The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Evolutionary Morality

Recognize that life on this planet has never been better. While this runs counter to the mass media narrative that is endlessly obsessed with the most petty and banal struggles, it is impossible to come to an other conclusion when one compares the human condition of the present era with any other era of our species existence. On every single plane of existence, the human condition is improving. Our societies are more fair, more just, more focused on individual empowerment, individual freedom and individual choice than ever before. We are more capable of obtaining, processing and adapting new information than ever before. No human society has ever attained the level of material comfort and well being that our society enjoys.

While it is common to hear laments for earlier, purer eras, these paeans often fail to grasp the true nature of early human existence. Early hominids, our earliest ancestors, did not live Rousseauian lives of peace and plenty, free of want and unfettered by the constraints of an oppressive society. Early hominids lived a wretched, squalid, miserable existence, dwelling eternally on the fringes of starvation and exposure in a hostile and unforgiving world utterly outside of their ability to control or understand. While philosophers and theologians tend to eulogize the virtues and purity of these early humans, extolling their lack of want and their simplistic existence, there is a central paradox these philosophers and theologians simply cannot reconcile.

The Homo Sapien of ten thousand years, of fifty thousand years ago, of one hundred eighty thousand years ago was evolutionarily indistinguishable from ourselves. These early humans possessed the same physiology and same mental capacity as modern humans. While it is impossible to know for certain, it is logical and reasonable to assume that our early ancestors were also capable of complex emotions. Indeed, it is an insult to our forebearers to assume that they lacked the capacity for compassion, grief, want, loss, joy, excitement, appreciation. If our primate kin are capable of reasonably complex emotionality, it seems wholly illogical to assume that these early humans with their incredibly advanced brains were incapable of equally complex emotions.

What apologists of these earlier eras utterly fail to grasp is that for early humans, intelligence and self-awareness was likely a horrible curse to bear. Unlike most animals who function on instinct and immediate need, early humans were capable of feeling and truly understanding just how difficult and frightening their lives were. A pack of dogs or a pride of lions may recognize on some level that they lack the food necessary to survive, but unlike their human counterparts, they lack the ability to project into the future and see what will happen to those members of their family or tribe and feel the impending grief and loss that comes with knowledge of a probable future, with the knowledge that one child will starve. Contrary to the Utopian visions, Eden was no Eden. Anyone who has ever tried to live without the conveniences of modern life quickly realizes that when you have to catch and kill your own food it means that you spend virtually every waking hour attempting to obtain the calories necessary to survive coupled with the unfortunate reality that often, despite your best efforts, you will go to sleep with an empty belly.

Humans, like most animals, have spent the vast majority of their history in th endless quest to stave off starvation and avoid predation for another day. Unfortunately for early humans, they were acutely aware of the harshness of their world. One can only assume that this burden fell especially heavy on early human women who were forced to attempt to feed, care for and protect not only themselves, but helpless infants as well.

Indeed, it is hard to miss the fact that in the natural world, those creatures with the highest intelligence and most advanced social structures are uniformly those whose young are the most helpless. For all intents and purposes, human infants are utterly useless and dependent on their parents for several years. Primate young are almost equally helpless. In many ways, the need to parent these otherwise helpless creatures is likely the evolutionary prerequisite to the formation of any complex societal / social behavior.

One of the most remarkable aspects of intelligence is that it seems to be found primarily in species whose young are the least capable and helpless at birth. Unlike baby sea turtles, crocodiles, lizards, who are essentially born with the inherent capacity to evade predators and live without any kind of parental or societal protection whatsoever, human infants and primate infants in particular are functionally useless and utterly dependent on the care of their parents for years after their birth. Even worse, humans and primates, typically reproduce only in small numbers, making the act of reproduction and the price of parental failure that much worse from an evolutionary standpoint. Fish, who drop thousands of eggs and simply leave them to be fertilized by the sperm of another fish, clearly do not invest a great deal of time or energy in the process and it is therefore unsurprising that most species that reproduce with eggs do not possess any kind of complex society. Nor do those who reproduce with spores. Moreover, those species whose young are born with an inherent capacity for survival do not require any protection from their parents, and are therefore highly unlikely to ever have any evolutionary need to form any kind of social bonds whatsoever.

Given the fact that human infants are so useless in terms of self-preservation for such an extended period of time, it makes complete sense that humans, and other animals with particularly vulnerable young, would possess a deep evolutionary need to form some kind of loose society or hierarchical structure as a simple means of preserving the longevity of the species.

Religion is flawed precisely because it places humans as a thing apart, a separate and distinct CREATION of some knowing being, rather than a natural extension and logical outgrowth of the natural systems of life on this planet. To be sure, humans ARE unique and capable of feats no other creature on this planet could even comprehend let alone duplicate, however, our distinctiveness is one of degree, not of kind. Our intelligence, is not something that is unfathomable or unknown to other species. Indeed, intelligence, even problem solving intelligence seems to be a natural outgrowth inherent as living things become increasingly complex.

It is unsurprising that those species with the most dependent young are also those species with the most advanced social dynamics. Social cohesion and cooperation are hard-wired, evolutionary adaptations. They are not some kind of squishy feel good agreement, they are absolute, biological imperatives. Absolutely necessary for our survival as a species.

Those societies with the greatest social cohesion and child rearing ability, reproduce and replicate the fastest, because they do not lose their young as rapidly, or kill their members as quickly. The outgrowth of morality and codes of ethics is not difficult to understand, does not require some manner of external referent, it is an absolutely necessary biological adaptation to deal with the unique nature of our biology.

What is ironic is that those who endlessly argue for theism couch many of their arguments in humanity's supposed need for what they deem 'Objective Morality.' This term is highly misleading, because what they are really arguing for is their desire for some manner of 'External Morality' or 'Transcendent Morality' or 'Universal Morality.' That is, a moral code that comes from something outside of the human experience that can somehow be used to govern and provide rules for the human experience. Absent this external referent, the argument goes, humankind can have no moral absolutes, no strictures against killing, no strictures against cruelty or child abandonment or torture.

This argument is pure folly. While we can establish inviolate HUMAN morality, there cannot ever be any such thing as transcendent or universal morality. Our moral code is completely and wholly contingent upon our unique biology, upon our unique physiology, upon our unique existence as a species. There can be no transcendent or universal morality applicable to every species in the Universe, applicable to species with wholly disparate biology from ourselves. Even if one does not try to imagine species with completely alien biology, the simple fact is that millions and billions of species on our own planet engage in acts that we would find to be utter abominations, but do so as a regular matter of course for their species due to their unique biology. Interuterine cannibalism, child abandonment, regular cannibalism, gang rape, are regular parts of the biological cycles of millions of species on this planet.

Are their actions ips facto immoral based solely on their biological imperatives? Of course not.

Would they be immoral if these species were intelligent? Of course not.

This is because the idea of universal, transcendent morality is ridiculous. The ONLY morality that will ever apply to humanity is NOT some transcendent, objective, external, Universal morality – it is OUR morality, morality based on our unique biological nature. And the simple fact is that we do not require an invisible sky man to act as an external referent to provide us with morality. Human beings have an inherent morality imprinted upon us by virtue of our biological necessities. Can this morality be violated? Of course. Does that make it any less imperative? No. Does our morality require some manner of external, omniscient, universal transcendent authorship? Of course not.

Human beings are more than capable of governing our affairs. We have been doing so quite successfully for 195,000 years or so. And as has been discussed here, here, here, secular morality is more than capable of governing humankind without resorting to muttered incantations offered to an invisible deity and His shifting and inconsistent moral code.

1 comment:

  1. Your vision of the present is crazily rose tinted, and that of our past mimics Hobbes's. When did the situation change from our previous misery and brutishness into our present wonderfully fair and just societies? Presumably from about Hobbes's time! But anthropologists have found almost the opposite. Hunter gatherers like the 'kung in Africa have lives in which they work only about 20 hours a week and live quite contentedly even though they have been driven into marginal land, arid deserts. When our earlier ancestors lived in lush forests, they were living in Eden. If the story of Eden means anything at all, it is a metaphor for when we could reach out and pick a fruit from the next branch to us.

    Modern life however is ghastly for many people, even rich ones. They are never happy, and their drive to get greater and greater power and money, far more than anyone could possibly need, is a demonstration of their abnormality. The poor meanwhile get less and less and have to put up with genuine worries about just how they will manage in winter, or next year, whether the mortgage will be foreclosed, whether they will have a job, whether benefits will be adequate for their needs, whether their sons will be killed in some fruitless foreign adventure -- fruitless at any rate for most of us but fruitful for the human vampires who live off human bloodshed.

    We do not need religion because we are intrinsically moral creatures because we are social. Morality is necessary to preserve our sociality, and all the global religions express it as not doing to others whatever you would not like doing to yourself by others. It is universally expressed because it is universal among us as human beings. Yet modern society is being globalized on the western capitalist model, a model that spits in the face of the Golden Rule. It is a dog eat dog principle in which our neighbors are fair game for our get rich schemes and scams. Yes, let us stick to basic human morality, and get rid of the excesses of religion, but we also need to get rid of the shockingly immoral economic system that spreads unfairness and injustice, contrary to your thesis here.