March 25, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Can Morality Be Darwinized?

There’s a cottage industry within the Darwin empire that tries to explain morality in terms of natural selection.  Hardly a week passes without some new paper trying to explain why humans reward moral behavior and punish immoral behavior.  Some try to do it by finding morality in animals, as if to portray a continuity in moral motions between bacteria, fish, insects, birds, rats, apes, and Homo sapiens.  Others try to model morality on game theory.  How well do these attempts succeed?  Can they explain the outpouring of support for victims of Haiti?  Can they explain the soldier who gives his life for his friends?  Can they explain the person facing a firing squad for having given aid to the persecuted?

  1. Unselfish molecules:  One of the most extreme continuity approaches attributed unselfishness to molecules.  This bases morality back at the origin of life itself: “Unselfish molecules may have helped give birth to the genetic material of life,” announced PhysOrg.  When those RNA strands were struggling to get together, according to Nicholas V. Hud of the Georgia Institute of Technology, small molecules might have unselfishly acted as “molecular midwives” to enable the base pairs to bond.  It doesn’t appear that Hud was intending this model as anything beyond a metaphor, but he visualized a rudimentary form of morality right at the start: “a sort of ‘unselfish’ molecule that was not part of the first genetic polymers, but was critical to their formation.”
  2. Evolutionary forces:  A recent example of the genre is found in PhysOrg and Science Daily.  “Researchers have long been puzzled by large societies in which strangers routinely engage in voluntary acts of kindness, respect and mutual benefit even though there is often an individual cost involved,” both articles began, ignoring any input from theology.  “While evolutionary forces associated with kinship and reciprocity can explain such cooperative behavior among other primates, these forces do not easily explain similar behavior in large, unrelated groups, like those that most humans live in.”
        Enter the theory of Richard McElreath at UC Davis.  He and his team have it figured out in terms of market forces, religious beliefs and criminal law.  Their paper in Science used the E-word in the title: “Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment,”1 and extensively throughout.  Norms evolved; and with them, “Recent work has also tentatively proposed that certain religious institutions, beliefs, and rituals may have coevolved with the norms that support large-scale societies and broad exchange.”  They spoke of “our evolutionary history” and “Evolutionary approaches” to understanding our “evolved psychology” expressed in the “evolution of social complexity.” – evolution here, there, and everywhere.
        It should be understood that fairness, norms, religion, trust and other moral terms were used without reference to absolute standards.  They are mere props in a behavioral model seeking to understand how evolutionary forces produce observed behaviors.  They treated these words as mathematical terms: e.g., “Theoretical arguments suggest that punishment (MAO) should be related more directly to the natural logarithm of CS [community size], because the effectiveness of reputational systems decays in rough proportion to this variable.”  The “experiments” they talked about were really games: “we used three experiments that were designed to measure individuals’ propensities for fairness and their willingness to punish unfairness across 15 populations that vary in their degree of market integration and their participation in world religions,” they said.  “Our three experiments are the Dictator, Ultimatum, and Third-Party Punishment Games.”  Volunteers in these made-up games acted as proxy lab rats for real human populations under evolutionary forces.  (The reader should remember that “evolutionary forces” are passive like the bumpers in a pinball game.)
        The study, funded in part by taxpayer dollars via the National Science Foundation, “found that overt punishment, religious beliefs that can act as a form of psychological punishment and market integration each were correlated with fairness in the experiments.”  It doesn’t appear that “fairness” was given any non-question-begging definition in their model.  Those punished probably thought it was unfair.  And was it fair for the researchers to take taxpayer dollars to treat their fellow human beings as lab rats?
        Karla Hoff of the World Bank, commenting on this paper in the same issue of Science,2 saw that same evolutionary forces in her vision: “A society is not just a random group of people with a shared territory,” she said.  “It is a group that shares cognitive frames and social norms.  We cannot know for certain how fairly our ancestors in foraging bands behaved in situations lacking relationship information, but Henrich et al. bring us a closer understanding by studying people in simple societies that may be very like those of our early ancestors.”
  3. Greenbeard altruism:  The prior week in Science,3 Stuart A. West and Andy Gardner of Oxford gave a more traditional Darwinian account of altruism.  They defended Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness that “showed how natural selection could lead to behaviors that decrease the relative fitness of the actor and also either benefit (altruism) or harm (spite) other individuals.”  All they felt they had to do was clean up a few contentious issues:

    Here, we show how recent work has resolved three key debates, helping clarify how Hamilton’s theoretical overview links to real-world examples, in organisms ranging from bacteria to humans: Is the evolution of extreme altruism, represented by the sterile workers of social insects, driven by genetics or ecology?  Does spite really exist in nature? And, can altruism be favored between individuals who are not close kin but share a ‘greenbeard’ gene for altruism?

    That odd “greenbeard” term refers to any genetic marker (such as a green beard) that – well, let them explain: “Dawkins proposed the hypothetical example of a gene that gives rise to a green beard while simultaneously prompting individuals with green beards to direct cooperation toward other green-bearded individuals.”   One of their diagrams even includes cartoon figures of men, some with green beards and some without (see “Beard Chromodynamics,” 03/31/2006).  They dispensed with the problem of “falsebeards” (cheats) who might sport the marker without performing the behavior, thus reaping the benefit without paying the cost.  They said altruistic greenbeards have been found in slime molds, yeast, bacteria, and a lizard – but the greenbeard trait is amoral.  It could just as well be a marker for spite.
        It’s clear that West and Gardner are in the continuity camp: i.e., they view human morality as continuous with animal behavior observed in social insects and microbes.  So is morality due to genetics or ecology?  Both, they concluded.  Did they miss something in their either-or formulation?  Whatever; right from the opening sentence, their paper started on a Darwinian foot: “Darwin’s (1) theory of natural selection explains both the process and the purpose of adaptation.”  That (1) in the quote gave pride of place to Darwin’s Origin of Species as first entry in the list of references.  They also praised Darwin later (after discussing Hamilton’s and Fisher’s extensions to selection theory), saying, “inclusive fitness is not simply a concept that relates to interactions between relatives; it is our modern interpretation of Darwinian fitness, providing a general theory of adaptation.”  (See “Fitness for Dummies, 10/29/2002).

  4. Evolving morals:  The most recent article in the evolution-morality tale genre was Paul Bloom’s Opinion article in today’s Nature,4 “How do morals change?”  Right at the outset, he asked, “Where does morality come from?”  For answers, he looked to atheist philosopher David Hume (certainly not to Moses or Jesus), noting that “Babies as young as six months judge individuals on the way that they treat others and even one-year-olds engage in spontaneous altruism.”  To many psychologists, Bloom says, the fact that “a rudimentary moral sense is universal and emerges early” means it is a non-rational (i.e., unreasoned) aspect of our biology.  We rationalize it later; but really, according to some, “we have little conscious control over our sense of right and wrong.”  Theologians used to refer to this as a conscience.
        Bloom thinks this view of morality, “in its wholesale rejection of reason,” will be proved wrong.  Why?  Because it cannot explain why morality evolves, he argued.  We can change our minds about moral standards.  We can be persuaded, and persuade others.  He pointed to evolving views of racial minorities and homosexuality as examples.  Not even the “contact hypothesis” (that our views evolve as our circle of contacts enlarges) explains this.  “It doesn’t account for how our moral attitudes can change towards those with whom we never directly associate – for example, why some of us give money and even blood to people with whom we have no contact and little in common.”  He even found flaws in the typical Darwinian explanations for morality: “There have been attempts to explain such long-distance charity through mechanisms such as indirect reciprocity and sexual selection, which suggest that individuals gain reproductive benefit from building a reputation for being good or helpful.  But this begs the question of why such acts are now seen as good when they were not in the past.”
        What is missing, Bloom argued, is the role of deliberate persuasion in morality.  “Stories emerge because people arrive at certain views and strive to convey them to others,” he explained.  “It is this generative capacity that contemporary psychologists have typically ignored.”  He sees humans as “natural storytellers, [who] use narrative to influence others, particularly their own children.”  But what about his initial question of infants engaging in spontaneous altruism?  And how can we be sure he is not telling us a story himself?  Whatever questions might be posed back to Bloom, he is one of very few evolutionists seeing shortcomings in a strict materialistic or behavioristic account of human morality.  “Psychologists have correctly emphasized that moral views make their impact by being translated into emotion,” he ended.  “A complete theory must explain where these views come from in the first place.”  Though he spoke of morals evolving, he offered no Darwinian theory for them.

In all but the last of these papers, preachers and theologians were assigned a status no different than worker bees in a hive, fruiting bodies in a slime mold, or yeast cells in dough.  What a different interpretation has arisen these days in the Apostle Paul’s proverb, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9).


1.  Henrich, Ensminger, McElreath et al, “Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment,” Science, 19 March 2010: Vol. 327. no. 5972, pp. 1480-1484, DOI: 10.1126/science.1182238.
2.  Karla Hoff, “Fairness in Modern Society,” Science, 19 March 2010: Vol. 327. no. 5972, pp. 1467-1468, DOI: 10.1126/science.1188537.
3.  Stuart A. West and Randy Gardner, “Altruism, Spite, and Greenbeards,” Science, 12 March 2010: Vol. 327. no. 5971, pp. 1341-1344, DOI: 10.1126/science.1178332.
4.  Paul Bloom, “Opinion: How do morals change?”, Nature 464, 490 (25 March 2010) | doi:10.1038/464490a.

The Darwinians never include themselves in their models, or their models would implode.  They presume to teach the rest of humanity from some exalted plane of science.  Yet if they were consistent, we would have to conclude their scientific reasoning is also a behavior determined by natural selection.  (Notice that they devised games for their human subjects, but did not ask what game they themselves were pawns in.)  To them, morality is just an effect of an essentially amoral process.  It’s no different from what happens in any other organism.  In fact, Darwinian reasoning kind of resembles a slime mold in a sandwich, or a fruit fly larva population in an apple.
    It’s ironic that these Darwinians often refer to yeast behavior in their evolutionary models of altruism, because their views are like the spreading, corrupting influence often used metaphorically in Scripture of leaven.  Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6-12), referring to their doctrines.  Today’s disciples need to beware of the leaven of the Pharces and Sadducers, otherwise known as Darwinists.  The other metaphor Jesus used was the gradual spread of the kingdom of the God through the world, silently like a small bit of leaven in dough (Matthew 13:33).  Today’s disciples need to beware of the corrupting leaven of Darwinism, while working to spread their beneficial influence through the world.  It’s the battle of the leavens.*


*If the Christian leaven won, the Darwinists, on purely theoretical grounds, could not complain.  Why?  Because evolution is what evolution does.  The defeat of Darwinism would fit their model.  The Christians would be the altruists winning against the cheaters.  So why fight it, Darwinists?  Stop cheating and let the good guys win.  In fact, join the good guys and help them out, to increase the fitness of the population.  Step one: abandon Darwinism.


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