Posted on March 24, 2019

Is Morality Nothing More than an Evolutionary Strategy?

Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, April 1995

The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life, Robert Wright, Pantheon Books, 1994, 466 pp.

Sociobiology, the discipline named after E. O. Wilson’s 1975 book of that name, claims that evolution can explain not only human biology but human behavior. It was a decisive departure from the view that has dominated social science for most of this century: that there is essentially no such thing as “human nature,” and that behavior is determined by environment.

A view so utterly and obviously wrong prevailed only with the help of radical egalitarianism. Since sociobiology was an open attack on the foundations of egalitarianism, it had to be driven underground amidst accusations of racism and sexism. Happily, as Robert Wright explains in The Moral Animal, it has been quietly thriving even while its practitioners cover their tracks by calling themselves evolutionary psychologists or Darwinian anthropologists rather than sociobiologists. Mr. Wright’s book is an illuminating survey of recent work in the field, with a particular concentration on theories about the origin of moral values.

The Moral Animal- Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life, Robert Wright

The Primacy of Evolution

“If psychologists want to understand the processes that shape the human mind, they must understand the process that shaped the human species,” writes Mr. Wright. This restatement of the premise of sociobiology—that behavior has genetic and evolutionary origins—has received strong confirmation in recent studies described in these pages (see, especially, Aug., 1993 and Dec., 1994). Behavior, just like physiology, appears to be the result of millions of years of random experiments, in which only the useful results were kept.

Evolution can be most easily understood at the level of the gene, not the group or the individual. A tree or a man or a virus can then be seen as a vehicle for carrying genetic information into the next generation. It is only genetic information that is potentially immortal; evolution operates for its benefit, and only indirectly for that of the organisms that carry it. The entire living universe can therefore be understood as a vast battlefield, in which organisms engage in constant struggle in the service of the genes they carry. A gene that confers a physical or behavioral advantage that helps its carriers survive and reproduce ensures the gene’s survival; one that confers no advantage comes to a dead end when its carrier dies or fails to reproduce.

As Mr. Wright explains, it is evolution that has done most of the “thinking” in nature. Bees do not build combs of hexagonal cells because every bee determines for itself that this is a good idea. Evolutionary theory holds that building honey combs is something that bees stumbled upon only after endless generations of trial and error. The mutation that produced this useful behavior spread through the population because it helped its carriers survive and reproduce.

All animal behavior can be explained this way. Squirrels store nuts for the winter because genes that make squirrels store nuts help squirrels survive. Evolution has done the “thinking;” squirrels just store the nuts.

Though many people refuse even to consider the possibility, human behavior is likewise the result of countless generations of trial and error that have produced very sophisticated strategies for keeping genes in circulation. Although humans are self-conscious in a way that no other animal is, they are often no more aware than bees or squirrels of the evolutionary “thinking” that underlies their behavior.

For example, men think they “want” children, but, as Mr. Wright explains, evolution designed the process for the benefit of genes, not men. Men have sex because they are driven by their genes to do so. Most of the time they are not thinking about children at all; they just want sex. They then find that they love the little bundle that appears nine months later. Both the sex-seeking and the carrier’s love for its children are powerful strategies the genes have designed to ensure that new copies of themselves are first made, and then loved and looked after until the new carrier can make yet more copies.

Whether the carrier is happy or sad about any of this is of no concern to the genes, which, of course, have no consciousness whatever. The entire process is the result of an infinite number of accidents, in which survival is the final criterion—not because survival itself is in any sense good, but only because it is the criterion that keeps genes, and therefore behavior, in circulation.

The Battle of the Sexes

Sociobiological analysis particularly illuminates human sexual behavior. Although both sexes can be seen as packages of genes looking for opportunities to make more packages of themselves, biological differences between men and women ensure that they view sex in radically different ways. In Mr. Wright’s view, they might as well be two different species that view the other merely as sources of reproductive resources.

For men, every act of copulation, including rape, is one more chance for their genes to be reproduced. Sex has virtually no debilitating or time-consuming consequences, so men can be expected to have evolved an omnivorous interest in copulating with any and every fertile woman. (They can also be expected to have little interest in having sex with old, infertile women, since that is a reproductive waste of time.)

For women, sex is a much more serious undertaking. While the number of children a promiscuous man can have is practically unlimited, a woman can usually have no more than a dozen. Reproduction also ties her down to a brood of very demanding young in a process that is much more likely to be successful if she can persuade a man to stick around and help. Women have therefore evolved to be much more choosy about sex partners. Their instincts are to seek commitment rather than recreational sex, because in the environment in which they evolved, sex without a man’s commitment could leave them all alone with small mouths to feed. Ancient proto-human females that were casual about sex partners probably froze or starved to death along with their children—which snuffed out the casualness along with the genes that caused it.

Mr. Wright reports that someone has bothered to test the obvious: When an attractive woman approached men on a college campus and offered to have immediate sex, three fourths of her prospects agreed. Not one woman agreed to a similar offer from an attractive man.

Consciously or not, men cloak their short-term sexual interests in the appearance of long-term attachment. As Mr. Wright puts it, “natural selection may favor males that are good at deceiving females about their future devotion and favor females that are good at spotting deception.”

Infidelity has different genetic consequences for men and women. From an evolutionary point of view, there is no greater fool than the cuckold, who lavishes paternal care on a little package of genes not his own. This accounts for the great ferocity with which men punish female infidelity; they have a deep, evolutionary revulsion for it.

Women can be expected to have a somewhat greater tolerance for male philandering because it can never leave them looking after a child they think is their own but is not. Women are much more threatened by the prospect of mates deserting them and caring for babies they may have with other women.

It is probably male revulsion for the consequences of cuckoldry that explains why, in every society, women who are sexually loose are alluring short-term prospects but not thought to be good marriage material. Mr. Wright explains that the “Madonna-whore” message encoded in male genes may be something like this:

If you find a woman who appears genetically suitable for investment, start spending lots of time with her. If she seems quite taken by you, and yet remains sexually aloof, stick with her. If, on the other hand, she seems eager for sex right away, then by all means oblige her. But if the sex does come that easily, you might want to shift from investment mode into exploitation mode. Her eagerness could mean she’ll always be an easy seduction—not a desirable quality in a wife.

Feminists and liberals are likely to say that contraception has changed all this, and, of course, it can change the consequences of sex. However, the instincts that drive men and women are, in the short term, immutable. Any attempt to build society on assumptions that ignore them will only sow confusion and misery.

The Moral Animal

Mr. Wright casts evolutionary light on a great many interesting questions—who benefits from monogamy, why people make friends, the purpose of righteous indignation, why hierarchy is inevitable—but perhaps the most interesting question is why people sometimes behave morally.

When animals sacrifice their own interests for those of others biologists call it altruism. The sacrifice of parents for children is easily explained: it promotes the parents’ genes. There is even genetic utility in dying for one’s kin, if this saves enough lives and enough copies of shared genes.

But what about altruism directed towards non-kin? As Mr. Wright explains, for some time evolutionists thought in terms of group selection. When there was a battle between bands of hunter-gatherers, the group that had members willing to take risks to save the group was more likely to rout a band whose members operated every-man-for-himself. Lately, the more common view is that stranger altruism probably evolved like virtually all other behavior: in the service of the individual and his genes. Sacrifice and cooperation that arose for the benefit of kin groups slowly broadened to include non-kin.

The reason is that for almost all individuals, cooperation is more beneficial than constant competition and exploitation because cooperation so often leaves both parties better off than they were before. A job that is impossible for one man is often easy for two or three; all are better off in a system based on seeking and returning favors.

In Mr. Wright’s view, what passes for morality is still very much in the service of the genes. From an evolutionary point of view, helpfulness to others is a kind of bargain-hunting, in which a man’s willingness to cooperate is instinctively calibrated to the likelihood and usefulness of the pay-back. As Mr. Wright points out, people tend to be indulgent towards those who are in positions to help us and more demanding of those who are not.

Even feelings of guilt are evolutionarily useful. They remind us that we owe favors that could be profitably returned. Guilt is also the prompting that keeps us doing the things that maintain our reputation. Reputation affects status, which translates into ability to secure mates and provide for children.

Mr. Wright points out that stranger altruism is different from kin altruism in a very important way. Kin altruism must be real sacrifice in order to benefit the right genes, but the mere appearance of stranger altruism may be enough to elicit favors in return. For example, it does little genetic good to pretend to have made great sacrifices for one’s own children if they died anyway. However, a carefully constructed—though false-reputation for helping neighbors can be very useful. Thus, human beings probably have an instinctive desire to keep their reputations clean and they are often willing to make real sacrifices to do it. It would appear, therefore, that man is by nature cooperative but only when there is something in it for him. He is also entirely capable of theft and double-cross when he thinks he can get away with it.

Although Mr. Wright only hints at this, as the different human groups evolved they probably developed different instinctual levels of cooperation. As Prof. Levin explains elsewhere in this issue, tropical Africa was probably not an environment in which cooperation was as crucial to survival as it was in colder climates. When groups that appear to have different levels of cooperation come into contact, friction is inevitable.

That morality may be instinctual has other provocative implications. It may be that the sense of mutual obligation that all men feel, and to which many transcendental moralists appeal as proof of the existence of God or of objective morality, is just one more gene-propagating device like lust and hunger. Mr. Wright suggests that humans may have made a fetish out of what appears to be altruism but is really just another self-serving genetic strategy. If bees had a religion they might worship the hexagon, believing that an evolutionary accident had mystical powers.

Mr. Wright makes a strong case for his view. After all, one of the functions of the human mind is to devise rationalizations that throw a moral cover over selfish behavior. Once humans gained a certain level of self-consciousness, it became useful to encourage others to believe in a transcendent moral authority that had the power to punish sinners who were beyond the reach of human retribution. If everyone believed in it, everyone benefited from the moral behavior that ensued. Even non-believers had reason to encourage others to believe, since they benefited from society’s standards but could violate them privately.

If genes are at the root of behavior that has always been thought to be in the service of a higher power, eliminating the higher power eliminates free will. If man is a mere product of evolution just as animals are, the only sources of all his actions must be genes and environment. The illusion of free will arises from the fact that men are often no more able than bees or squirrels to fathom their own genetic predispositions, and from the diffuse and subtle way environment and the memory of past environments act upon the mind.

As Mr. Wright points out, if all human actions are the inevitable products of heredity and environment, neither blame nor praise are justified, because men are no more capable than animals of choosing vice or virtue. Paradoxically, punishment and praise are still vital parts of the environment because they are essential for training humans just as they are for training animals.

Sentimental Liberalism

Since Mr. Wright is a senior editor of The New Republic, his environment probably conspired with his genes to reduce him, in the end, to advocating a morality of universal brotherhood that he admits runs directly counter to everything he says about human nature. He says that even if there is no transcendent power that directs us to do so, we should try to love all humans, no matter how alien, just as we love ourselves. Along with a breezy, gee-whiz style and some unnecessary digressions into the private life of Charles Darwin, this sudden retreat into the arms of universalism detracts from an otherwise absorbing book.

Mr. Wright rejects out of hand the obvious form of conscious morality that can be derived from the trial-and-error morality that evolution appears to have produced. Until welfare threw the process into reverse, evolution had a clear, upward direction. A firm believer in evolution like Mr. Wright should have no trouble embracing a morality that directs our species towards ever-greater achievements, variety, and capabilities. As he points out, it has taken only about 5,000 generations of dogs to breed Saint Bernards and Chihuahuas from the ancestral wolf. Social policies are breeding policies, and evolutionists have few excuses for pretending otherwise.

The Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin understood this more than 40 years ago:

So far we have certainly allowed our race to develop at random, and we have given too little thought to the question of what medical and moral factors must replace the crude forces of natural selection should we suppress them. In the course of the coming centuries it is indisputable that a nobly human form of eugenics, on a standard worthy of our personalities, should be discovered and developed.

The great, self-destructive irony is that in the very era when the evolutionary process that formed our species is more widely studied and accepted than ever before, governments are sabotaging that process. Mr. Wright’s book is a fascinating summary of current thinking in sociobiology but his conclusions are part of the intellectual atmosphere that drove it underground.