Review Essay for the JOURNAL OF SOCIAL AND EVOLUTIONARY SYSTEMS, 19(3): 277-285
© 1996, JAI Press
Evolutionary Ethics, Matthew H. Nitecki and Doris V. Nitecki, eds. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Darwinism Applied: Evolutionary Paths to Social Goals, John H. Beckstrom. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1993.
Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, Frans de Waal. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.
The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life, Robert Wright. New York: Pantheon, 1994.
Can there be any doubt that ethics is a cutting-edge issue? We are daily assaulted by routine private acts of violence, chicanery and deception, as men and women (and children) make choices or act out compulsions with ethical ramifications. We are also daily witnesses to ethically-abhorrent political acts — the Oklahoma City bombing, the gas attacks in the Tokyo subways, the assassinations of political leaders in Mexico and elsewhere, the brutal civil war in Bosnia, the tribal bloodbath in Rwanda, the ruthless destruction of Chechnya, and the prospective new acts of inhumanity that are almost certain to occur before this review is published.
Can “evolutionary ethics” — as represented by the two volumes under consideration here — play a part in addressing this age-old problem? Although evolutionary ethics traces its roots back to the 19th century and the “Synthetic Philosophy” of Herbert Spencer, its role in the ethical discourse of this century has been checkered, to say the least. It played a prominent part in the ethical and political dialogue of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — most visibly in connection with Social Darwinism and the eugenics movement — but from the 1930s to the 1970s it was totally eclipsed by cultural determinism and value relativism. During this minor dark age a number of prominent biologists continued to write ex cathedra on biology and ethics (Julian Huxley, Warder C. Allee, Theodosius Dobzhansky and C.H. Waddington come to mind), but it was not until sociobiology forced its way through the previously barred doorway into the social sciences that evolutionary ethics regained legitimacy. Several book-length monographs and numerous articles on the subject have appeared over the past few years. However, the two volumes to be evaluated here provide a significant opportunity to assess the status of the field and to address the broader question: Is evolutionary ethics an idea whose time has finally come?
First some historical perspective — admittedly glimpsed through a very small peephole. The use of nature and/or “human nature” as a grounding for ethics can be traced at least to Periclean Athens. To Plato and others of the so-called “idealist” school, human communities have their origins in the ability of individuals to meet their basic physical needs (including self-protection) through collaborative efforts; mutual aid, reciprocity and the “division of labor” are the root causes. “We must infer that all things are produced more plentifully and easily and of better quality when one man does one thing which is natural to him…and leaves other things,” Plato wrote in the Republic. But if utilitarian ends are the basic incentives for social life, a community can also become the instrument for human development — specifically, for the realization of “the good life” and for taming the darker side of human nature. In the Republic, his utopian masterpiece, Plato proposed to vest such a perfecting role in specially-trained philosopher-kings. But in later works, specifically the Statesman and the Laws, Plato opted for the second best alternative of using government and law as instruments for societal improvement.
Aristotle, Plato’s most famous student, had less confidence in human nature: “Man when perfected is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice he is the worst of all.” Accordingly, governments and legal systems exercise a vitally necessary constraining influence on human behavior. To borrow a line from the poet Robert Frost: “good laws make good neighbors.” However, Aristotle like Plato endowed the political community (or polis) with an overarching ethical purpose, namely, that of molding the raw material of its members into a “self-sufficient” and “harmonious” whole. In Aristotle’s view, the true “nature” of a person, or a polis, involves what he/she/it is capable ultimately of becoming. It is not the genes but the phenotype that defines human nature and human potentialities. Here we have the model for a variety of progressive modern visions — socialism, the New Deal, the Great Society, etc.
A very different view of human nature and the social order was advocated by the Greek philosophers of the Sophist, Skeptic, Epicurean and Cynic persuasions (the very terms give the game away). The Sophist Antiphon, who actually predated Plato’s school, preached the shocking idea (to his contemporaries) that all laws are merely conventions and that what is “natural” is the pursuit of self-interest. Human nature, in other words, is grounded in egoism. Morality, law and justice are at best the embodiment of enlightened self-interest. Thus civilization is a product of artifice and expediency; it is not a moral Jello mold. Many years later, when the Greek city states were in decline, the Epicureans revitalized and embellished these ideas by advancing a materialistic “pain-pleasure principle” and an early incarnation of the Benthamite slogan “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Here, then, were the philosophical roots of social contract theory, of 18th and 19th century Liberalism, and of late 20th century conservatism.
Now, fast-forward through more than two millennia of philosophical writings, during the course of which these and other assumptions about human nature and society were utilized to anchor various systems of ethics and political theory. The list of theorists includes, among others, Cicero, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Marsilio of Padua, Machiavelli, Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Rousseau, Comte, Burke, Bentham, Mill, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Charles Darwin…. Yes, Charles Darwin.
In more ways than are generally appreciated, Darwin himself laid the theoretical foundation for what later came to be called evolutionary ethics. One of his contributions was a more sophisticated understanding of natural selection and its behavioral implications than is found in many Social Darwinist (and neo-Darwinist) caricatures. His most famous slogan “the struggle for existence” was, as Darwin himself pointed out, somewhat hyperbolic. The problem of survival and reproduction in fact encompasses a great variety of specific circumstances, from plentiful resources and easy living to extreme scarcity, from mutualistic symbioses to literal cases of “nature, red in tooth and claw” (in poet Alfred Lord Tennyson’s redolent metaphor). Mutual aid, moreover, is commonplace. As Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species:
Animals of many kinds are social; we find even distinct species living together; for example, some American monkeys; and united flocks of rooks, jackdaws and starlings…The most common mutual service in the higher animals is to warn one another of danger by the united senses of all… Social animals perform many little services for each other; horses nibble and cows lick each other for external parasites….Animals also render more important services to one another; thus wolves and some other beasts of prey hunt in packs, and aid one another in attacking their victims. Pelicans fish in concert. The Hamadryas baboons turn over stones to find insects, etc.; and when they come to a large one, as many as can stand around, turn it over together and share the booty. Social animals mutually defend each other. Bull bisons in North America, when there is danger, drive the cows and calves into the middle of the herd, while they defend the outside….
Some 19th and early 20th century ideologues, who wrote as though the existence of co-operation falsified Darwin’s theory, seem not to have read his work. Nor, one suspects, did some of his more carnivorous defenders (see below). In fact, in The Origin Darwin explicitly theorized that co-operative behaviors, including the division of labor and even altruism, could well have evolved via natural selection. Presaging the later theoretical work of Haldane, Hamilton and others on what Maynard Smith termed “kin selection,” Darwin posited “family selection” as the mechanism responsible for the evolution of altruism in nature, most notably including the existence of sterile castes in insect societies.
In The Descent of Man, Darwin carried his reasoning about natural selection and sociality two significant steps further, thereby erecting an explanatory framework that sociobiology has yet to fully apprehend (see below). Seeking to account for the emergence of “social and moral faculties” in evolving hominids, Darwin proposed that three distinct evolutionary mechanisms were involved: (1) “family selection” (kin selection), (2) mutualistic co-operation, which modern theorists have variously labelled “intraspecific mutualism” (West Eberhard), “tit-for-tat” (Axelrod and Hamilton), “reciprocant selection” (Hamilton), “reciprocity selection” (Boorman and Levitt), “synergistic selection” (Maynard Smith) and “egoistic co-operation” (Corning), and (3) group selection, or the differential survival of groups of co-operators. Darwin emphasized that these mechanisms were not necessarily antagonistic but could well have been complementary and mutually reinforcing. (In recent decades, evolutionary biologists — and especially sociobiologists — have generally discounted the role of group selection in evolution. However, a reassessment may be underway. See below.)
We need to stop the tape one more time on our way to the late 20th century — and the two volumes that are under consideration here. Herbert Spencer, who (among other things) inspired the systematic study of ethics from an evolutionary perspective, has been caricatured and libeled so relentlessly over most of this century that it is difficult to climb the wall of prejudice that has been built up around him (but see Corning 1982). Briefly, there are two Herbert Spencers — the young ideologue and polemicist of the Social Statics (1850) and various public policy debates (this is the Herbert Spencer who inspired Social Darwinism, though technically he was not one himself) and the mature theorist whose monumental, ten-volume Synthetic Philosophy (1879-1893) placed him among the great intellects of the 19th century.
Like Plato and Aristotle, Spencer viewed society as a utilitarian instrumentality — a system of exchanges and mutual benefits that arose out of the struggle for existence: “Cooperation…is at once that which cannot exist without a society, and that for which society exists….The motive for acting together, originally the dominant one, may be defense against enemies; or it may be the easier obtainment of food, by the chase or otherwise; or it may, and commonly is, both of these,” Spencer wrote in The Principles of Sociology (1874-1882). Moreover, the “progressive” evolution of human societies has been the product of an interaction between what would now be called ecological, psychological and socioeconomic forces, including both co-operative and competitive or antagonistic forces. In concluding his overview chapter in The Principles of Sociology, Spencer penned a statement that is, to my mind, an underappreciated classic:
Recognizing the primary truth that social phenomena depend in part on the natures of the individuals and in part on the forces the individuals are subject to, we see that these two fundamentally distinct sets of factors, with which social changes commence, give origin to other sets as social changes advance. The pre-established environing influences, inorganic and organic, which are at first almost unalterable, become more and more altered by the actions of the evolving society. Simple growth of population brings into play fresh causes of transformation that are increasingly important. The influences which the society exerts on the nature of its units, and those which the units exert on the nature of the society, incessantly co-operate in creating new elements. As societies progress in size and structure, they work on one another, now by their war-struggles and now by their industrial intercourse, profound metamorphoses. And the ever-accumulating, ever-complicating super-organic products [it was Spencer, not Emerson, who coined the term “super-organism”], material and mental, constitute a further set of factors which become more and more influential causes of change…
One aspect of Spencer’s formulation should be stressed, namely, that he is here clearly suggesting a basis for resolving one of the more vexing problems in the social sciences — the nature of the relationship between the individual and society and the causal potency of each in social behavior and social change. Spencer’s views, which were derived from both his psychology and his sociology, were similar to but also differed somewhat from those of Plato and Aristotle. To Spencer, human nature (man’s psychological propensities and mental faculties) and society are involved in a coevolutionary process: “The phenomena of social evolution are determined partly by the external actions to which the social aggregate is exposed and partly by the nature of its units…observing that these two sets of factors are themselves progressively changed as society changes.”
Though Spencer is often portrayed as a conflict theorist who sought to account for societal evolution through a competitive struggle for the “survival of the fittest” (another term coined by Spencer, not Darwin), actually he was a pacifist who abhorred war and held a dualistic view. He suggested that societies can be ranged along two ideal types (to borrow Max Weber’s term), “militant” and “industrial” (economic). Whereas the former type had predominated in the past, it was Spencer’s view that the latter would do so in the future, and that the overall direction of societal evolution was toward material affluence, peaceful integration, personal freedom and the withering away of the state — a vision of the future that he shared with, of all people, Karl Marx. (We must remember that Spencer died at the apogee of the Victorian era, more than a decade before the paradigm-shattering struggle of World War One.)
Spencer’s “science of ethics,” which provided a foundation for what became known as evolutionary ethics, was derived from his vision of society. As articulated in The Principles of Ethics (1879-1893), the final two-volume unit of his encyclopedic opus, the “science of right living” as he called it consisted of an application of the scientific method to the problem of determining which ethical principles and moral precepts would best be able to harmonize a given society at its particular stage of evolution. The criteria for evaluating ethical issues should be their consequences both for the super-organism and its members, recognizing their interdependence:
So that from the biological point of view, ethical science becomes a specification of the conduct of associated men who are severally so constituted that the various self-preserving activities, the activities required for rearing offspring, and that which social welfare demands, are fulfilled in the spontaneous exercise of duly proportioned faculties, each yielding when in action its quantum of pleasure; and who are, by consequence, so constituted that excess or defect in any one of these actions brings its quantum of pain, immediate and remote.
In other words, ethical prescriptions must be tailored to the results that they are likely to produce in specific contexts with regard to the ultimate purpose of society (as Spencer saw it) — the greatest happiness (broadly interpreted) of the greatest number, but with an appreciation also for the fact that individual satisfactions in complex societies are both biologically-based and very often interdependent. Here, then, are the philosophical roots of “evolutionary ethics” — a unique amalgam of Aristotle, Benthamite Liberalism, Darwinism properly understood (although Spencer was also a die-hard Lamarckian), 19th century psychology and Marxist idealism (minus the dialectic).
With this historical perspective, we may now be in a better position to evaluate the two newly-minted volumes on evolution and ethics. First Evolutionary Ethics. This is, above all, a commendable effort to provide a vehicle for surveying the state of the art. It grows out of a 1990 symposium at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, sponsored by the Society for the Study of Evolution with support from the National Science Foundation. The organizers and editors, Matthew and Doris Nitecki, assembled a distinguished group of contributors across a dozen different disciplines. Collectively, these authors touched on most of the traditional conundrums in the field — the problem of defining ethics, the “naturalistic fallacy” or so-called “is-ought dichotomy” (which dates back to Hume), the basic dynamics of the evolutionary process, the problem of “progress” in evolution, “nature” versus “nurture” in behavior generally and in human societies in particular, and, of course, the implications of sociobiology for evolutionary ethics. The quality of the individual contributions is generally very good, and each author at least made some effort to take account of the other contributions.
Nevertheless, the overall results were a disappointment. At the root of the matter, I believe, was the ultimately deconstructive role of the editors. They tried too hard to be non-partisan. They took too many of the substantive arguments at face value, leaving many contradictions and ill-informed or inaccurate statements unchallenged. Rather than producing a synthesis that could point the way toward future development of the field, if possible, they left us with an almost entirely unmodulated cacophony. Indeed, Matthew Nitecki in his lengthy introduction sounded a note of pessimism and disparagement that was strangely defeatist.
To be specific: Nitecki’s introduction has the unpromising title “Problematic Worldviews of Evolutionary Ethics.” He begins his essay with a question: “Can a system of evolutionary ethics be perceived as a legitimate subject of analysis?” In the past, he notes, opinions have been sharply divided. His own conclusion is that, despite the claims of sociobiology, the time may not yet be ripe. Perhaps an adequate definition of evolutionary ethics is not possible, he says. Nitecki even raises doubts about whether such an effort is worthwhile. He echoes John Dewey’s curiously cynical view: “Problems are usually not solved, but are left behind [here he quotes Dewey] ‘not because any satisfactory solution has been reached; but interest is exhausted.'” Nitecki concludes: “We do not solve them; we get over them.” (This implies a surprising naivete about the ideological and academic wars of the 20th century, when theorists who were on the “wrong” side of the nature-nurture issue became non-persons, or worse.) Nitecki also argues that the notion of progress is essential to an evolutionary ethics (a questionable assertion), yet he claims that progress has been relegated to “the dustbin of history.” The notion of progress is “defunct,” he declares. Furthermore, the dubious nature of the quest for an evolutionary ethics is attested to by the (presumed) finding of anthropology that ethical rules vary widely among cultures; the only universal is that all cultures have ethical systems. Finally, Nitecki opines that perhaps the search for an evolutionary ethics is not related to any meliorative or practical objectives but reflects the ongoing quest to understand who we are and our place in the universe; in other words, our motivation is curiosity, not utility. We will return to these points. A more serious problem with this volume is that both its premises and its conclusions are colored (darkly) by a biased perspective on (a) the history of evolutionary ethics, (b) the ethical implications of Darwin’s theory, and (c) the ethical implications of sociobiology. On the first point, the Niteckis let stand the assertion that the origins of evolutionary ethics are associated with Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism [sic]. In fact, Social Darwinism was a movement fostered by an assortment of lesser minds — Charles Sumner, Albert Keller, Ludwig Gumplowicz, Gustav Ratzenhofer, Andrew Carnegie and others — who perpetrated a one-sided caricature of both Darwin’s and Spencer’s views. The Social Darwinist rendering of Darwinism accorded with the radical views of Thomas Henry Huxley — “Darwin’s bulldog” as he was dubbed for his vociferous defenses of Darwin’s theory. It was Huxley who purveyed the image of nature as an implacable, no-holds-barred struggle. Kropotkin’s famous book, Mutual Aid, was mainly written to defend Darwinism against Huxley’s gladiatorial model of evolution.
Thus, it seems peculiarly inappropriate to launch a book on evolutionary ethics with a reprint of Huxley’s famous 1893 Romanes Lecture (and his long-winded 1894 “clarification”), followed by two well-taken but historically obscure rebuttals. Huxley shocked his listeners, and subsequent readers, by disavowing Darwinism as a basis for ethics. If the “cosmic process,” as Huxley called it, is characterized by “relentless combat” — a “war of every man against every man” in Thomas Hobbes’s dour image — how can one build a social ethics on its implications? How indeed. Huxley had painted himself into a corner in which he could not locate any ethical corollaries. And so, the only way to avoid a disavowal of his well-known image of nature was to give humans the capacity to transcend it: “Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process…” By substituting the “State of Art” for the “State of Nature,” Huxley claimed, human societies would ensure the survival of those who are ethically the best. Huxley likened the process to that of a gardener who transforms nature into an ordered regime. As Matthew Nitecki suggests in his introduction, the accompanying rebuttals by Leslie Stephen and John Dewey display better biology than Huxley’s. It is worth quoting Dewey here:
I have discussed this particular case [Huxley’s garden metaphor] in the hope of enlarging somewhat our conception of what is meant by the term “fit”; to suggest that we are in the habit of interpreting it with reference to an environment which long ago ceased to be. That which was fit among animals is not fit among human beings…because the conditions of life have changed, and because there is no way to define the term “fit” excepting through these conditions. The environment is now a distinctly social one, and the content of the term “fit” has to be made with reference to social adaptation…We have then no reason here to oppose the ethical process to the natural process.
Leslie Stephen expands on Dewey’s argument by pointing out that morality can be based on purely prudential grounds. Following Hobbes’s reasoning, men may find that peace is preferable to war, that the division of labor and reciprocity can be mutually advantageous and that a personal morality can be derived from our dependence on others for the meeting of our needs. If a public ethics are in our own best interest, then the logical gap between “is” and “ought” can be bridged by an “if-then” set of prudential rules — and a system of enforcement designed to prevent anyone from cheating. Leslie concludes: “An individualism which regards the cosmic process as equivalent simply to an internecine struggle of each against all must fail to construct a satisfactory morality, and I will add that any individualism which fails to recognize fully the social factor, which regards society [merely] as an aggregate instead of an organism [i.e., Spencer’s functionally interdependent “super-organism”], will, in my opinion, find itself in difficulties.”
In Robert Bolt’s award-winning morality play, A Man for All Seasons, there is some dialogue between Thomas More and his son-in-law, William Roper, that speaks forcefully to this point (to which we will return below):
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a good road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
Another troubling aspect of this volume has to do with its one-sided presentation of the so-called Neo-Darwinian synthesis. Briefly, for more than a generation the “selfish gene” metaphor has dominated the evolutionary paradigm, thanks in part to Richard Dawkins’s popular book by that name. However, the theoretical groundwork for Dawkins’s vision was developed by George C. Williams in his Adaptation and Natural Selection (1966). This now classic volume was a therapeutic cold-bath that had the salutary effect, overall, of purging evolutionary biology of some fuzzy thinking. But Williams also expounded the extreme reductionist view that functional organization of any kind (above that of an individual organism) was a product of “romantic imagination.” Such fantasies, he claimed, were (a) a misinterpretation of individual adaptations, (b) fortuitous effects, (c) statistical artifacts, or (d) the necessary result of the operation of physical laws. “A wolf can live on elk only when it [coincidentally] attacks its prey in the company of other wolves with similar dietary tendencies. I am not aware, however, of any evidence of functional organization of wolf packs.” In other words, group selection is largely impotent. In a more recent volume (1992), Williams is less dogmatic but still a skeptical reductionist. (As one of the contributors to the Niteckis’s volume, Williams burnished his curmudgeon image by heartily endorsing Huxley’s “tooth and claw” vision of evolution.)
Neo-Darwinians do acknowledge the existence of “group selection” at the level of organisms. In The Selfish Gene (1976), Dawkins concedes that genes are not really free and independent agents. “They collaborate and interact in inextricably complex ways…Building a leg is a multi-gene co-operative enterprise.” To underscore the point, Dawkins employs a metaphor from rowing. “One oarsman on his own cannot win the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. He needs eight colleagues… Rowing the boat is a co-operative venture.” Furthermore, Dawkins notes: “One of the qualities of a good oarsman is teamwork, the ability to fit in and co-operate with the rest of the crew.”
There is something a bit perverse about a theoretical stance which fully appreciates the evolutionary significance of functional organization at the organismic level but which denies the same status to functionally-organized “super-organisms” — from microscopic symbiotic partnerships to human societies — while unabashedly using metaphors from the super-organismic level to illustrate the same principle at “lower” levels. Group selection at the social level is not a figment of someone’s romantic imagination. Functionally-organized, interdependent “groups” play an important role as “vehicles” of selection. The substantial and accumulating evidence for this assertion is documented in a recent review by Wilson and Sober (1994), and their article did not even include much of the recent work on symbiosis, or inter-species mutualism. (See also Wilson and Sober 1989; Maynard Smith and Szathmáry 1995; Szathmáry and Maynard Smith 1995; Corning 1983, 1995.) The full implications for evolutionary theory, and ethics, of this resurgent appreciation for the role of interdependent group selection at all levels of biological organization have yet to be fully assimilated (see below).
Sociobiology also plays an ambiguous role in this volume. On the one hand, sociobiology can certainly be credited with stimulating a renewed interest in evolutionary ethics. However, sociobiologists have promoted a truncated view of social life which, among other things, has had the unfortunate side-effect of narrowing the scope of evolutionary ethics. Edward O. Wilson launched his discipline-defining work, Sociobiology (1975), with the startling assertion that altruism is “the central theoretical problem of sociobiology: how can altruism…possibly evolve by natural selection?” The implication was that social life is based primarily on altruism, and many sociobiologists (including Wilson) adopted W.D. Hamilton’s view that there are only three classes of social behavior: Altruism (or self-sacrifice for another), selfishness (raising one’s own fitness at the expense of another), and spite (lowering one’s own fitness in order to diminish that of another).
What Hamilton, Wilson and other pioneer sociobiologists left out of their typologies was “egoistic co-operation,” joint, coordinated or reciprocal actions that are mutually beneficial (not at all altruistic). Plato, Aristotle, Spencer (and Adam Smith, for that matter) all appreciated that social life can be mutually advantageous, in many different ways. In addition to indivisible “collective goods” (sensu Mancur Olson), there are also many “corporate goods” — jointly produced products that are divisible and that can be shared in more or less “equitable” ways. In fact, only a fraction of the social interactions in human societies involve uncompensated self-sacrifice, yet altruism — and Robert Trivers’s misnamed “reciprocal altruism” — are treated by many writers (including some of the contributors to the Niteckis’s volume) as the centerpiece of sociobiology and, by extension, of evolutionary ethics.
The broad implication of utilizing a revised set of premises about nature, evolution and the evolutionary status of societies generally and human societies in particular is that we may have a more hopeful basis for developing an evolutionary ethics than the Niteckis were able to derive from the chapters included in their volume. The perspectives provied by several other recent books in this area — by Robert Wright, Frans de Waal and John H. Beckstrom — will be addressed, along with some additional implications, in Part Two of this review essay, to be published in a subsequent issue of the Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems.