small random variations were the central driving force in evolution. The new theory built on the dramatic new genetic understanding of variation as well as careful work in natural history on geographic variation. Huxley played a key role in synthesizing this knowledge and in popularizing it. Equally important, Huxley believed that the new evolutionary theory provided a foundation for a new humanist philosophy that had important implications for social policy and ethical thought. He elaborated on his version of evolutionary ethics in his Romanes Lecture in 1943.

At the heart of Huxley's argument was his contention that evolution was a progressive process with three different stages: cosmic, biological, and psychosocial. The process of evolution had led to the emergence of humans, the highest and most advanced species, one capable of cultural evolution and ultimately of a sense of moral obligation. To explain the origin of moral obligation, Huxley made reference to psychology, in particular Sigmund Freud's concept of the superego, an internalized authority that allows one's sense of guilt to repress aggression and that is the source of one's senses of "wrong" and of "duty." Moral obligation evolved over time, as did human ethical standards, the ethics accepted by social groups. Huxley argued that the direction of moral progress was toward greater human fulfillment and the realization of values that had "intrinsic worth" (rather than adaptive worth). Only a society that respected individual rights, stressed education, encouraged responsibility, and promoted the arts could realize those goals.

Huxley's scientific humanism enjoyed a limited popularity with the general public in the decades after World War II, as did the writings of C. H. Waddington, who argued along similar lines in his 1960 book The Ethical Animal. Waddington departed from Huxley, however, in emphasizing that the "good" in evolutionary ethics had to be viewed in terms of what furthers human evolution. Their version of evolutionary ethics rested on a new and widely accepted theory of evolution, but the old criticisms raised by Sidgwick and Moore remained. Moreover the philosophy community by this time had moved onto other approaches to ethics. Some, like Charles Stevenson, stressed language; others followed A. J. Ayer and his logical positivism, which tended to dismiss ethics as merely expressions of feeling and not having any truth value. None of these newer approaches to ethics accepted evolutionary ethics, and by the 1970s the position had few supporters.

Contemporary Period: Evolutionary Ethics after 1975

With the appearance of Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology in 1975, a new chapter in the history of evolutionary ethics began. Wilson's text synthesized research on the Modern Synthesis with population biology and animal behavior. The central argument of the book is that behavior should be regarded as adaptive and can be understand best from an evolutionary perspective, not just animal behavior but human behavior as well. Sociobiology had a short section on ethics, and in it Wilson claimed that the time had come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the domain of philosophy and moved into biology. The study of the biological basis of social behavior promised, according to Wilson, to provide a new Darwinian foundation for ethics and for an understanding of social sciences and humanities.

Wilson followed up his suggestion with his Pulitzer Prizewinning book On Human Nature (1978), in which he elaborated on his evolutionary understanding of ethics. Unlike Darwin, who had relied on a view of group selection to explain the origin of the moral sentiment, Wilson built on the work of William Hamilton, who argued for understanding "altruistic behavior" as an activity that can promote passage of a greater number of an individual's genes to the next generation. Hamilton, in a set of classic papers in 1964, showed that an "altruistic act" can have selective value if it leads to the survival and reproduction of near relatives with whom one shares common genes. Because a person shares half of his or her genes with a sibling and an eighth with a cousin, if a person acts in a manner that sacrifices his or her life but that more than doubles the reproductive rate of a sibling, then copies of that person's genes will increase in the next generation. From an evolutionary perspective, an individual passing on his or her genes is of central value. The individual who passes on genes has a greater impact on the next generation than one who does not. Hamilton's ideas were popularized by Richard Dawkins in his The Selfish Gene (1976), which argues that all supposed selfish acts are ultimately selfish in a genetic sense.

Wilson used Hamilton to explain how an action that "appears" altruistic, that helps another at one's expense, in the long run can work for its carrier's "benefit" and therefore have a selective value. But what actions "ought" one take? Here Wilson also utilized the central, modern evolutionary principle, the survival and reproduction of genes. He argued that what promotes survival and reproduction of the gene pool is "good" and what negatively affects it is "bad." Atomic warfare, from this perspective, is bad. Wilson in fact derived an entire set of "good" actions and "bad" actions based on their effects on the gene pool. Ultimately, Wilson concluded, science will provide a more powerful mythology than religion, and humans will be able to construct meaningful and moral lives from a totally secular perspective.

Although a few biologists and other intellectuals, particularly evolutionary psychologists, have embraced this new evolutionary ethics, the position has drawn considerable criticism. Philosophers and historians have noted that the new ethics, which draws on evolutionary theory, although up-to-date in its biology, suffers from the same flaws that were first raised by Sidgwick and other early critics. The emphasis on genes and their survival has also raised the question of how deterministic the view is. After all, if people do not have any free will to make decisions, if people are hardwired to act in certain ways, how can one claim that actions are "good?" Wilson has grappled with the issue and argued that genes and culture interact, but that individuals have "tendencies" that predispose them in certain ways. Others see culture as more independent. Richard Alexander, an animal behaviorist, argued that evolutionary analysis can reveal quite a lot about the origin and development of laws and ethical opinions but cannot reveal which ones are "right." Such views undercut the value of evolutionary ethics, because they underscore its inadequacy of providing a guide for action.

As with the earlier versions of evolutionary ethics, supporters of modern theories of evolutionary ethics have made little headway toward gaining acceptance. Evolutionary ethics has long had an attraction for some. It serves as an essential subject for worldviews based on evolution and has provided a secular foundation for moral beliefs. Unfortunately, it has suffered from a set of serious philosophical flaws, and it has failed to meet the challenges posed by philosophers.

See Also

Ethology of Religion; Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology, article on Sociobiology of Religion; Spencer, Herbert.


Breuer, Georg. Sociobiology and the Human Dimension. Cambridge, U.K., 1982. A perceptive discussion of the debate over sociobiology.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. London, 1871.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York, 1976.

Degler, Carl N. In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought. New York, 1991. A review of the impact of Darwinism on theories of human nature.

Farber, Paul Lawrence. The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics. Berkeley, Calif., 1994. A history from Darwin to Edward O. Wilson.

Flew, Anthony. Evolutionary Ethics. London, 1967. A philosophical critique of the position.

Huxley, Thomas, and Julian Huxley. Touchstone for Ethics, 18931943. New York, 1947. Contains Thomas Huxley's critique of evolutionary ethics and Julian Huxley's defense.

Kitcher, Philip. Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass., 1985. An extensive critique of the attempt to understand human nature through sociobiology.

Midgley, Mary. Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears. London, 1985. A perceptive discussion of the attempt to understand ethical issues from a biological perspective.

Moore, G. E. Principia Ethica. Cambridge, U.K., 1903.

Murphy, Jeffrie G. Evolution, Morality, and the Meaning of Life. Totowa, N.J., 1982. A good general discussion of the issues.

Quillian, William F., Jr. The Moral Theory of Evolutionary Naturalism. New Haven, Conn., 1945. A careful philosophical analysis of the central argument.

Quinton, Anthony. "Ethics and the Theory of Evolution." In Biology and Personality: Frontier Problems in Science, Philosophy, and Religion, edited by Ian T. Ramsey. Oxford, 1965, pp, 107131. A discussion of the philosophical problems with evolutionary ethics.

Richards, Robert J. Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior. Chicago, 1987. A good background work for the subject, and a spirited defense.

Rottschaefer, William A. The Biology and Psychology of Moral Agency. New York, 1998. An interesting attempt to solve some of the philosophical issues that surround evolutionary ethics.

Ruse, Michael. Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy. New York, 1986. A modified version of evolutionary ethics.

Schilcher, Florian von, and Neil Tennant. Philosophy, Evolution, and Human Nature. London, 1984. A careful analysis of the central issues.

Sidgwick, Henry. The Methods of Ethics. London, 1901. An extended discussion and critique of evolutionary ethics.

Spencer, Herbert. Social Statics. London, 1851.

Spencer, Herbert. Principles of Ethics. 18791893. 2 volumes.

Waddington, C. H. The Ethical Animal. London, 1960.

Williams, Cora M. A Review of the Systems of Ethics Founded on the Theory of Evolution. London, 1893. A discussion of the early major statements of evolutionary ethics.

Wilson, Edward O. Sociobiology. Cambridge, Mass., 1975.

Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass., 1978. Wilson's major work on evolutionary ethics.

Paul Lawrence Farber (2005)

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