Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Evolution is Not Your Friend

In my last post, I mentioned a class of objections to the theory of evolution which do not betray gross misunderstandings of the theory. That is, they acknowledge that while evolutionary theory might have objective scientific merit, it leads to implications about the nature or reality that are intuitively, aesthetically or morally objectionable. These objections take a variety of forms.

For example, some find the Hobbesian view of our nature, red in tooth and claw, particularly depressing. The idea that all living things, including us, are merely the temporary survivors of a brutal struggle of each against every other is not a very positive one for those of us who believe deeply in the values of love, tolerance and cooperation. Indeed, many evolutionary biologists themselves going all the way back to Peter Kropotkin (who was 17 years old when Darwin published On the Origin of Species) have emphasized the role of cooperation and mutual aid, rather than competition and conflict, as an important part of the struggle for survival. Yet while evolution can and has produced altruism and human instincts for morality, it still seems unsatisfying somehow to see these things as ultimately rooted in the self-interest of the genes that produce them. We want to feel that noble self-sacrifice really is noble self-sacrifice, not merely some roundabout way of ensuring one's own survival, or worse, a mistake of misfiring instincts.

As unhappy as that sounds, it doesn't really bother me that much. Regardless of how we happened to end up with our imperfect instincts for morality and justice, we have them and they have provoked the philosophers among us to contemplate the logic of it, using the capacity for generalized intelligence we evolved for other purposes to pursue problems that our ancestral environment never "intended" for us. And personally, I am largely persuaded by the efforts of Kant and Mill that there really is an inherent logic "out there" to morality as distinct from the dictates of natural selection. That we got here by means of "survival of the fittest" in no way means that we must adopt that as our moral compass.

Nor am I particularly upset with the absence of a divinely ordained purpose for our existence offered by evolution. There are people who say that the reason they believe in a Creator is that they feel there must be a purpose, some reason we're here, and that we're not just some accident of no importance in the grand scheme of things. I suppose there are two reasons why this objection doesn't really resonate with me: One, I've never really felt the need for authoritative answers from above. Even as a very young child, I frequently doubted the pronouncements of my parents and teachers, and I've never been able to overcome the epistemological hurdle of some mortal human claiming to speak for God; just because they say God wants me to do this or that doesn't mean that's really what God wants. But two: I've never really understood why it would be such a terrible thing if there were no purpose. We exist, and most of us feel a sense of some kind of purpose, whether it's real or not; why do we need it to be on some absolutely solid foundation before we invest ourselves into it? Isn't our own sense of purpose enough, without having to insist that it be dictated by God to have any real meaning?

No, the implication of evolutionary theory I find more dismal is this: we aren't built to be happy, and to some extent we may actually be built to be unhappy. Think about it: our emotional and intellectual capacities were selected for by evolution because they happened to make it likelier that we'd have offspring who would share these capacities. The things that bring us pleasure and fulfilment are not there for our benefit, but rather simply because they tend to motivate us in certain reproductively advantageous directions. Nature doesn't give a damn that we're happy, and in fact it's not really in our genes' interests for us to be too happy or fulfilled, because they we're likelier to slack off in our gene-propagation activities; it's desire that drives us to do stuff, not satisfaction of those desires.

In our ancestral environment, our desires were rarely if ever entirely fulfilled. One of the reasons we love sweet or rich and fatty foods is to encourage us to stock up on them on those infrequent occasions they became available, such as when fruit comes into season, or we're lucky enough to be able to kill some tasty animal. Most of the time we subsisted on vegetables, and so we tend to view leafy green stuff as something to eat if you're really hungry and there's nothing better available. But today, of course, we have virtually unlimited access to sweets and meats, and we have no built-in instinct to regulate how much of it we eat, because we never needed such an instinct in the nearly constant scarcity of our evolutionary past. Our appetites evolved to make us crave things, and never truly be satisfied. There are very good evolutionary reasons for this, but that doesn't make it any easier to resist overindulging in unhealthy diets.

And the same is true of most of our other biologically determined appetites and instincts. It's not enough that we be well-fed and healthy; we also have evolved as a complex social creature for whom status in the group is a key to reproductive success, so we crave being demonstrably better off than our neighbours, or at the very least not worse off. And this is a game that can never be won for most people, since for anyone to win means for everyone else to lose, to some extent.

So that's what I mean when I say we weren't built to be happy. Not just that it's unlikely to be able to attain happiness, but that it may actually be fundamentally built into our very makeup that we should always be unsatisfied. And so I am sympathetic to those who find the implications of Darwin's theory discouraging, even to the point of wanting to reject it.

Yet in my more cheerful moments, I find reason for optimism. Natural selection may have built us to be chronically dissatisfied, but at the same time, the products of human ingenuity are endlessly surprising. We have figured out ways to satiate ourselves with candy and pork chops. Our technology allows us to communicate with each other instantaneously from almost anywhere on the planet. We have devised ways to organize ourselves and relate to each other that our ancestors never could have imagined. And just as we worked out how to fly despite our lack of wings, we may yet figure out how to maximize human happiness in spite of our Darwinian legacy. And even the mere idea that such a thing could be possible should provide all the purpose anyone could need, divinely ordained or not.


  1. You deal with teleology (though not with the teleological argument) but you seem to have glossed over the moral implications. You accepted on faith, intuitively, that morality has a logic to it. Do you believe that morality has an objective basis? If yes, to what premise do you appeal?

    You also skipped over or ignored Platinga's naturalistic argument against evolution - the real trouble with evolution is that, as you pointed out, it only selects for survival. It does not necessarily select for the ability to reason soundly, if at all. Do you accept on faith that it has done so? If not, on what premise do you argue that your way of thinking has any ability to reach truth? Moreover, on what basis do you argue that the fundamental axioms from which you reason have any basis in reality?

  2. I'm not absolutely certain that morality has an objective basis in the sense that the same moral principles must apply to all entities capable of choice. Perhaps ethics really is nothing more than exquisite rationalization of conclusions we're genetically predisposed to reach, and if we were intelligent but solitary creatures like octopi, we might have different moral predispositions that we would rationalize just as cleverly. Yet I think if we start from the premise that there exists some form of free will, and those beings who have it have various interests, some way of comparing states of well-being, then there's a fair bit that follows logically from that. Some, perhaps much, of what follows logically might seem at first to be at odds with our evolutionary predispositions, but such is the path of moral progress; there was once a time when slavery was considered acceptable.

    As for the evolution of intellect, I think it's becoming clear that our minds ARE the product of an evolutionary process that imbued us with tendencies and heuristics that are more aimed at survival in the ancestral environment than at sound reasoning. Our brains are not well adapted to processing statistics or probability, and we still tend to vote for political candidates based on how they look rather than any attempt to assess their reasoning skills. But another important aspect of our brains, perhaps THE important aspect, is their plasticity and capacity to learn. They're certainly not perfect thinking machines, and they have many systemic flaws, but that doesn't mean they're utterly useless, either, and at any rate, they're all we have.

    So no, I can't claim with certainty that my way of thinking has the ability to reach truth, but as I've argued before, I'm not so much concerned with attaining perfect knowledge, anyway; it is far more worthwhile and attainable to seek improved understanding. We can understand things better than we do, and we should always strive to do so.

    Do the axioms of our reasoning have a basis in reality, then? I cannot provide a deductive argument that they do, but there is some inductive evidence: it seems to work pretty well. There may be better axioms more rooted in fundamental reality, and maybe some day we'll identify them, but the ones we use now have served us very, very well so far.