A Short History of Evolution: Morality

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This article is part of Carl Coon’s “A Short History of Evolution” series. Click here to see all the articles in this series.

Our “short history” outlines the case for the scientific view that life and human civilization evolved without divine intervention. With evolution as our central theme, we identified a chain of events that leads from the primordial soup to my sitting here writing this explanation. The evidence for most of these events comes from such subjects as astronomy, cell research, climatology, paleoarcheology, and, of course, the historical record.

In this chapter we shall discuss certain moral and philosophical issues that have been bothering thoughtful people for thousands of years. We cannot possibly try to summarize the substance of their arguments and conclusions in this short narrative, but I hope to demonstrate that our understanding of evolution can provide fresh perspectives on some of them.


The Origin and Evolution of Morality

We can infer that our remote ancestors began to develop a human sense of right and wrong behavior after they left the jungles of Southern Africa and learned to survive as bipedal hunters. The change to monogamy goes back to this period as far as we know, and so does the practice of sharing kills of the larger mammals with the group as a whole, rather than just feeding the immediate family. These behavioral changes must have evolved symbiotically with the physical changes the archeological record shows for that ancient era when the switch to savannah life occurred.

Much later, erectus and its cousins developed fire and, here and there, the first signs of ritual burial. However, morality as we know it probably remained only latent until sapiens arrived on the scene, and language evolved along with altruism, making possible the evolution of larger societies. When reciprocity and reputation entered the equation, concepts were needed to describe whether individuals could be trusted. Morality provided those concepts, with the concepts of good and evil as standards for judging behavior.

When groups became larger and more complex, the concepts of good and evil proved useful for a lot more than gossip within the group. Simple village-level ways of judging others didn’t work too well at the tribal level and hardly worked at all when wars produced empires and people dealt regularly with strangers. Concepts of right and wrong grew more complex and were supplemented by legal systems and other means of coercion. Religion emerged, and then nationalism, to support the new multi-tiered societal structures.

Morality, in short, evolved along with other features of cultural evolution, not as an isolated phenomenon. It was both an enabler of other kinds of evolution and was enabled by them.


Human Nature

Human nature as generally understood covers behavior that is innate, not learned. You cannot change how your genes are encoded, though you can usually override their instructions as necessary—this is a large part of what civilization is all about. But when learning something “comes natural” the whole learning process becomes quicker, easier, and more durable.

The accuracy with which genes transmit information is now well established and is a foundational concept for our understanding of evolution. We define life itself in terms of genetic descent. Nevertheless, where we used to see a sharp line between behavior that is transmitted genetically and that which is learned, or between  nature and nurture in common parlance, we now see a zone, an area that exists in between like the intertidal area between land and sea. There is a good bit of research going on at present into how this zone between nature and nurture works.

Biological evolution proceeds at a much slower tempo than cultural evolution, and efforts to change human behavior take a lot longer when that behavior is part of human nature. Most of us are fully aware of this distinction when applying it to individuals, but less so when dealing with whole societies. Mao Tse Tung tried to alter the human nature of a whole nation in a generation, with catastrophic results.


Salvation and Original Sin

Any good stew starts with solid ingredients. When paternalistic, belligerent, war-prone religions evolved out of the Neolithic era, the old recipes weren’t enough. One of the new ingredients was the idea of salvation, which worked by embellishing the ancient belief in life after death with the proviso that you have to earn your ticket by following the rules before you can go to heaven.

One way to spice up the idea of salvation was to add the idea of redemption. But who needs redemption and why? What is there to redeem? One answer is the idea of original sin, which tells us that we have to work at redemption, for if you’re born a sinner you can’t go to heaven automatically, you have to earn it. This rather harsh view of human nature was seized on by Christians, who made it a central pillar of their faith. This idea persists today, largely within Christian denominations.

The concept of original sin has no place in humanist thought. We do not believe a child is born guilty of anything. There are more humane ways of encouraging responsible social behavior.


Free Will, Infinity, and Divinity

All through this narrative we’ve been dealing with issues of scale. To get even an inkling of what was going on when the first life on earth began, we had to think in terms of hundreds of millions of years. But that scale was useless when we looked for clues to explain the origin of our species. There we had to pull back our zoom lens and survey the scene in terms of hundreds of thousands of years. A scale of thousands of years served for the Paleolithic and perhaps the early Neolithic eras, and after that we started measuring history in centuries. Now we have the daily news.

The same principle applies to space. We need a very different focal lens to view atomic particles from the ones we use to peer outward at galaxies, and in between there is a small slice of the space continuum that constitutes the world we grew up in.

Scientists help us extend our reach from atoms to galaxies and from microseconds to eons, but for most of us, the small slice of time and space we inhabit is enough. We are preoccupied with our own time/space bubble, and while explorations outside it can be interesting and have sometimes proved useful, we usually leave them to the specialists.

Nevertheless, the concept of infinity has always troubled us. If the world we live in is composed of things that result from prior causes, which in turn were caused by something else and so on, can you go back in time and space to a first cause or do you just keep on going, and where does it all end? This is simply one way to express the basic paradox of infinity, which forms the basis for the issue of free will versus determinism. Am I responsible for actions that were caused by other events in a chain of causation that goes back indefinitely?

One conclusion that emerges from our study of evolution is that humans are most likely the first and only species to worry about this issue. The paradox that lies at its core is a product of the human capacity for abstract thought, not something that actually exists in the space/time continuum we inhabit. We might conclude, on this basis, that it isn’t important.

But it is, because perplexity over infinity leads us all too often to belief in divinity. We see things happening that we now know can be explained but only with different lenses on our camera, and those lacking those lenses usually invoke supernatural causes. Galileo got in trouble with the Jesuits partly because he questioned dogma about the nature of infinitely small entities.1 Most people still believe that if you keep pushing long enough, you’ll eventually get to some root cause. Since they don’t know what else to call it, they call it divine.

Nothing we have learned equips us to answer the paradox embodied in the idea of infinity, but we now can put it in better perspective. If we can consider free will and divinity as issues arising from the paradox, and see them in an evolutionary context, we can conclude that the paradox itself is insoluble and can stop worrying about it. We have plenty of other issues that need our attention more urgently.

[1] Alexander, Amir, Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World, New York 2014

Click here to see all articles in Carl Coon’s “A Short History of Evolution” series.