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Morality and Evolution

Pictures and Essays by Martin Hunt

Morality and Evolution
Natural Selection is often misrepresented as at best amoral if not immoral. Natural Selection is often mistakenly seen as talking about a nature ‘red of tooth and claw’. Nature is a system without a purpose and within that system we have many things that can be said to have their own purposes.

These things live among all the others if they can - this applies to all of life - from bacteria to people. People are symbiotic communities of many types of life with the cells that have human DNA are the ones that produce another person. But no person lives without a symbiotic community - the point being - that is NOT red of tooth and claw - the opposite in fact. Our symbionts don’t care for us and in general we don’t care, (or even think about our symbionts). And yet - in that had no caring caring emerged.

Many forms of life mate - not just replicate sexually, but mate. Form a couple and there is caring in the couple. I’ve seen it in the crows that like the tree outside my window - they obviously care for each other.

Caring is a big deal - it’s a big shift from the uncaring replication of (of say frogs). How did caring evolve? I can’t give a step by step scenario about that. I do know that a complex physical structure like an eye has evolved more than 40 times among earth’s life forms. And I also know that behavior often has a genetic component. And it is pretty clear how for some animals caring forms a good strategy for reliably being able to replicate. It enables behavior like protecting the young and each other.

Other animals go beyond caring. Wolves and chimps live in social groups with social rules. A wolf can do good or bad and if it does bad then it pisses off the local alpha male. That might end in a fight. And as soon as one wolf assumes a submissive posture the fight stops - it’s not a fight to the finish. To me - that is rudimentary morality.

Wolves - well armed predators that they are could not live in social groups as they do without that sort of morality. Humans have that sort of morality - we have it because we need to be able to think morally to be able to live in societies like we do.

So on one level - morality is the capacity to decide what to do in a situation in terms of good or bad or right or wrong. And as you would expect - human morality is way more complex than wolf morality. For one thing - our societies are huge. For another thing - we can talk to each other.

These both fold together to make morality into an important topic to think about. The situations we can be in are way more complex than the ones wolves can find themselves in. This means that different people with different perspectives end up making different moral evaluations and in conflict. And as is the human way we seek to avoid ‘might is right’ as a way to settle conflict. We talk it over. In talking it over we build up structures of mutually reinforcing ideas. Eventually - we became philosophers and tried to make those structures explainable and rational. Thus we get codes of morality.

You may have noticed that there are many.

It’s easy to see why that is so - each code represents a community’s effort to codify their own behavior. And different communities accepted or not various forms of behavior. In one place casual sex is fine - in another it’s a sin for a woman to show her face in public.

This is what we see when we look at reality - this is what morality is like. But it’s way unsatisfying. We want to know which moral code is the right one or even the best one? Sam Harris and others have taken on that problem and think that something like an objective moral code is possible. I won’t repeat his vivid examples - but it is plain that some situations are just plain bad. And others are very good. These are situations that I think most moral codes would agree on - and I think there are lots of cases like that.

We can agree that giving aid to the needy is good and hurting others for your own personal gain is bad. For instance - and work out from there. But we will find lots of ‘moral’ precepts won’t fit into a program like that. Is wearing a bikini at the beach a moral thing to do? Or is it a thing that has meaning in a culture? Is wearing a burka a moral thing to do? Or is it a thing that has meaning in a culture?

I do think we have made a very serious mistake in our culture by ignoring the meaning of things if they aren’t in our culture. We have to understand that even if something is meaningless to me it may not be meaningless to them and maybe I should get an inkling of what it means to them.

So - given the situation - I think an important moral stance has to be that everyone must try to understand the people around them and try to get along