Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Can objective, prescriptive morality survive in a world without god? Certainly, a great many atheists seem to think so, including freethinkers for whom I have a great deal of respect, such as Christopher Hitchens, for instance. Recent books tackling the issue from a scientific perspective include Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil, which, in part, discusses the origins of moral instincts in light of our evolutionary development. Whether atheists have the ability to reference “good” and “evil,” “right” and “wrong,” “moral” and “immoral” in anything other than a subjective sense is an important question, and it is a question to which I have a rather disconcerting answer: No. With a proper, scientifically literate understanding of biology, the cosmos and the world in which we find ourselves, we must accept that we seem to be bereft of actual moral facts (that is, facts about what is moral and what is immoral).
Given the near universality of some behavioral codes among members of our species, we can be extremely confident that Darwinian evolution by natural selection had some role in shaping our collective sense of right and wrong. There are numerous examples that could be cited, but, to select one, there are very few, if not no, cultures that revere cowardice and pusillanimity while reviling courage and bravery. Most cultures have some version of The Golden Rule, which urges you to do to others as you would have them do to you. And it is easy to understand why certain behavioral guidelines would be selected for as our burgeoning civilization came to be. A functional society—that is, a society that can grow, prosper, maintain itself and cooperate—will persist; a dysfunctional society—that is, a society that is self-destructive, antagonistic and consistently hobbling itself—will die off. Even before proper civilizations began to emerge, certain kinds of behavior in smaller bands also would be conducive to a band’s success, and thus be selected.
Evolution is powered by natural selection. At its base, natural selection is about gene propagation; selection favors those things that enable “selfish genes” that wish to multiply (yes, I am anthropomorphizing) to get as many copies into the next generation as possible. In a sense, then, human bodies are just complicated machines whose sole purpose is propagating the genes that built them. We have sex and rear offspring because our selfish genes want the maximal number of copies in the next generation’s gene pool. Physical traits and characteristics evolve because they increase biological fitness (that is, the ability to reproduce successfully). Selection works against those traits detrimental to biological fitness. Instincts and inclinations evolve alongside, if not in direct relation to, the physical structures of the body.
Why do human societies, almost without exception, embrace The Golden Rule? It seems inescapable that they do so because that inclination, along with others, increased biological fitness among our ancestors, whether they were part of roving bands, small tribes or more advanced civilizations. Proscribing murdering one’s neighbors or stealing from one’s fellows made good sense vis-à-vis a population’s survival and, thus, moral instincts were imbued in the individuals. In short, then, our moral sensibilities developed because they were useful. This is not unique to morality. Richard Dawkins writes, “When we look at a solid lump of iron or rock, we are ‘really’ looking at what is almost entirely empty space. It looks and feels solid and opaque because our sensory systems and brains find it convenient to treat it as solid and opaque. It is convenient for the brain to represent a rock as solid because we can’t walk through it.” A rock looks and feels solid and opaque because it is useful for it to seem so. Similarly, it was useful for intraspecies (or, at least, intratribal) killing, theft and savagery to be considered immoral.
But does what happened to be evolutionarily useful actually relate to a cosmic truth vis-à-vis giant questions of “right” and “wrong”? There is no reason to suppose so. Evolution has imbued other inclinations into our nature, in a way not dissimilar to moral ones. For instance, generally speaking, males are more promiscuous than females are; this is a fact of observation. What explains it? It has to do with differential investment in sexual mating. In the case of males, the supply of sperm is essentially unlimited and, what is more, following fertilization, the male conceivably could abandon the female and still have some confidence of his offspring surviving and, thus, his genes making it into the next generation’s gene pool. Therefore, evolutionarily, it is in a male’s interest, essentially, to fertilize as many females as possible; this explains promiscuous inclinations. For females, though, the situation is reversed. Compared with sperm, females’ supply of eggs is much more limited, and their physical investment in a pregnancy is hugely greater than for males. Evolutionarily, it is in a female’s interest to be choosy about by whom she is fertilized. Does this understanding of differential investment in sexual mating mean men ought to be promiscuous and women ought to be choosy? I see no grounds for such a conclusion.
Studies of evolution help to explain our innate inclinations, and we may follow those inclinations or go against them—there is no “ought” of which to speak. Just because natural selection imbued us with tendencies or instincts does not mean we are slaves to them, or they touch on cosmic truth. Richard Dawkins gives an illuminating explication of natural selection, saying, “It is all about the survival of self-replicating instructions for self-replication.” He continues, “Viruses and tigers are both built by coded instructions whose ultimate message is, like a computer virus, ‘Duplicate me.’ In the case of the cold virus, the instruction is executed rather directly. A tiger’s DNA is also a ‘duplicate me’ program, but it contains an almost fantastically large digression as an essential part of the efficient execution of its fundamental message. That digression is a tiger, complete with fangs, claws, running muscles, stalking and pouncing instincts. The tiger’s DNA says, ‘Duplicate me by the round-about route of building a tiger first.’”
Thus, humanity’s delusions of exaltation crumble in a heap. Humans, like everything else on the tree of life, are a mere digression to ensure the survival of self-replicating instructions for self-replication. This biological reality check is amplified by our knowledge of the cosmos. I can think of no analogy to illustrate how tiny a speck of the cosmos humanity represents. Indeed, even if we restrict our view to our own meager planet, human-like creatures have been around less than one-hundredth of one percent of Earth’s natural history. We are a single species, on a single planet, part of a single solar system, in a single galaxy, in an almost unimaginably vast universe that would have long since forgotten about us if only it had known of us in the first place. The moral questions with which we wrestle seem terribly important to us, as do our thoughts and our actions…even material things like our possessions and our homes.
Doubtless, moles are preoccupied with their underground burrow systems, too.