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Is Human Morality a Product of Evolution? - The Atlantic

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We will try and respond to your request as soon as reasonably practical. When you receive the information, if you think any of it is wrong or out of date, you can ask us to change or delete it for you. David Sloan Wilson. Edited by Brigid Hains. In , as it was becoming clear that a once-in-a-generation financial crisis was upon us, a friend of mine who is a senior corporate executive asked me a peculiar question. Might evolutionary theory have something to say about what caused the crisis?

Those of us who labour away in the biological sciences are unaccustomed to fielding questions from corporate executives, but I had founded a think tank called the Evolution Institute and my friend was an early supporter. These were desperate times; the financial crisis had exposed grave weaknesses in our basic understanding of economic systems.

The reigning theoretical paradigms in economics had run out of credibility, having, at best, failed to predict the crisis and, at worst, helped to exacerbate it. Could evolutionary theory do better? Of course, economics has been crying out for interdisciplinary intervention since its inception. The field is caught in a tug-of-war between two ideas: the idea that we need market processes to proceed unhindered and the idea that a healthy economy requires regulation.


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The 18 th -century pioneer of political economy Adam Smith observed that economies have a way of running themselves when left to their own devices. Yet Smith also knew that naked self-interest is often very bad for society as a whole. The industrial revolution and the great depression would demonstrate this danger best.

Criticism of evolutionary psychology

Communism demonstrated the opposite danger, that too much regulation dooms an economy to stagnation. What the economic landscape lacks is an adequate theory to navigate the enormous middle ground between these two insights. Instead, policy is drawn from a hodge-podge of perspectives pulled from philosophy, the social sciences, and practical experience. Some thought a formal mathematical theory could fill this yawning theoretical void.

If the behaviour of human actors in an economic system could be explained with the same precision as Newtonian mechanics, it would be an achievement of the first rank. In , Walras devised just such a theory, which became known as the general equilibrium model, but it was fatally flawed. His model made so many assumptions about human preferences and abilities that it required economists to think about humans too restrictively.

The model also required restrictive assumptions about the environment inhabited by H. This complicated, assumption-heavy theoretical apparatus allowed Walras to posit mathematical proof of the invisible-hand conjecture. Individuals striving to maximise their absolute utilities would also maximise the utility of the society as a whole — without any regulation at all.

The flaws of the general equilibrium model are well-documented. Darwinism swept such considerations away.

Evolution and conservatism

Many seemingly end-directed processes in inorganic nature are the simple consequence of natural laws—a stone falls or a heated piece of metal cools because of laws of physics, not some end-directed process. Processes in living organisms owe their apparent goal-directedness to the operation of an inborn genetic or acquired program. Adapted systems, such as the heart or kidneys, may engage in activities that can be considered goal seeking, but the systems themselves were acquired during evolution and are continuously fine-tuned by natural selection. Finally, there was a belief in cosmic teleology, with a purpose and predetermined goal ascribed to everything in nature.

Modern science, however, is unable to substantiate the existence of any such cosmic teleology. Fourth, Darwin does away with determinism. Laplace notoriously boasted that a complete knowledge of the current world and all its processes would enable him to predict the future to infinity.

volunteerparks.org/wp-content/buzilyva/58.php Darwin, by comparison, accepted the universality of randomness and chance throughout the process of natural selection. The character of the second step, the actual selection, is to be directional.

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Despite the initial resistance by physicists and philosophers, the role of contingency and chance in natural processes is now almost universally acknowledged. Many biologists and philosophers deny the existence of universal laws in biology and suggest that all regularities be stated in probabilistic terms, as nearly all so-called biological laws have exceptions.

Fifth, Darwin developed a new view of humanity and, in turn, a new anthropocentrism. For theologians and philosophers alike, Man was a creature above and apart from other living beings. Aristotle, Descartes and Kant agreed on this sentiment, no matter how else their thinking diverged. But biologists Thomas Huxley and Ernst Haeckel revealed through rigorous comparative anatomical study that humans and living apes clearly had common ancestry, an assessment that has never again been seriously questioned in science.

The application of the theory of common descent to Man deprived man of his former unique position. Ironically, though, these events did not lead to an end to anthropocentrism. The study of man showed that, in spite of his descent, he is indeed unique among all organisms. Human intelligence is unmatched by that of any other creature.

Humans are the only animals with true language, including grammar and syntax. Only humanity, as Darwin emphasized, has developed genuine ethical systems. In addition, through high intelligence, language and long parental care, humans are the only creatures to have created a rich culture. And by these means, humanity has attained, for better or worse, an unprecedented dominance over the entire globe.

Sixth, Darwin provided a scientific foundation for ethics. The question is frequently raised—and usually rebuffed— as to whether evolution adequately explains healthy human ethics. Many wonder how, if selection rewards the individual only for behavior that enhances his own survival and reproductive success, such pure selfishness can lead to any sound ethics.

The widespread thesis of social Darwinism, promoted at the end of the 19th century by Spencer, was that evolutionary explanations were at odds with the development of ethics. We now know, however, that in a social species not only the individual must be considered—an entire social group can be the target of selection. Darwin applied this reasoning to the human species in in The Descent of Man.

The survival and prosperity of a social group depends to a large extent on the harmonious cooperation of the members of the group, and this behavior must be based on altruism. The result amounts to selection favoring altruistic behavior. Kin selection and reciprocal helpfulness in particular will be greatly favored in a social group. Such selection for altruism has been demonstrated in recent years to be widespread among many other social animals. One can then perhaps encapsulate the relation between ethics and evolution by saying that a propensity for altruism and harmonious cooperation in social groups is favored by natural selection.

The old thesis of social Darwinism—strict selfishness—was based on an incomplete understanding of animals, particularly social species. The Influence of New Concepts Let me now try to summarize my major findings. No educated person any longer questions the validity of the so-called theory of evolution, which we now know to be a simple fact. Yes, he established a philosophy of biology by introducing the time factor, by demonstrating the importance of chance and contingency, and by showing that theories in evolutionary biology are based on concepts rather than laws. New modes of thinking have been, and are being, evolved.

You have free article s left. Already a subscriber? Sign in. See Subscription Options. Editor's Note: This story, originally published in the July issue of Scientific American , is being made available due to the th anniversary of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species Clearly, our conception of the world and our place in it is, at the beginning of the 21st century, drastically different from the zeitgeist at the beginning of the 19th century. Get smart. Sign up for our email newsletter. For example, over time as an exaptation, the aesthetic experience of being delighted by wit, irony and humor may have additional benefits like further promoting friendly, affectionate human interactions along with increasing social and cultural adhesiveness.

This is manifested in the aesthetic experience induced by artworks of human form and even by our responses to fashion and cosmetics.


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The fossils also show that throughout the evolution of hominids there was a cohabitation of closely related species. If one considers molecular hybridization evidence along with evidence of bipedalism in the fossil record, the data show that about 5 to 7 mya hominids began a path of evolution divergent from the evolution of modern chimpanzees Over those millions of years, varied ancestral hominids arose and subsequently became extinct The appearance and extinction of the hominids over those years was such that a number of hominid species coexisted by preferring to remain sexually separate from other hominid species as well as separate from closely related quadrupedal apes.

Although there are a variety of quadrupedal apes that currently exist, modern humans are the only surviving bipedal hominid. To reiterate, the burden of existence, combined with high sentience, although emphasized here, are not the only pressures that can select for a human genome capable of actuating an aesthetic experience. A point to be made is that over the last million years humans have evolved an encoded genome, that when actualized, emotionally compels us to remain sexually separate from closely related primates.

This has been referred to as cross species avoidance. Avoiding mating with closely related species is an ultimate argument because attempting to procreate with closely related species runs the risk of less fit offspring, sterile offspring or no offspring at all. Two prominent examples of hybrid mating is the mating of a female horse with a male donkey producing the mule and the mating of a male lion with a tigress producing the liger.