The Evolution of Morality
Can morality evolve in Darwin’s universe? Steven Pinker, evolutionary psychologist at Harvard, is just the man to ask. He wrote an 8-page article for the New York Times about it, facing the issues with frankness and forthrightness.
To Pinker, as with other evolutionary psychologists, the “moral” behind morality is an evolutionary artifact of psychological choices and behaviors that have evolved over millions of years. Populations choose what is right or wrong based on shared and habitual patterns that aid survival. Pinker justified his scientific amorality on the grounds that scientists are just trying to be objective observers:
Science amoralizes the world by seeking to understand phenomena rather than pass judgment on them. Secular philosophy is in the business of scrutinizing all beliefs, including those entrenched by authority and tradition. It’s not surprising that these institutions are often seen to be morally corrosive.
And “morally corrosive” is exactly the term that some critics would apply to the new science of the moral sense. The attempt to dissect our moral intuitions can look like an attempt to debunk them. Evolutionary psychologists seem to want to unmask our noblest motives as ultimately self-interested – to show that our love for children, compassion for the unfortunate and sense of justice are just tactics in a Darwinian struggle to perpetuate our genes. The explanation of how different cultures appeal to different spheres could lead to a spineless relativism, in which we would never have grounds to criticize the practice of another culture, no matter how barbaric, because “we have our kind of morality and they have theirs.” And the whole enterprise seems to be dragging us to an amoral nihilism, in which morality itself would be demoted from a transcendent principle to a figment of our neural circuitry.
So Pinker is certainly aware of the criticisms of the “new science of the moral sense,” but blames them on misunderstanding of the “logic of evolutionary explanations.” Evolutionists don’t believe that “selfish genes” are really selfish, he says; the phrase is merely an anthropomorphism to describe appearances in behavior shaped by the process of natural selection.
The first half of Pinker’s article concerned itself with moral dilemmas and taboos, and results of neuropsychological tests on twins and on people forced into difficult choices. On page 6 and following, he got into the meaning of evolutionary explanations when talking about morality itself. Does natural selection necessarily lead to moral relativism?
Here is the worry. The scientific outlook has taught us that some parts of our subjective experience are products of our biological makeup and have no objective counterpart in the world. The qualitative difference between red and green, the tastiness of fruit and foulness of carrion, the scariness of heights and prettiness of flowers are design features of our common nervous system, and if our species had evolved in a different ecosystem or if we were missing a few genes, our reactions could go the other way. Now, if the distinction between right and wrong is also a product of brain wiring, why should we believe it is any more real than the distinction between red and green? And if it is just a collective hallucination, how could we argue that evils like genocide and slavery are wrong for everyone, rather than just distasteful to us?
Well-stated questions. What is the Darwinian answer? Religions and Platonic philosophers can point to God or the Logos for a universal morality, he knows, but can evolutionists find a moral pole star in an unguided, essentially amoral process?
The crux of his argument is on page 7, where he argues that nonzero-sum games push any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction, and that this direction becomes a natural standard, like a mathematical eigenvalue, by which moral actions can be judged. Two features of reality, he says, might not give us 10 Thou-Shalt-Nots, but provide useful If-Thens:
One is the prevalence of nonzero-sum games. In many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of them acts selfishly. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children in danger and refrain from shooting at each other, compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot, letting the other’s child drown while we file our nails or feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one in which we both are unselfish. These spreadsheet projections are not quirks of brain wiring, nor are they dictated by a supernatural power; they are in the nature of things.
The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner. If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me – to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car – then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.
In this way, Pinker has described morality as a “natural” outcome of rational parties having to survive. As support for his thesis, he points to the fact that great minds throughout history – Spinoza, Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Kant and Rawls (all noteworthily non-religious in their approach) – have ended up aligning with the same eigenvector we call the Golden Rule. There must be something natural about this outcome. “It also underlies Peter Singer’s theory of the Expanding Circle – the optimistic proposal that our moral sense, though shaped by evolution to overvalue self, kin and clan, can propel us on a path of moral progress, as our reasoning forces us to generalize it to larger and larger circles of sentient beings.”
Pinker ended by pointing to cases of opposing groups moralizing against each other. “Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing,” he says. The surprising conclusion? Evolutionary theory does not lead to moral relativism! “Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend.”
Did you catch the flaw in Pinker’s reasoning that makes his whole case collapse? For some of you who are getting good at baloney detecting, it was a no-brainer. The core of his argument was that competing (selfish) parties are better off if they cooperate rather than compete, and that this can become a standard for morality. Let’s ask the eminent Hahvahd professor a simple, two-word question: “Define better.”
As we explained in our 12/19/2007 commentary, evolutionary “progress” is like erratic motion on a frictionless surface infinite in all directions. There are no guidelines to what constitutes “better” or “worse” in Darwinland. Why? Because the core belief that underlies all Darwinian thinking is that evolution must be unguided. Purpose and aim, therefore, are out, along with any ideas of universal truths. There are neither gridlines nor compass points on the Darwinland surface. They try to hide this fact sometimes using their two-platoon strategy (01/06/2008 commentary), but Phillip Johnson in his books has exposed this essential feature of Darwinian evolution, and you see it in the evolutionary literature all the time. What you don’t find in the evolutionary literature is an acknowledgement of the fact that this leads to a self-refuting belief system.
Learn the following principles well, because the Darwinists are ratcheting up the propaganda campaign to sell their pseudo-scientific “evolution of the moral sense” plot in a devious attempt to undermine the claims of Christianity and make Darwinism appear self-sufficient, able to explain the most intractable aspects of human behavior (06/25/2007, 12/01/2007, 05/22/2007, 05/17/2007, 06/14/2007). Their explanations do little more than add to the just-so story database (11/05/2005, 09/09/2007 01/21/2006) and cannot be defended rationally, but they are luring students into the Darwin Party with their seductive tales (12/21/2005).
Pinker has no grounds on which to describe his pseudo-morality as “better” than a Hobbes-style “war of all against all.” Remember? Darwinists claim that meteorites have bombarded most of life extinct several times. Can a Darwinist shed a tear about those episodes in his myth? No. He must be consistent and simply take notes when the world kills itself, gets killed by natural causes, or never generates life in the first place. Evolution is what evolution does. There is no goal, no purpose, no destiny. The myth of evolutionary progress went out with Lamarck.
This means that Sewall Wright’s model of the “fitness landscape” is a also myth. Since fitness is a vacuous term (fitness, remember, is not “better” than the lack of it; see “Fitness for Dummies” from 10/29/2002), the model collapses into the flat, frictionless surface where there are no measures of good, bad, right, or wrong. Any attempt to extrude the Darwinland flat surface into a third dimension, such as describing a fitness landscape with peaks and valleys, is cheating. Similarly, you cannot add coordinates, pole stars or GPS systems. Where would they come from? What rational being would impose them on the flatland? As surprising as this sounds, one consequence is that fitness is a concept alien to the Darwinian world view. Why? Because it implies fitness is “better” than non-fitness. Says who? I don’t see any impartial judges or scorekeepers around; do you? Where did they come from? Did they evolve? If so, what gives them any right to sit in judgment?
Pinker might respond that as a scientific observer, he is not making value judgments at all, but simply attempting to describe objectively what populations tend to do: cooperation among sentient beings, a.k.a. morality, “happens”. But here he has snuck in another alien concept (that is, alien to his world view): sentience. Pinker simply helped himself to the concept of sentience (consciousness), like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
Sentience is not composed of particles. You can look inside a brain all you want and you will never discover sentience. You will see neurotransmitters moving from point to point, and electrical impulses traveling. You might even see more activity when a sentient being is having a sensation. You will not, however, “see” sentience, any more than watching the pixels in an LCD with an oscilloscope will reveal the conceptual content of the TV program. Neither will you ever be capable of observing sentience emerging from a Darwinian process. A creationist will come along and say that “God endowed animals and humans with sentience” – on what scientific basis can Pinker show this is not the case? It certainly fits the observations. It fits the logic of causality, because out of nothing, nothing comes. God’s sentience is the foundation for our sentience. Q.E.D. OK, Mr. Darwinist, explain that.
Pinker, like so many other Darwinists, has the Yoda Complex (see 04/30/2007 commentary and links). He has conveniently removed himself from Darwinland and is portraying himself as a detached, neutral, unbiased observer. This is cheating. He cannot simply step outside his evolved skin and pretend that there are laws of logic and universal truths that are eternal, necessary and certain, nor can he take with him the Judeo-Christian concept of rationality, or spiritual concepts and values found in the Bible: truth, logic, honesty, right and wrong. The devil didn’t write Scripture, but he quotes it when it suits his purposes.
Pinker was aware of the problem of universal truths and thought he could get away with a slick appeal to philosophical dualism (that there is a world of matter and a world of ideas). He dismissed Platonic forms but then turned right around and reintroduced them in a modern Darwinian sense, filching concepts that Darwinism cannot generate on its own. Watch him:
This throws us back to wondering where those reasons could come from, if they are more than just figments of our brains. They certainly aren’t in the physical world like wavelength or mass. The only other option is that moral truths exist in some abstract Platonic realm, there for us to discover, perhaps in the same way that mathematical truths (according to most mathematicians) are there for us to discover. On this analogy, we are born with a rudimentary concept of number, but as soon as we build on it with formal mathematical reasoning, the nature of mathematical reality forces us to discover some truths and not others. (No one who understands the concept of two, the concept of four and the concept of addition can come to any conclusion but that 2 + 2 = 4.) Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.
Moral realism, as this idea is called, is too rich for many philosophers’ blood. Yet a diluted version of the idea – if not a list of cosmically inscribed Thou-Shalts, then at least a few If-Thens – is not crazy. Two features of reality point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction. And they could provide a benchmark for determining when the judgments of our moral sense are aligned with morality itself.
Did you catch it? Don’t be fooled by the magician; watch his hands and learn how the trick is done. He just helped himself to ideas. He helped himself to rationality (i.e., his proposed idea is “not crazy”). He helped himself to If-Then statements, which presuppose laws of logic. He helped himself to Universals, a moral sense (no matter how rudimentary), moral reasoning, benchmarks and all kinds of non-Darwinian things. Foul! Don’t let him get away with it. Appealing to “mathematical reality” with an argument from analogy only adds fallacy to trickery. If mathematical truths are abstract concepts, then abstract concepts are true, universal, necessary and certain: they too could not evolve from particles in motion.
Plato was a secular idealist: he believed in the existence of a world of ideas, including idealized universal forms of which actual instances are particulars, and of universal values like truth, love and morality. But it is not going to help Pinker to appeal to an updated, Darwinized version of Platonism, because Platonism collapses under its own arbitrary assumptions. Plato had no explanation for how the forms get impressed on the world of reality. He speculated that maybe it’s like an actor playing a role; different particulars are like different actors acting out the universal character. This is another argument from analogy, and it fails to explain how the forms get impressed on the particulars. To account for the connection, he had to resort to a myth about some demiurge he could not justify other than that he believed it. You can prove anything with an arbitrary assumption.
Christians have evidence of God, the eternal and universal standard of rationality, virtue and truth, imposing these universals onto the world of particulars at Creation, in the 10 Commandments, and in Christ, among many documented cases of His revelation (including the whole Bible). Christians, therefore, have a “justified true belief” that legitimizes universal truths and explains how they were impressed on the particulars. Evolutionists have no such resources.
Interestingly, both Augustine and Justin Martyr believed Plato got his ideas from Moses. This is possible in light of archaeological evidence that there was trade, including trafficking in slaves, from the Middle East into Greece centuries before Greek philosophy reached its zenith. Jewish victims could easily have taught their masters the principles of the Torah (illustration from another context: the servant girl of Naaman the Syrian, II Kings 5). Additionally, Israel was located at the crossroads of empires; undoubtedly there was ample opportunity for trade in ideas as well as goods and services. In this view, Platonism is parasitic on concepts that did not emerge out of the presuppositions of Greek thought. Another view is that Plato, and Pinker, reason about these things based on the innate sense of morality and rationality that is part of the image of God embossed in every human soul. Either way, the world of ideas requires a real soul; it cannot emerge naturally from particles in motion.
Pinker can only write an 8-page treatise on morality when he plagiarizes Judeo-Christian concepts. If he were forced to use his own evolutionary presuppositions, he would babble Que sera, sera incoherently and go have more sex any way he can. Morality? What is that? Logic? Rationality? No comprendo.
This pernicious habit of the Darwinists will only be eradicated when enough sentient, rational, moral souls on this planet rise up and demand consistency from the thieving Darwinists. For without consistency, you can prove anything – therefore, nothing. Without universal truths, rationality and morality are vacuous concepts. Arrest the thieves. Make them get their own dirt.