The Resurgence of Evolutionary Ethics

Review of Two Books Origins & Design 18:1

The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics
Paul Lawrence Farber
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994, 210 pp.

The Secret Chain: Evolution and Ethics
Michael Bradie
New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994, 198 pp.

The ethical implications of evolution are receiving a remarkable amount of attention today, despite the death sentence that was pronounced on it by “nurture” enthusiasts in the mid-twentieth century. The emergence of the new field of sociobiology, initiated partly by E. O. Wilson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work, has helped tip the balance, making evolutionary ethics more respectable (in some circles at least). Two years ago Time magazine featured Robert Wright’s article on the ethical implications of evolutionary psychology as a cover story. Echoing Wright’s views, an Anglican bishop last year stated that God “has given us promiscuous genes,” so adultery is a God-given genetic trait. Evolutionary ethic’s obituary was evidently premature.

However, sociobiology and evolutionary ethics has aroused the ire of many critics, who seek to keep evolution and ethics as far apart as possible. One such critic is Paul Lawrence Farber, whose recent work warns against The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics (University of California Press, 1994). As an historian of science, Farber describes and analyzes in lucid prose the vicissitudes of evolutionary ethics from Darwin to the present, focusing on the Anglo-American intellectual community. He identifies three main phases of evolutionary ethics. In the first period, from Darwin to World War I, prominent thinkers, including Darwin himself, tried to spell out the ethical implications of Darwinism. After World War I evolutionary ethics almost died, but revived temporarily with the assistance of a handful of prominent scientists. After dying out by the 1960s, sociobiologists infused evolutionary ethics with new life.

Darwin himself was intensely interested in ethics and recognized that to make human evolution plausible, he would have to provide an account of the origins of ethics, since most people considered morality a uniquely human trait. Darwin explained that human moral sentiments differed only in degree, not in kind, from phenomena observable in other animals. They arose from “social instincts” similar to the instincts of ants, bees, wolves, apes, and other animals that live in societies. The social instincts evolved primarily through natural selection, since cooperation aided groups in their struggle for existence against other groups. In human society, this meant that tribes and societies that had moral virtues, such as loyalty, self-sacrifice, or other altruistic characteristics, would prevail over those without such values. They would then pass on these moral qualities to their offspring.

Farber criticizes Darwin’s views on ethics, since he claims that Darwin had no grounds to justify survival as a criterion for morality. But here Farber is mistaken, for Darwin was not trying to provide criteria for particular ethical views, but to show how morality originated. When Farber complains that Darwin’s ethics is too Eurocentric, he misses the point again, for Darwin was not attempting to issue ethical prescriptions at all. Though Darwin was mistaken, he thought he was describing (but not prescribing) universal moral traits. Farber should have considered Darwin’s comment on morality in his autobiography that sheds some light on this:

A man who has no assured and ever-present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones.1

When Darwin tried to describe the content of these moral impulses, he may have been Eurocentric, but he never tried to construct moral principles based on them.

After Darwin, initial attempts to formulate evolutionary ethics failed on several counts. Some prominent Darwinistsmost notably Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selectionrejected all attempts to derive ethics from evolution, though for different reasons. Further, Darwinian explanations for ethics did not gain even a foothold in academic philosophy, partly because of the influence of British idealism, which rejected naturalistic accounts of ethics. Even philosophers less inclined to idealism usually embraced G. E. Moore’s formulation of the naturalistic fallacy: It is invalid to derive “ought” from “is.” No ethical principle may be legitimately founded on a fact of nature, so biological principles cannot be translated into moral imperatives. By World War I evolutionary ethics was languishing.

Julian Huxley tried to breathe new life into evolutionary ethics in the early- to mid-twentieth century, opposing his grandfather’s divorce of evolution and ethics. Farber is highly critical of Julian Huxley, whose “ethics was a projection of his values onto the history of man,” and whose “naturalism assumed the vision he pretended to discover” (136). Along with Huxley, C. H. Waddington and G. G. Simpson vainly tried to construct a viable form of evolutionary ethics. Despite their efforts, by the 1960s evolutionary ethics was moribund.

However, evolutionary ethics received new impetus with the advent of sociobiology in the 1970s. Why this resurgence? Farber persuasively argues that one reason the ground was fertile for replanting was because philosophers had failed miserably in constructing any acceptable alternative to evolutionary ethics. They left a vacuum that sociobiology rushed to fill. Though sociobiologists are more careful and nuanced in formulating evolutionary ethics than most previous thinkers, Farber still concludes that they transgress the naturalistic fallacy, and points out that most philosophers today reject the application of sociobiology to ethics. In his introduction Farber is indignant that we still have to argue against ideas contained in sociobiology that have been decisively refuted in the past.

The naturalistic fallacy is not the only problem with evolutionary ethics, according to Farber. He rightly points out that many attempts at evolutionary ethics have conflated the origins of ethics with justifications for ethics. Explanations for the way that morality arose were illegitimately transformed into reasons to act in certain ways. Not only can evolutionary ethics not provide a valid justification for actions, it also cannot explain the gap that exists between actions that promote survival and behavior that we actually deem moral. Farber rightly insists that some acts we consider morally good have nothing to do with the survival of individuals, kin, or the species.

Farber errs at times, though, by downplaying the impact of evolutionary ethics. Occasionally he sounds like he is talking out of both sides of his mouth, lamenting its influence, but then assuring us that it really has not had much effect. One indicator of how little impact evolutionary ethics has had in Anglo-American society is, he alleges, that anti-evolutionists hardly ever combat it in their literature. I suspect that even a superficial glance at anti-evolutionist literature would expose this as erroneous, for anti-evolutionists have been deeply concerned with the ethical implications of Darwinism. William Jennings Bryan, for example, began his crusade against Darwinism primarily because he feared its moral implications.

Farber also seems to think that current trends in scholarly circles — postmodernism, deconstruction, etc. — will contribute to the downfall of evolutionary ethics. While he may be an able historian and a perceptive critic, though, I wonder about his prognosis. It seems to me that evolutionary ethics, despite many countervailing forces, has picked up steam in the past decade and shows no signs of abating. Farber’s work will probably not act effectively as a brake, either, for although he raises some crucial issues, he never provides a viable alternative. He does not plug up the lacuna in philosophical ethics that he holds partly responsible for the advent of sociobiological ethics.

Because Farber’s primary intent is to combat the various forms of evolutionary ethics he describes, he does not explore sufficiently the impact that evolutionary ethics has had on other fields, particularly religion. He does give some hints, though. When discussing T. H. Huxley’s ethical views, he states, “Morality had been among the foundations of Victorian religious sentiment, and when the divorce of God from his creation occurred, morality was orphaned” (67). This point could have been developed to a much greater extent, for Huxley was not the only one responding to this dilemma.

Indeed, before Darwin the existence of ethical standards and human moral sentiments was considered one of the most persuasive proofs for the existence of God. Of course, there were some skeptics like David Hume, but most philosophers and ethical thinkers — and certainly most theologians and pastors — grounded morality in a supreme being of some sort. Even Kant, who eloquently repudiated the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments for the existence of God in his Critique of Pure Reason, tried to rescue God from oblivion in his sequel, Critique of Practical Reason, by appealing to ethics. The existence of morality convinced him that God existed, or at least that we mortals must operate as though he did.

All this changed with Darwin. Not that Darwin was the only influence undermining a theistic conception of ethics, but his contribution should not be minimized. By providing a seemingly plausible naturalistic account for the origin of human morals, Darwin completely altered the terms of the debate. The philosopher Michael Bradie in The Secret Chain: Evolution and Ethics (State University of New York Press, 1994) discusses this development more explicitly than did Farber, though his writing is more ponderous and turgid. He argues that by explaining how morality arose, Darwinism has ruled out some options in ethical philosophy, including all systems that ground morality in something external to humansfor instance, in a deity. According to Bradie, Darwinism has banished God from morality in the same way that Newton divorced God from the physical world. He asserts:

With respect to our understanding of the physical world [after Newton], God as creator became a “God-of-the-gaps,” invoked only as a last resort when our physical explanations failed. Appeals to God to account for the constitution of human nature on which our moral nature rests should be viewed in the same light. (166)

Bradie apparently has forgotten that Newton believed in a deity who created the physical world. Newton’s laws said nothing about how physical laws or matter originated, just how they operated.

From the start, Bradie admits his naturalistic position, which leads him to believe that no objective morality exists. Though Bradie does not endorse their views, some evolutionists take things a step further by providing an evolutionary explanation for the widespread idea that there are objective moral standards. E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse, for instance, argue that “human beings function better if they are deceived by their genes into thinking that there is a disinterested objective morality binding upon them, which all should obey” (113). Does this mean that Wilson’s and Ruse’s gene line is in trouble? After all, if what they wrote is true, then they and anyone who believes them will no longer “function better.” More seriously, if some moral perspectives are merely our genes deceiving us, maybe Wilson’s and Ruse’s own view of morality is nothing more than a genetic ruse.

By providing both an historical and analytical perspective on evolutionary ethics, Bradie intends to promote an “interdisciplinary attack” on the problem of ethics from an evolutionary stance. He is optimistic that work by philosophers, biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists can illuminate the myriad of questions currently plaguing philosophical ethics. However, he seems ambiguous about just what kind of solution is possible. While arguing that we can gain insights into ethics through biology, he rejects the idea that biology can be the basis for ethics.

Bradie explains his dual approach in the first chapter by distinguishing between the evolution of moral mechanisms (EMM) and the evolution of moral theses (EMT). Concerning the former, he claims that no one (except “fundamentalists and biblical literalists”) deny that moral mechanisms have evolved. EMM has great promise to help us in ethical philosophy, according to Bradie, since it shapes our views of human nature, on which our ethical outlook is constructed. However, Bradie acknowledges that very little about EMM is known today. We have no idea what biological structures make us moral animals, nor can anyone construct phylogenies of moral sentiments (though some advocates of evolutionary psychology are as adept as Freud at spinning out conjectural stories of the origins of human behavior). Bradie rightly cautions, “We cannot even say with any degree of certainty whether morality is an adaptation or not” (127). Thus, as Bradie admits, any moral reasoning based on EMM is rather weak today, though he hopes that future scientific work will provide illumination that is now sadly lacking.

With EMT the case is even worse, for using evolution to create or justify specific moral principles is even more problematic. Bradie is equivocal on the future prospects for EMT. In his analysis of three contemporary approaches to evolutionary ethics, he finds them all wanting. He certainly does not think that anyone has yet provided an adequate justification for ethics based on evolution. His critical analysis of Robert Richards, who believes he can provide an evolutionary justification for ethics, is rather sympathetic, however. He agrees with Richards that the naturalistic fallacy is not applicable to all forms of evolutionary ethics, including Spencer’s and Richard’s (Farber would surely grind his teeth at that). But in the final analysis he does not believe Richards is entirely successful. But neither does he find Wilson’s and Ruse’s opposing case persuasive. In the conclusion Bradie rides the fence, asserting that the dispute over the possibility of moral justifications based on evolution cannot be resolved. Thus he considers the debate between Wilson and Richards a draw. Whether this impasse can ever be broken, Bradie does not tell us.

Bradie is less equivocal in his critique of Peter Singer, James Rachels, and other philosophers who use Darwinism to defend the moral status of animals. Singer and Rachels believe that the continuity between humans and animals negates the traditional doctrine of the uniqueness and sanctity of human life. Since humans are not unique, Singer and Rachels suggest that greater equality be accorded animals, especially since they have the capacity for suffering. Bradie seems to agree with them concerning the continuity question, but he criticizes them for using suffering as a criterion to grant non-human animals moral relevance. He calls this an arbitrary choice. Thus, Bradie dismisses Singer’s indictment of “speciesism” as an invalid inference from evolution.

Ironically, in the historical part of his work Bradie the philosopher provides a better historical background to ethical thought before Darwin than does Farber the historian. In order to help us understand Darwin’s intervention in ethical philosophy, Bradie discusses at length British moral philosophy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The main problem confronting moral philosophers then was how to reconcile self-interest with benevolence, a problem Darwin had to face squarely. While Bradie explains the debates on self-interest and benevolence thoroughly, he rarely shows how the particular views of these philosophers link with Darwin’s and Spencer’s views discussed in the subsequent chapter, though he does claim that present debates over altruism or self-interest parallel these pre-Darwinian debates.

If Bradie and Farber both find present formulations of evolutionary ethics unsuccessful, what do they propose in its place? Farber, who found license as an historian to refute evolutionary ethics, does not offer the slightest guidance. One would expect that Bradie as a philosopher would provide some clear alternative, but instead, he only offers the hope that future advances in science will clarify the issues so progress can be made in ethical theory. Farber would probably grin if he read this, knowing that such advances are illusory.

1. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882, ed. Nora Barlow (NY:Norton, 1958), p. 94.

Richard Weikart

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Richard Weikart is Emeritus Professor of History, California State University, Stanislaus, and author of seven books, including From Darwin to Hitler, Hitler’s Ethic, The Death of Humanity, and Hitler’s Religion. His most recent book is Darwinian Racism: How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism (2022). His PhD dissertation, Socialist Darwinism, earned the biennial prize of the Forum for History of Human Sciences as best dissertation in that field. He has lectured at many universities and other venues in the US and Europe. He also has been interviewed on dozens of radio shows, podcasts, and TV, and appeared in seven documentaries, including Expelled. Some of his lectures and interviews are available on YouTube.