Evolution and the Golden Rule

Famed biologist E.O. Wilson has recanted the evolutionary theory of kin selection:

apparent strategies in evolution that favor the reproductive success of an organism’s relatives, even at a cost to their own survival and/or reproduction.

Here is an explanation of Wilson’s change of mind:

Wilson said he first gave voice to his doubts in 2004, by which point kin selection theory had been widely accepted as the explanation for the evolution of altruism. “I pointed out that there were a lot of problems with the kin selection hypothesis, with the original Hamilton formulation, and with the way it had been elaborated mathematically by a very visible group of enthusiasts,” Wilson said. “So I suggested an alternative theory.”

The alternative theory holds that the origins of altruism and teamwork have nothing to do with kinship or the degree of relatedness between individuals. The key, Wilson said, is the group: Under certain circumstances, groups of cooperators can out-compete groups of non-cooperators, thereby ensuring that their genes — including the ones that predispose them to cooperation — are handed down to future generations. This so-called group selection, Wilson insists, is what forms the evolutionary basis for a variety of advanced social behaviors linked to altruism, teamwork, and tribalism — a position that other scientists have taken over the years, but which historically has been considered, in Wilson’s own word, “heresy.” (“Where does good come from?” in The Boston Globe online, April 17, 2011)

I will concede a role for evolution in the development of human behavioral norms. But, as I say in “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,”

The painful truth that vast numbers of human beings — past and present — have not acted and do not act as if there are “natural rights” suggests that the notion of “natural rights” is of little practical consequence….

Even if humans are wired to leave others alone as they are left alone, it is evident that they are not wired exclusively in that way.

Cooperative behavior is a loosely observed norm, at best. (For the benefit of “liberals,” I must point out that cooperation can only be voluntary; state-coerced “cooperation” is dictated by force.) Cooperation, such as it is, probably occurs for the reasons I give in “The Golden Rule and the State“:

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct … nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it.

I must qualify the term “convention,” to say that the Golden Rule will be widely observed within any group only if the members of that group are generally agreed about the definition of harm, value kindness and charity (in the main), and (perhaps most importantly) see that their acts have consequences. If those conditions are not met, the Golden Rule descends from convention to admonition.

Is the Golden Rule susceptible of varying interpretations across groups, and is it therefore a vehicle for moral relativism? I say “yes,” with qualifications. It’s true that groups vary in their conceptions of permissible behavior. For example, the idea of allowing, encouraging, or aiding the death of old persons is not everywhere condemned, and many recognize it as an inevitable consequence of a health-care “system” that is government-controlled (even indirectly) and treats the delivery of medical services as a matter of rationing…. Infanticide has a long history in many cultures; modern, “enlightened” cultures have simply replaced it with abortion. Slavery is still an acceptable practice in some places, though those enslaved (as in the past) usually are outsiders. Homosexuality has a long history of condemnation and occasional acceptance. To be pro-homosexual — and especially to favor homosexual “marriage” — has joined the litany of “causes” that signal leftist “enlightenment,” along with being for abortion and against the consumption of fossil fuels (except for one’s SUV, of course).

The foregoing recitation suggests a mixture of reasons for favoring or disfavoring certain behaviors. Those reasons range from purely utilitarian ones (agreeable or not) to status-signaling. In between, there are religious and consequentialist reasons, which are sometimes related. Consequentialist reasoning goes like this: Behavior X can be indulged responsibly and without harm to others, but there lurks the danger that it will not be, or that it will lead to behavior Y, which has repercussions for others. Therefore, it’s better to put X off-limits or to severely restrict and monitor it. Consequentialist reasoning applies to euthanasia (it’s easy to slide from voluntary to involuntary acts, especially when the state controls the delivery of medical care), infanticide and abortion (forms of involuntary euthanasia and signs of disdain for life), homosexuality (a depraved, risky practice that can ensnare impressionable young persons who see it as an “easy” way to satisfy sexual urges), alcohol and drugs (addiction carries a high cost, for the addict, the addict’s family, and sometimes for innocent bystanders). A taste or tolerance for destructive behavior identifies a person as an untrustworthy social partner.

It seems to me that the exceptions listed above are just that. There’s a mainstream interpretation of the Golden Rule — one that still holds in many places — which rules out certain kinds of behavior, except in extreme situations, and permits certain other kinds of behavior. There is, in other words, a “core” Golden Rule that comes down to this:

  • Murder is wrong, except in self-defense. (Capital punishment is just that: punishment. It’s also a deterrent to murder. It isn’t “murder,” muddle-headed defenders of baby-murder to the contrary notwithstanding.)
  • Various kinds of unauthorized “taking” are wrong, including theft (outright and through deception). (This explains popular resistance to government “taking,” especially when it’s done on behalf of private parties. The view that it’s all right to borrow money from a bank and not repay it arises from the mistaken beliefs that (a) it’s not tantamount to theft and (b) it harms no one because banks can “afford it.”)
  • Libel and slander are wrong because they are “takings” by word instead of deed.
  • It is wrong to turn spouse against spouse, child against parent, or friend against friend. (And yet, such things are commonly portrayed in books, films, and plays as if they are normal occurrences, often desirable ones. And it seems to me that reality increasingly mimics “art.”)
  • It is right to be pleasant and kind to others, even under provocation, because “a mild answer breaks wrath: but a harsh word stirs up fury” (Proverbs 15:1).
  • Charity is a virtue, but it should begin at home, where the need is most certain and the good deed is most likely to have its intended effect.

None of these observations would be surprising to a person raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or even in the less vengeful branches of Islam. The observations would be especially unsurprising to an American who was raised in a rural, small-town, or small-city setting, well removed from a major metropolis, or who was raised in an ethnic enclave in a major metropolis. For it is such persons and, to some extent, their offspring who are the principal heirs and keepers of the Golden Rule in America.

There is far more to human behavior than biological and evolutionary determinism. (Not that Wilson is guilty of that, but many others are.) It is especially simplistic to rely on biological and evolutionary explanations of the particular subset of behavioral rules known as “rights.” For the final word on that point, I return to “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights'”:

[T]he Golden Rule represents a social compromise that reconciles the various natural imperatives of human behavior (envy, combativeness, meddlesomeness, etc.). Even though human beings have truly natural proclivities, those proclivities do not dictate the existence of “natural rights.” They certainly do not dictate “natural rights” that are solely the negative rights of libertarian doctrine. To the extent that negative rights prevail, it is as part and parcel of the “bargain” that is embedded in the Golden Rule; that is, they are honored not because of their innateness in humans but because of their beneficial consequences.

More Thoughts about Evolutionary Teleology

In “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,” I address the proposition that humans have natural ends that have arisen through evolution and which imply the necessity of negative “natural rights.” My purpose here is not to revisit the proposition, which I firmly reject for the reasons given  in “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,” but to focus on my reasons for rejecting the linchpin of the proposition: evolutionary teleology, or teleonomy. This is the

apparent purposefulness and of goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms that derive from their evolutionary history, adaptation for reproductive success, or generally, due to the operation of a program.

Francisco Ayala offers a specific example in his essay, “Teleology and Teleological Explanations,” at Evolutionary Biology:

The wings of birds call for teleological explanation: the genetic constitutions responsible for their configuration came about because wings serve to fly and flying contributes to the reproductive success of birds. But there was nothing in the constitution of the remote ancestors of birds that would necessitate the appearance of wings in their descendants. Wings came about as the consequence of a long sequence of events, where at each stage the most advantageous alternative was selected among those that happened to be available; but what alternatives were available at any one time depended, at least in part, on chance events.

In short, the end (survival of the species through reproductive success) dictates the means (the development of wings). Nonsense. “Contingent teleology” is nothing more than “what happened as a result of breeding, random mutation, geophysical processes, and survival of the fittest and/or luckiest, as the  case may be.” The usual shorthand for all of that is “natural selection.” But “selection” is inappropriate because — unless there is such a thing as Intelligent Design — no one (or no thing) is selecting anything.

Evolutionary zoologist John O. Reiss exposes the fallacy of teleology in Not by Design: Retiring Darwin’s Watchmaker. This is from the first chapter:

The general mode of thinking that I object to goes as follows: “character x plays a useful (‘adaptive’) role in the life of organism y; therefore, character x must have evolved by natural selection for this role.” The definitional equation of adaptations and past natural selection is fairly standard in evolutionary biology today: “a feature is an adaptation for a particular function if it has evolved by natural selection for that function” (Futuyma 2005, 265). When combined with the assumption that useful features or characters are in fact adaptations by this definition, a teleological role for natural selection results. In this role, natural selection is inferred to have directed evolution from an unimproved (poorly adapted) past state toward an improved (well-adapted) present state, merely on the basis that the present state exists and is well adapted….

While the best solution might be to do what Wallace suggested so long ago—to completely extirpate the term natural selection from the lexicon of evolutionary biology—the term is by now too well established to replace….

…I believe that the continued teleological use of the concept of natural selection, in spite of the obvious problems involved, is due primarily to the absence of another evolutionary principle that can be used to interpret patterns of macroevolutionary transformation. Fundamental to my restriction of the term natural selection will be the reintroduction of another principle, related to and often confused with that of natural selection. This principle is founded on the concept of the necessary conditions for an organism’s (or other evolutionary entity’s) continued existence; it states that (by definition) the existence of any organism is contingent on its satisfaction of these conditions.

Of particular relevance is Reiss’s observation that “natural selection is inferred to have directed evolution from an unimproved (poorly adapted) past state toward an improved (well-adapted) present state, merely on the basis that the present state exists and is well adapted.” That formulation of evolutionary teleology exposes it as an instance of the hypostatization fallacy:

Hypostatization (together with the closely related fallacy of reification) may be the most common of all fallacies. Whole systems of philosophy, politics, religion, science, and social theories are built on or supported by this fallacy.11


“Nature’s purposes are always pure, therefore we should always accede to her.” Nature has no purposes.

“The only just laws are those that relieve a society’s suffering.” Laws do not “relieve” anything, and “societies,” do not suffer.

“Industry is a danger to both nature and society.” Here are three hypostatized abstractions, industry, nature, and society. Industry is not a “thing” that does anything, and neither nature or society are things to which anything is done. Some industries might do something that is harmful to some natural things or some persons in some society, but treating any of these as entities, even collective entities, is fallacious.

“What are personal considerations in the face of the needs of society, the fate of the nation, the preservation of culture?” Since, society has no needs, nations do not have fates, and there is no such thing as culture to preserve, personal considerations are all that are left.

“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you: Ask what you can do for your country.” -(John F. Kennedy) Obviously rhetorical, and therefore, all the more subtle. Behind the rhetoric is the insidious concept that citizens exist for the sake of a country (state or government), the opposite of the intention of the American Constitutional, that government exists for the sake of the citizens.

Evolutionary teleology boils down to this: Species seek survival, therefore species acquire characteristics that improve their chances of surviving. In fact:

  • Species do not do anything as species; there is no such thing as species-consciousness.
  • Species do not acquire characteristics in the way that a person acquires a pair of glasses to improve his ability to see.
  • It is tautologous to say that something survives because it has “acquired” the wherewithal to survive.

The preceding analysis points to another, more subtle, fallacy in evolutionary teleology, a fallacy known as observation selection bias. Philosopher Nick Bostrom illustrates it, in “A Primer on the Anthropic Principle“:

[S]uppose you’re a young investor pondering whether to invest your retirement savings in bonds or equity. You are vaguely aware of some studies showing that over sufficiently lengthy periods of time, stocks have, in the past, substantially outperformed bonds (an observation which is often referred to as the “equity premium puzzle”). So you are tempted to put your money into equity. You might want to consider, though, that a selection effect might be at least partly responsible for the apparent superiority of stocks. While it is true that most of the readily available data does favor stocks, this data is mainly from the American and British stock exchanges, which both have continuous records of trading dating back over a century. But is it an accident that the best data comes from these exchanges? Both America and Britain have benefited during this period from stable political systems and steady economic growth. Other countries have not been so lucky. Wars, revolutions, and currency collapses have at times obliterated entire stock exchanges, which is precisely why continuous trading records are not available elsewhere. By looking at only the two greatest success stories, one would risk overestimating the historical performance of stocks. A careful investor would be wise to factor in this consideration when designing her portfolio….

The focus of evolutionary teleology is on evolutionary success. The ultimate success is survival, which — in a teleological explanation of evolution– is the ultimate purpose of a species, the end toward which it “acquires” characteristics. Does this imply that extinct species had the ultimate purpose of extinction, thus “acquiring” characteristics that ensured extinction?  More plausibly, some species happen to survive (and some to die out) because their characteristics — along with the “luck” of not being (or being) in the wrong places at the wrong times — help to ensure their survival (or extinction) in the face of threats beyond their control: geophysical changes (abrupt and gradual), predators, diseases.

The focus on success ignores the fact that extinct species evolved to some degree before meeting with threats that they could not surmount. It also assumes that success to date ensures success in the future. Imagine an adherent of evolutionary teleology who is transported to a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth. By his reckoning, dinosaurs would have “selected” their characteristics in order to ensure their survival. The same person, thrust a million years into the future, might conclude that cockroaches were destined to inherit the earth.

Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights” — Updated

The length of “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’” seems to have discouraged readers. In the hope of enticing you to venture below the fold, I have annotated the outline that appears above the fold. Also, there is now a direct link to the 31 related posts that are listed and linked to at the bottom of “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’.”

Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”

This post is so long that I have put the main text below the fold. The following annotated outline may tempt you to read on or prompt you to move along:

I. Why This Post: Background and Issues

Do humans have natural ends that have arisen through evolution? If so, does this somehow imply the necessity of negative “natural rights”?

II. Natural Teleology –> Negative “Natural Rights”?

A. Evolution as God-Substitute

A supernatural explanation of “natural rights” will not do for skeptics and atheists, who find that such rights inhere in humans as products of evolution, and nothing more. Pardon a momentary lapse into cynicism, but this strikes me as a way of taking God out of the picture while preserving the “inalienable rights” of Locke and Jefferson.

B. Teleology as Tautology

Survival is the ultimate end of animate beings. Everything that survives has characteristics that helped to ensure its survival. What could be more obvious or more trivial?

C. Whence the Tautology?

Evolutionary teleology boils down to “what happened as a result of breeding, random mutation, geophysical processes, and survival of the fittest and/or luckiest, as the  case may be.” The term “natural selection” is inappropriate because — unless there is such a thing as Intelligent Design — no one (or no thing) is selecting anything.

III. Persisting in the Search for Negative “Natural Rights” in Human Nature

A. Pro: Evolution Breeds Morality

“Darwin saw that social animals are naturally inclined to cooperate with one another for mutual benefit. Human social and moral order arises as an extension of this natural tendency to social cooperation based on kinship, mutuality, and reciprocity. Modern Darwinian study of the evolution of cooperation shows that such cooperation is a positive-sum game…”

B. Con: Human Nature Is Too Complex and Contradictory to Support Biologically Determined Rights

The account of human nature drawn from evolutionary psychology suggests that there is much in human nature which conflicts with negative rights in general (whether or not they are “natural”). And who needs a treatise on evolutionary psychology to understand the depth of that conflict? All it takes is a quick perusal of a newspaper, a few minutes of exposure to broadcast news, or a drive on a crowded interstate highway.

IV. A Truly Natural Explanation of Negative Rights

A. The Explanation

The Golden Rule represents a social compromise that reconciles the various natural imperatives of human behavior (envy, combativeness, meddlesomeness, etc.). To the extent that negative rights prevail, it is as part and parcel of the “bargain” that is embedded in the Golden Rule; that is, they are honored not because of their innateness in humans but because of their beneficial consequences.

B. The Role of Government

Government can provide “protective cover” for persons who try to live by the Golden Rule. This is especially important in a large and diverse political entity because the Golden Rule — as a code of self-governance — is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons.

V. What Difference Does It Make?

The assertion that there are “natural rights” (“inalienable rights”) makes for resounding rhetoric, but (a) it is often misused in the service of positive rights and (b) it makes no practical difference in a world where power routinely accrues to those who make the something-for-nothing promises of positive rights.

VI. Related Posts

See especially:
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State

* * *

Continue reading