Review Essay for the JOURNAL OF SOCIAL AND EVOLUTIONARY SYSTEMS, 20(3): 323-331
© 1997, JAI Press
Charlie Allnut: “What ya bein so mean for, miss? Man takes a drop too much once in a while, it’s only human nature.”
Rose Sayer: “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”
— C.S. Forester (The African Queen)
Pre-Darwinian social philosophy — the so-called “tradition of discourse” — can roughly be divided into two competing schools, namely: (1) “idealists” who have viewed the social order as a reflection of human nature and, perhaps, as a vehicle for human betterment (some have even espoused the dangerous idea that the “state” is an end in itself), and (2) those who, like the Cynics and Epicureans, have equated human nature with the unconstrained pursuit of self-interest. To the latter, an organized society is at best the product of convention and expediency — a regime imposed, or a bargain struck, among autonomous, self-serving individuals.
Although it has taken us a while to appreciate it, Charles Darwin changed the ground-rules for the philosophical debate. In The Descent of Man (1871/1874), Darwin proposed that moral systems should henceforth be studied as a branch of “natural history”— that is to say, within an evolutionary framework. Darwin’s “take” on morality was that it is indeed a product of the evolutionary process. He believed that the “social instincts”, including even our capacity for “sympathy”, “kindness” and the desire for social “approbation”, are rooted in human nature; in fact, the rudiments of these behaviors can be found in other social species as well. And yet, Darwin also recognized that such instincts seem to contradict the imperatives of natural selection; how can selfless behavior arise from the machinations of selfish genes?
Darwin was the first of many Darwinian theorists who have struggled with this conundrum, and therein hangs a tale. Darwin proposed to account for our sociality with a combination of selection for individual reciprocity (reciprocal altruism), “family” selection (a.k.a. kin selection) and “group selection” — that is, the positive selection of traits which provide an advantage for groups that are in competition with other groups. Moreover, only humans have true morality because we alone can superimpose reasoned cultural constraints on our baser motives. (In this respect, Darwin seemed to be invoking the Kantian precondition of “intentionality.”)
Many late-twentieth-century Neo-Darwinians have viewed Darwin’s explanation as unsatisfactory: “The more you think about it, the less likely it seems,” says Robert Wright in The Moral Animal (p.186). And Helena Cronin, in The Ant and the Peacock (1991/1993:327), concludes that Darwin “lets us down.” How so? Because Darwin recognized but did not solve the problem of how a selfless gene could spread within a group and not be eliminated by selfish competitors. Darwin’s argument for group selection therefore seems unworkable. Accordingly, in its contemporary incarnation, evolutionary ethics has been constrained to fit within the framework of individual and kin selection, reciprocal altruism and, more generally, the egoistic “social contract” paradigm (but see below).
Robert Wright’s volume provides an illuminating example of this approach — and much more. The Moral Animal is, first of all, a work of formidable intelligence, wit and skill (and is deeply researched to boot). It has been lavishly reviewed, highly praised and deserves its reputation as a somewhat provocative synthesis of evolutionary psychology. Wright calls his volume a “sales pitch” and, indeed, it is a highly partisan rendering of the subject with an admittedly cynical edge. Fair enough. Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary defined a cynic as “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they really are, not as they ought to be.” Wright provides a very creditable review and analysis of the literature on such topics as male versus female reproductive strategies (including the highly-charged issue of monogamy versus polygyny), parental investment, friendship, and the nettlesome problems of deception and treachery in human relations, not to mention the convoluted relationship between our ethical preachments and our practices.
In many respects, Wright got it right. As he points out, evolutionary psychology supports the view that there is indeed a biologically-based “human nature” but that it is also highly flexible and adaptable (not genetically determined). Wright invokes a metaphor from electronics — the idea of “knobs” and “tunings” — to characterize the relationship between our genes and our environment. We have many biologically-based biases and urges, but we are also capable of learning from experience and controlling these urges — as Darwin, and Huxley, and Rose Sayer (each from a different perspective) suggested. Wright also reviews the “case” for “gene selfishness” as the guiding principle behind our behavior; often it is the invisible anchor for our psychological proclivities. The good news is that our moral impulses may also have a biological basis. The bad news, Wright claims, is that these impulses are highly selective, inconsistent, and “ruthlessly” subordinated to our self-interests; they do not seem well-attuned to the “good of the species.” In short, says Wright, we delude ourselves in thinking that our morality is not really self-serving.
While it is hard to find fault with Wright’s reportage — he is after all a senior editor of The New Republic — the spin he puts on it, his interpretation, is deeply disappointing. At the very end of this “feast of great thinking and writing” (as one reviewer puts it), Wright finds himself in an ethical cul de sac. Evolutionary psychology can give us no more ethical guidance than can the musty musings of an Antiphon or a Plato (we can’t escape from the naturalistic fallacy). Nevertheless, in what amounts to a non sequitur, Wright resurrects a dubious argument for utilitarianism and the greatest happiness of the greatest number. “It’s just about all we have left,” he tells us. Indeed, having adopted the Darwinian definition of true morality as the conscious control over our urges (which sets the bar pretty high), he concludes that we are not moral animals (his title be damned); we are only “potentially” moral. The final result is a logical tangle — a whole that is far less than the sum of its impressive parts. Because this issue is crucial to whatever future evolutionary ethics may have, it is worth taking the trouble to try to disentangle it.
We begin with a simple question: How does Wright (or Antiphon, or Jeremy Bentham, or even Adam Smith for that matter) define “self-interest?” Often the term is used to connote a zero-sum relationship in which the “self” gains at the expense of some “other”. Indeed, Neo-Darwinians seem to relish the idea that, where selfish genes are concerned, the self is “ruthless” (a flagrant anthropomorphism). Of course, there is a large philosophical literature on the concept of “enlightened self-interest” — a form of selfishness that may overlap with the interests of others (say collective goods like safe drinking water or the “common defense”), which goes under the heading of “mutualism” in evolutionary biology. In theory, there are at least three distinct kinds of self-interest: (1) those that are also consistent with — or supportive of — the interests of others, (2) those that are neutral in their effects on others, and (3) those that conflict with the interests of others.
Unfortunately, the enlightened self-interest (or “ESI”) paradigm often gets short-changed in favor of the competitive, “zero-sum” paradigm, and Wright’s treatment reflects this bias. Although Wright speaks at several places in his text (mostly in passing) about the phenomenon of “non-zero-sumness” in human societies, his clumsy euphemism obscures the vastly important role in humankind of synergy (beneficial co-operative effects that are not otherwise attainable); it is the equivalent of referring to white as “non-black.”
The root of the problem, I believe, is a flawed vision of a human society as no more than a vast set of dyadic “transactions” between individuals in an essentially competitive arena, when in fact it is also a complex system of ongoing relationships and interdependencies, many of which are mutually beneficial, from the division of labor in production and reproduction to shared public roads and public order. Competition and co-operation are the “warp and woof” of human societies, to resurrect that old but still useful weaving metaphor. Evolutionary psychology (and its now politically-incorrect predecessor sociobiology) have tended to underrate the co-operative dimension of human societies. Our species is sui generis — vastly more dependent than any other social species on economic “niches” that are created by the needs, wants and activities of others, and on joint efforts that produce both collective goods and divisible “corporate goods.” Richard Alexander (1987) calls it “a system of indirect reciprocity.” To cite one hypothetical example: suppose that two hunter-gatherers each are able to collect enough firewood at dusk to feed a campfire for half the night. If the two of them pool their hoards and share a fire, they will both have enough firewood to stay warm through the entire night — and, equally important, to ward off potential predators. That’s synergy, and human societies are rife with it.
Not only is non-zero-sumness (synergy) very important in human societies but it casts our moral impulses in a very different light. Human nature (as best we can discern at this stage) is highly adapted to exploiting the human potential for socially-produced synergies, which necessitates fitting ourselves into a social order. We (mostly) enjoy associating and working with others and are highly attuned to the opinions, and influences and “approbation” of others, precisely because it is most often in our self-interest to be so motivated; our imperfect social and moral propensities are thus not opposed to our self-interests but are more or less aligned with them; often, in fact, our social needs become ends in themselves. To be sure, moral actions usually require some “sacrifice,” but, with some notable exceptions, the “costs” can be viewed as tradeoffs for compensating benefits of various kinds. From an evolutionary perspective, we would expect moral impulses to be motivated and supported at the psychological level if they are in fact instrumental to positive synergies and, ultimately, to our reproductive success. Moreover, we would expect to find that these propensities are also influenced by the specific cultural context. Wright himself illustrates this point with the irreverent, and somewhat scatological, use of Charles Darwin’s life as a “test case.” Darwin, and many other Victorians, demonstrated that a society can after all be a vehicle for moral betterment — for an increase in mutually-beneficial civility and “domestic tranquility” (for the “good life” sensu Plato). In other words, we can make cultural choices that will encourage or discourage moral conduct — i.e., conduct that is responsive to the needs and attitudes of others.
And yet, we also remain hard-core egoists. The point is that we are not one thing or the other; the “idealists” and the “cynics” are both partly correct. The great, inescapable paradox of the human condition is that both the market/exchange metaphor and the “superorganism” metaphor are partially valid. Human societies (in all but some pathological cases) represent a unique blend, in evolutionary terms, of all three kinds of self-interests, and the endemic conflicts within every society —indeed, within each individual — are a reflection of the interplay between them.
Wright himself unwittingly provides a possible illustration. Why, he asks, has the cultural practice of monogamy arisen in the face of the presumed reproductive advantage of male polygyny? This would seem utterly to contradict the bedrock premise of evolutionary psychology. Wright’s explanation is that the advantages must have outweighed the disadvantages. It is a dangerous and destabilizing state of affairs to have relatively few males controlling the reproductive “resources” of the females in any given society while many more males are denied access to reproduction. So, in a kind of biological Magna Carta, some of our male ancestors made a “bargain” among themselves to share the females more or less equally. But why should peaceful coexistence and reproductive co-operation matter more for humans than for, say, chimpanzees or elephant seals? Precisely because human economies, by and large, involve much more intense, ongoing co-operation and economic interdependency; the benefit side of the social order is typically much greater, as is the potential cost of internal conflict (just read the daily newspapers or watch CNN).
This subtle revisioning of the human condition also has a bearing on the group selection debate. The traditional assumption, from Darwin to Wright, that group selection only applies to unalloyed, uncompensated “altruism” is, to put it bluntly, perverse. Group selection can also occur in cases where there are net advantages for all concerned (win-win). For example, among our protohominid ancestors, the most effectively co-operating groups may have been more successful in driving away competing groups, even competing species, from the often precious resource of a water hole, or potential prey. The reason that such successful collaborations should not be treated simply as cases of multiple individual selection is that the benefits are jointly produced and shared — there is a functional synergy involved. Maynard Smith calls it “synergistic selection.” (See also the more extensive discussion of this issue in Corning 1996.)
But what about the naturalistic fallacy —the prohibition against deriving ethical “oughts” from any empirical “is”? Even if our ethical impulses make evolutionary (adaptive) sense, so what? Here it may be fair to accuse Wright of letting us down. As noted earlier, Wright could not discern any basis for ethics in Darwinism or evolutionary psychology. “Can morality have no meaning for the thinking person in a post-Darwinian world? This is a deep and murky question that (the reader may be relieved to hear) will not be rigorously addressed in this book” (p.329). Nevertheless, a few pages later Wright presents an argument for utilitarianism as a basis for morality. He claims that the “happiness” criterion is “unscathed” by the naturalistic fallacy because happiness is in fact a value that “we all share” (pp. 334-335). Furthermore, happiness has a non-zero-sum property; everyone’s happiness can go up if everyone treats everyone else nicely (synergy). In other words, we can derive an ethical system from a shared and/or interdependent set of social values. Ethics are not ends in themselves but instrumental means; if we all prefer happiness, then an ethical system can promote our common objective.
Why, in the name of Darwin, can’t the same logic be applied to the biological problem of survival and reproduction? Forget happiness. Let’s focus on evolutionary ethics. If we all (or almost all) seek to survive and reproduce, and if our survival and reproductive success — not to mention the longer-term reproductive success of our progeny (call it “posterity”) — is largely dependent, ultimately, upon the “collective survival enterprise” — the tacit raison d’etre of a complex human society — why can’t we use our shared Darwinian “interests” as the basis for an evolutionary ethics? If we take the long view, and the large view, any ethical system that is conducive to “the survival and reproductive success of the greatest number” would, on balance, also be likely to be conducive to our own survival and reproductive interests. That, I submit, is a logical (and sturdy) foundation for an evolutionary ethics, although I am also well aware that there are some pitfalls to be avoided.
A useful analogue for “parental investment” within the framework of an enlightened, post-Neo-Darwinian evolutionary ethics might be “community investment.” After all, this is what the Goodwill, the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity and the like, not to mention our many charitable foundations, are implicitly all about. So we are not just talking theory here. We are talking about what people actually do in the real world. And the good news is that the “public interest,” or “general welfare,” is not the chimerical fantasy of incurable romantics whose genes are headed straight for the evolutionary “dustbin”. Rather, these quaint old-fashioned terms — whose roots trace far back in the tradition of discourse — are conceptual container-ships for the non-zero-sumness in society.
The case for an “ESI model” of evolutionary ethics is buttressed, compellingly, by Frans de Waal’s new book on the origins of moral behaviors. Good Natured (a clever title) is a rare treat, a work that combines good primatology, good social science, good moral philosophy, good writing and, not least, good will. De Waal sets out to show via the research literature in other social species, especially our primate cousins, that morality is not opposed to our animal instincts. “We are moral beings to the core” (p.2). The mixture of “good” and “evil” that can be observed in human societies reflects a duality that can be seen also in other socially-organized species. Our close relatives are very often selfish in the zero-sum sense of the term, yet they also exhibit such “enlightened” behaviors as sharing, succorance, empathy, attachment, reconciliation, tolerance, even concern for the community and for social harmony. (De Waal defines “community concern” somewhat stiffly as “the stake each individual has in promoting those characteristics of the community or group that increase the benefits derived from living in it by that individual and its kin” p. 207.)
Furthermore, there is evidence that other-regarding behaviors are encouraged and supported in primates and humans alike by a substrate of psychological and emotional “rewards” and “punishments”. “The fact that the human moral sense goes so far back in evolutionary history that other species show signs of it plants morality firmly near the center of our much-maligned nature,” de Waal concludes. “It is neither a recent innovation nor a thin layer that covers a beastly and selfish makeup” (p. 218). De Waal also nicely deflates the conceit that true morality requires conscious deliberation: “Animals are no moral philosophers,” he concedes, “but then, how many people are?” (p. 209). Animals occupy a number of floors of the “tower of morality,” as de Waal puts it, but it is a bit gratuitous to claim that only the very top of the tower can be labelled “moral”. De Waal likens our moral propensities to language acquisition, a human trait that exhibits both a specific biological predisposition (and associated “machinery”) and extensive learning.
Some of de Waal’s earlier work, especially his book Primate Politics, has been criticized for excessive anthropomorphism (for the record, by some of the very same people who freely employ the blatant anthropomorphism of selfish genes). Indeed, even Robert Wright fires a barb or two at de Waal — he calls de Waal’s primate stories “almost soap-operatic” — before appropriating some of them to use as “re-runs” for the entertainment of his own readers. In Good Natured, de Waal responds to his critics with a review of the formal primate research literature and an argument for “parsimony” in theorizing about the striking comparisons between primates and humans. (De Waal also repays Wright with a sharp critique of Wright’s charge that we are all self-deceiving hypocrites.)
One aspect of de Waal’s book should be highlighted. A centerpiece of human relationships, and human morality, is our apparently universal (albeit imperfect) sense of “equity”. It is deeply embedded in the human psyche, and it provides a somewhat erratic moral compass for human relationships —especially for our concepts of “justice” and “fair play”. Consider the classic story about “The Little Red Hen” — one of the all-time best-sellers among children’s books. The Red Hen works hard and is frugal. One day she finds some grains of wheat and decides to plant them. She asks her friends (a dog, a cat and a pig, in one version of the story) “who will help me plant these seeds?” Well, her friends all have more important things to do, so she plants them herself. And so it goes at each successive stage in the production process — tending and weeding the garden, harvesting the wheat, threshing the grain, grinding the flour and baking the bread. At each step the Red Hen asks for help, but her friends are always too busy. Yet, when it finally comes time to eat the bread, her friends are more than willing to help; they’re eager to do so. By then, of course, it’s too late. Now, a well-trained defense lawyer might object that the Red Hen should not have eaten all the bread herself, but many generations of children, unburdened by the teachings of our moral philosophers and legal scholars, seem to have gotten the point.
De Waal finds suggestive evidence that this sense of “justice” has its roots in the finely-tuned “economy of sharing and exchange” in chimpanzees. If so, this has enormous theoretical significance; it links one of our most fundamental ethical principles to, yes, natural selection. Our own acutely-developed (sometimes) sense of justice may be without precedent in nature, but so are our language skills, our manual dexterity and a variety of other evolved traits.
One significant shortcoming in both Wright’s and de Waal’s presentations — a criticism that can be applied to most recent discussions of “human nature” — is that human nature is not a fixed, cookie-cutter set of traits. Individual differences, both biological and culturally-induced, are as important with respect to personality characteristics and social behavior (including the moral dimension) as with any other evolved trait. Both of these authors make some generalizations about our behavioral propensities that are not always true, and the exceptions matter a lot. Thus, Wright asserts that the males of our species may be biologically predisposed to promiscuity and that monogamy is somewhat at odds with a Darwinian perspective. How, then, do we account for the wide variations in male behavior in our society? While some males cheat regularly and marry often, others make life-long commitments or become celibates. Consider the couple in Sacramento California that, in the spring of 1997, celebrated their 81st wedding anniversary. (He was 101 years old and she was 97.) In strictly Darwinian terms, these centenarians have done fairly well: they have 14 children, 75 grand children and, so far, 43 great grand children. Real-world ethical systems must take account of the variations that exist in any society, for whatever reason. That is why we have both formal and informal systems of rewards and sanctions to back up and reinforce our ethical norms. What some of us may be inclined to do, or not do, “spontaneously”, others may need to be “persuaded” to do for the sake of the “general welfare”.
Maybe, after all, Herbert Spencer had something useful to contribute to the debate (see Part One). An “ethical science,” he asserted, should strive to harmonize “self-preserving activities,” the “activities required for rearing offspring” and the “social welfare,” so that individual self-interests will mesh with the interests of others (including the “superorganisms” through which our various needs and wants are met). A tall order, of course, but at least this ideal is grounded in the biological fundamentals and is consistent with Darwinian principles. It can perhaps provide a general framework within which to address specific issues.
An excellent example of this approach to evolutionary ethics, in my opinion, is the final volume under consideration here, John Beckstrom’s latest book Darwinism Applied. Beckstrom is an emeritus professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law and the author of two previous books on the interface between evolution/biology and jurisprudence. Thus, he is able to write with authority, and with a mature understanding of both fields. He forthrightly addresses many hot-button issues: child abuse, incest, rape, street crime, intestate transfers of wealth and aid-giving behaviors, among others. However, he adroitly avoids the land-mines that litter each of these battlefields. As Beckstrom stresses: “Science may be able to offer social planners advice on how to reduce or even eliminate a large array of social problems… [However], it cannot be used ‘normatively.'” Beckstrom likens the role of science to that of a travel agent: “They cannot tell you where to go, but they can give you information about the costs and benefits of various destinations and help you get there once you finalize your decision.” It is not possible to detail here Beckstrom’s treatment of each of these issues. In general, this is an exemplary effort, with valuable insights for anyone who has a specific interest in any of these biologically-significant problems. One representative example involves the reduction of sibling incest. The incest taboo is an ancient and universal norm in human societies, and its adaptive biological value is well-understood. Inbreeding in humans, as in other mammals, can have seriously detrimental fitness consequences for any offspring that might result; the consequences are commonly referred to as inbreeding depression. Moreover, our cultural taboo is powerfully reinforced (normally) by a biologically-based psychological inhibition against sex with close relatives. Nevertheless, incest does occur in modern societies. The ethics of incest avoidance are clear-cut, so how can this problem be addressed? It happens that the biopsychological inhibitory “mechanism” is heavily dependent upon proximity; children who live in close quarters (whether in fact related to one another or not) will normally establish as part of their day-to-day relationships a corollary aversion to sexual intimacy. The implications for child-rearing practices are spelled out by Beckstrom in some detail. (One hot-button issue that Beckstrom did not anticipate — who did — was the breakthrough that now makes imminent the possibility of cloning humans. In dealing with this highly contentious issue, it is clear that science and ethics will need each other.)
If a guiding metaphor for evolutionary ethics might be of use, we can probably do no better than an improved version of the image that was introduced by T.H. Huxley in the 19th century, in his famous Romanes lecture. Huxley suggested that a society could be likened to a domestic garden, where the task of the gardener (i.e., an ethical system) is to struggle with the hostile forces of nature to achieve an ordered regime. John Dewey, in his rebuttal to Huxley, proposed a more benign image of the garden as a plot in which, contrary to Huxley’s view, the gardener works with nature to make improvements and create conditions for abundant growth. From our vantage point, we can now recognize that both versions of the garden metaphor are partly correct. Our ethical systems must, at one and the same time, weed out the dandelions and fight the aphids and snails while simultaneously fertilizing, watering and pruning the hybrid petunias and English tea roses. Perhaps, to put a somewhat different spin on Wright’s conclusion, we can now admire the ethical aspirations of the Victorians and learn from their accomplishments even as we acknowledge their shortcomings, imperfections and, alas, sometimes their hypocrisies.
And so, we return to my leading question (in Part One). Is the time ripe for evolutionary ethics? I would argue that it has always been ripe, ever since Darwin. The difference now is that the continuing progress of the life sciences and behavioral sciences makes the case more irresistible. So the proper question is, are we yet ripe for it?