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EVOLUTION AND ETHICSHuman Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2004 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
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Chapter OneEvolutionary Ethics Past and Present
Forty years ago, evolutionary ethics was the philosophical equivalent of a bad smell. One knew that it was flawed through and through. At the level of directives, what philosophers call the "substantive" or "normative" level of ethics, it proposed and promoted problematic and even vile programs ranging from right-wing capitalism to the social policies of the fascist countries in the 1930s. At the level of justification, what philosophers refer to as "metaethics," it fell afoul of the grossest technical mistakes. It drove straight through the distinction that David Hume drew (1978) between matters of fact and matters of obligation (the is/ought dichotomy), and in so doing fell guilty of what English philosopher G. E. Moore had labeled the "naturalistic fallacy" (1903). If ever a way of thinking was discredited, it was evolutionary ethics or (as it was more traditionally known) Social Darwinism.
Things change in philosophy as well as in the real world. Today there is much enthusiasm for approaches that try to link morality to our evolutionary biology, and a realization that Social Darwinism has been given an unjustified bad reputation and deserves more credit. Far from being simply a vehicle for repressive or capitalist policies, Social Darwinism has often been used in support of practices that today would be cherished by people from all parts of the moral and social spectrum. It is the aim of this discussion to look briefly at this history, and then to take an equally brief glance at the state of play today. Others might then be encouraged to take the dialogue further.
Evolutionary thinking is a child of the eighteenth century, and right from the beginning it was entwined with directives for proper behavior. Indeed, with reason one might well say that the very justification of the evolutionary approach was that of providing support for moral directives (Ruse 1996). Enthusiasts, to a person, were supporters of the notion or philosophy of progress - the belief that through human effort we can improve our lot and that of our fellows - and they used the idea of biological progress (as they interpreted evolution) as an illustration and support of this idea. Typical was Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin. He saw the biological world as an upward chain or escalator, with the primitive at the bottom and the complex, the human, at the top. As he put it, life progressed from the monarch (the butterfly) to the monarch (the king).
Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd, Of language, reason, and reflection proud, With brow erect who scorns this earthy sod, And styles himself the image of his God; Arose from rudiments of form and sense, An embryon point, or microscopic ens! (Darwin 1803, 1; see also 295-314)
This progress is not just some unimportant fact; it is of direct relevance to humans. Erasmus Darwin was a deist, believing in a God who works through unbroken law; according to his understanding, then, God has so organized things that there is upward progression. Now it is up to us to keep this going. Darwin drew an analogy between the progress of culture and the progress of biology, the one feeding into the other and then back again. This idea of organic progressive evolution "is analogous to the improving excellence observable in every part of the creation;... such as the progressive increase of the wisdom and happiness of its inhabitants" (Darwin 1794, 509). Darwin was a member of the so-called Lunar Society, a group of inventors and businessmen in the British Midlands in the late eighteenth century, and with them he thought that ever-improving industry was the key to the overall improvement of societal happiness, and that it is hence our moral obligation to keep the process going. God has done his bit; now it is up to us to do ours. Evolution, the triumph of unbroken law, is the apotheosis of God's standing and worth. Everything is planned beforehand and goes into effect through the laws of nature. "What a magnificent idea of the infinite power of The Great Architect! The Cause of Causes! Parent of Parents! Ens Entium!" (Darwin 1794, 509)
Erasmus Darwin and others of his age set the pattern for the future: a progressivist form of evolution, linked to our need to promote this evolution and to keep it going at the human level. The great evolutionist of the nineteenth century - the greatest evolutionist of all time - was Charles Darwin, the author of the Origin of Species, the work in which he argued that ongoing change is a function of a struggle for existence that brings on a natural selection of the fitter, thus leading to adaptations like the hand and the eye. As a matter of fact, in the Origin Darwin said virtually nothing about our species, other than to acknowledge that we are indeed part of the scenario. But in a later work, The Descent of Man, written some twelve years after Origin, Darwin turned full attention to Homo sapiens, arguing that we are as much a part of the natural evolved world as is any other species. Included in his discussion was an extended treatment of our human moral nature, although in fact then and for many years thereafter Darwin's discussion was somewhat of a sideline. In our own time, however, there has been renewed interest in what he thought, and why he argued as he did.
Far more important in his time and for the century thereafter (even today in some circles) was Darwin's fellow Englishman and evolutionist Herbert Spencer. Spencer was an ardent progressionist. He saw such progress as a move from the undifferentiated to the differentiated, or (as he put it) from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. "Whether it be in the development of the Earth, in the development of Life upon its surface, in the development of Society, of Government, of Manufactures, of Commerce, of Language, Literature, Science, Art, this same evolution of the simple into the complex, through successive differentiations, holds throughout" (Spencer 1857, 2-3). Everything obeys this law. Humans are more complex or heterogeneous than other animals, Europeans more complex or heterogeneous than savages, and the English language more complex or heterogeneous than the tongues of other peoples.
Spencer was also ardent for a social and moral program that in major respects drew directly on evolution: progress in biology, progress in society.
We must call those spurious philanthropists, who, to prevent present misery, would entail greater misery upon future generations. All defenders of a Poor Law must, however, be classed among such. That rigorous necessity which, when allowed to act on them, becomes so sharp a spur to the lazy and so strong a bridle to the random, these pauper's friends would repeal, because of the wailing it here and there produces. Blind to the fact that under the natural order of things, society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members, these unthinking, though well-meaning, men advocate an interference which not only stops the purifying process but even increases the vitiation - absolutely encourages the multiplication of the reckless and incompetent by offering them an unfailing provision, and discourages the multiplication of the competent and provident by heightening the prospective difficulty of maintaining a family. (Spencer 1851, 323-24)
We must take care here, however, and unpack things rather slowly. In so doing, we start to see that simplistic readings of evolutionary ethicists have led to grave misunderstandings. (As noted, evolutionary ethics became known as Social Darwinism, obviously cashing in on the fame and authority of the author of the Origin. It would be far fairer to history were it known as Social Spencerianism.) The easy connection to draw focuses on the Darwinian claims about struggle and consequent selection, and then simply concludes that someone like Spencer was taking these ideas and transferring them to society; struggle and selection in society might be better known as laissez-faire, according to which there is brutal competition and some win and some lose. But in fact, although as the above passage clearly shows there were laissez-faire elements in Spencer's thinking, there was no simple connection (Richards 1987). On the one hand, although he discovered it independently, Spencer always downplayed selection. In fact, he thought that as one closes in on the upper echelons of the progressive movement, the struggle will fall away and become irrelevant. On the other hand, although he approved of struggle in society, Spencer was much against struggle between nations. He thought it inimical to free trade and against open competition. Here, to be candid, Spencer owed as much to influences of a Quaker background as to anything in biology. The point is not that evolution was irrelevant to Spencer's position. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, it was that Spencer's thinking was a complex package, with evolution and ethics more partners in a common picture than one leading directly to the other.
And this has always been very much the case for other evolutionary ethicists in Spencer's mold, whether they were influenced by him consciously (as tended to be the case in Anglophone countries, especially the United States) or whether they were working in parallel with him (as tended to be the case in countries like Germany, where people such as the morphologist Ernst Haeckel promoted "Darwinismus," a philosophy that owed little to Darwin himself and much to the socioeconomic visions of middle-class Germans under Bismarck). In many respects, evolution took on the role of a substitute secular religion (or, for some, an addition to their already-held Christian religion). One sees that, as always with religion, different people found in evolution very different stories and justifications for their moral imperatives - always progress at the back of the story, but very different ideas at the front (Ruse 2000). To see this, rather than just a sequential history, let us look at three different areas of interest to evolutionary ethicists (and indeed to us today): politics and social policy, war and peace, and feminism.
Following Spencer, many of his keenest American followers promoted fairly libertarian social philosophies. The end-of-the-century American sociologist William Graham Sumner was notorious. "The facts of human life... are in many respects hard and stern. It is by strenuous exertion only that each one of us can sustain himself against the destructive forces and the ever recurring needs of life; and the higher the degree to which we seek to carry our development the greater is the proportionate cost of every step" (Sumner 1914, 30). After the Civil War, businessmen were keen Spencerians, and they certainly turned to his philosophy to support their selfish ways. But the story is complex. John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, and Andrew Carnegie, founder of U.S. Steel, were followers of Spencer, but such men generally preferred to stress the positive side to laissez-faire (their own success) rather than its downside (the failure of others). They used their gains to build places that would further the upward rise of society - Rockefeller gave millions to the University of Chicago, and Carnegie supported the founding of public libraries. The latter in particular was very much in a Spencerian mode: free libraries were places where the poor but bright child - society's naturally fitter - could go and through hard work and self-discipline rise up in education and succeed in society (Bannister 1979).
Others had a very different philosophy. Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, was a socialist. He thought that the state can and should regulate people's lives for the better, and was motivated in his thinking by the early influence of the Scottish mill owner and socialist Robert Owen. Believing that selection favors groups as well as individuals, Wallace concluded that a state founded and run on socialist principles would be superior now as well as more prepared for the future than one which simply bowed before market forces (see Jones 1980). Similar sorts of reasoning led the Russian Prince Petr Kropotkin to anarchism. He believed that there is a natural sympathy existing between people (and animals) - "mutual aid." Coming from nineteenth-century Russia, a vast pre-industrial society where the chief threat to life lay in the elements, it seemed obvious that evolution must work for good and sympathy rather than for harm and competition. "The animal species, in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress.... The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay" (Kropotkin  1955, 293). Likewise in the human species, Kropotkin thought that we have a natural tendency to help each other and that we should follow this tendency. To deny it or to go against it is not just unnatural but morally wrong and the quickest way to human decline.
War and Peace
Turning next to the issue of war, there were many - especially in Germany - who justified its existence and ongoing necessity in evolutionary terms. One writer, in a passage which admittedly perhaps owes as much to Hegel as it does to Darwin, claimed that war is "a phase in the life-effort of the State towards completer self-realization, a phase of the eternal nisus, the perpetual omnipresent strife of all beings towards self-fulfilment" (quoted in Crook 1994, 137). Even though not this enthusiastic, others saw it as "more or less normal for men at times to plunge back down the evolutionary ladder... to break away from the complex conventions and routine of civilized life and revert to that of the troglodytes in the trenches." Crook adds, "Man has always been a fighter and his passion to kill animals... and inferior races... is the same thing which perhaps in the dark past so effectively destroyed the missing link between the great fossil apes of the tertiary and the lowest men of the Neanderthal type. All these illustrate an instinct which we cannot eradicate or suppress, but can best only hope to sublimate" (143-44). Although in respects evolution was antithetical to many of his beliefs (especially about our simian origins and the closeness of Gentiles and Jews), Hitler - as could be expected - got in on the war theme.
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