Evolution Is A Descriptive Model, Not A Prescriptive One

Biological evolution is a remarkably cruel process. Evolution selects against the least fit among an environment’s populations and species over time. By selecting against the unfit, it kills the infant and disabled animals in the herd, and species that are prey are subject to deaths that are particularly violent and gruesome. As if that isn’t enough, evolution has produced consciousness and the existence of pain, forcing us to be viscerally of aware of our suffering (especially if we are in the process of being selected against).

 

The naturalistic origins of mankind stand in stark contrast to religious and folkloric creation myths. In the Abrahamic faiths we are created in the image of (ostensibly) the most moral being possible in the cosmos. He has a chosen people who he guides from one couple to a large, flourishing tribe. In addition to this, he gave us his word and scripture to help us make the best decisions while we are alive.

 

Within a creationist worldview, our conscience, our culture, our family, our upbringing, and our moral code is part and parcel with the origin of our existence: a divine creator. It comes as no surprise, then, that one objection to evolution from creationists is a moral one. By taking away their perceived origin of existence, you also take away their moral source, and replace it with a system that appears cruel and merciless. To a creationist, it’s internally coherent to believe that an atheist’s moral code is simply whatever behavior evolution produces.

 

To be clear, evolution has given us a sense of moral intuition*. Evolution isn’t as simple as the strong beating out the weak; it selects fit populations within specific environments. Many fit populations include social species of animals (including us), and it is beneficial for those populations to select against antisocial behaviors. These include behaviors like cheating, stealing from, and killing other members of the population. By producing a social species, evolution has selected for behaviors that are predisposed towards helping other members of the species, strengthening the population as a whole.

 

Those, however, are instinctual behaviors. We can recognize that most humans have no drive to harm or kill each other on a regular basis. However, even as I strive to be the best person possible, I recognize that my impulses can easily lead me astray. It occurs to me more often than I’d like to lie to my advisor, cheat my coworkers, and walk away anonymously if I accidentally scratch a stranger’s car. Actionss that harm fellow members of my species are well within the range of expected human behavior.

 

To those of us who understand evolution, of course, we recognize that evolution is not a moral code. While evolution has “decided” what populations survive and which ones die out, this is not a proclamation of what humans ought to do. Evolution is a description of what has happened, and not a prescription. We can look back at our prehistory and acknowledge what the evidence tells us has happened without endorsing it as a model for everyday behavior.

 

It’s not uncommon for apologists to bring up evolution and nature when they are discussing morality with a nonbeliever. To them, we have no ultimate model for being good people. If we are naturalists, all we accept is the natural world, and the natural world is horribly cruel. By extension, our moral code must be similarly cruel, and we must necessarily be prioritizing the strong over the weak, as evolution demands.

 

However, as a species that has dominion over the Earth, so to speak, we no longer have a need to prioritize survival above all else. This changes the game substantially. Instead of mere survival, we can focus on making that survival worthwhile, and making our brief existence in the sun worth living. And, obviously, we don’t need to rely solely on ancient teachings to guide us.

 

Among nonbelievers, there does appear to be a wide range of disagreement on moral issues. Does the concept of objective moral judgements make sense, and if so, how do we assess these moral truths? I frequently find myself in the minority when I promote moral realism among fellow nonbelievers, and atheists are no strangers to strong infighting when it comes to moral and political disagreement.

 

Despite us disagreeing on ultimate moral foundations, many of us end up finding value in some very important moral concepts. We recognize that humans as a species wish to avoid suffering and death, and we have ways of eschewing both through naturalistic means. These have been developed through centuries of philosophical and ethical thought from religious and nonreligious thinkers alike. In my years of nonbelief, I have never met an atheist who openly promoted appealing to evolution to make moral decisions.

 

Biological evolution is a terrible model for how we should approach day-to-day behavior, and by my estimate, few people actually set it up as a moral foundation. Developing a world where we minimize suffering remains a challenge for our species, but we might get there one day. It does not seem evident that selection-based mechanisms are the answer. We have a word for actively selecting against certain populations of our species, and we call it genocide.

 

While evolution is a poor model for morality, this doesn’t mean we can’t use evolution to solve problems. We don’t even need to apply it within the confines of biology (where understanding evolution has helped us make advances in fields such as medicine and agriculture).

 

Below is an example video that explains how a neural network can “learn” to play a video game through “genetic” randomization and selecting against poor variants.

 

 

The code behind the program randomly selects connections between objects on the screen and which buttons the program should push at what times. The “fitness” is defined as the distance that Mario travels in the level. Each generation involves varying the programmed decisions that the previous generation makes. Once another variation in programming increases the fitness of the algorithm (by traveling farther), then that particular variation is “selected” and the program begins making variations on that variation, until an even better version develops.

 

A video game is a trivial example of a problem to be solved via evolution, but it’s not hard to come up with other problems. One could use the same problem to solve a real-world task, and define “fitness” by how efficiently a robot completes a task, teaching it generation by generation to perform the task better over time.

 

In the physical sciences computational models like these can also be used to solve scientific problems. In my field of chemical engineering, I’ve seen it used to determine the best sorts of alloys and materials to function in a desired way.

 

While computers aren’t perfect physical models, it can be helpful for a computer to iteratively simulate and vary parameters until it optimizes a defined fitness function. Computers can iterate much more rapidly than humans can (and without spending money on materials), and help us in rational design processes. This can get us to a pretty good starting point before we spend even a minute or any resources on an experiment.

 

Of course, good performance depends on how we define fitness. If we define fitness poorly (or we don’t implement proper boundary conditions for a program), we can get emergent behaviors that are undesirable. One example may be found in the video below, where an artificial intelligence with humanlike anatomy learned to “walk” by using its head as a leg.

 

 

While I have no knowledge on the specific algorithms implemented, my guess is that the programmers defined fitness by “speed”, and each new generation is a slight variation on a slightly slower model. By my estimate, they probably started the program as a clean slate. The program had no concept of how to move, so the program had to teach itself. An early generation probably discovered that if the character laid down and moved its head cyclically, it could help push the body along the floor.

 

In real life, this would be horribly unfit behavior for the bodies we have. We would be more susceptible to damage to our vertebrae and it would probably cause many back problems, among many other problems that our body wouldn’t put up with. But since the program’s anatomy isn’t restricted to the physics of muscle and bone and the program doesn’t conceive of pain, then rather unnatural motions of cranial walking are no longer selected against.

 

The program wasn’t “wrong”. Through random chance, it simply happened to develop a sense of motion that wasn’t selected against within the confines of the program. It probably isn’t even the fastest way to move within the game physics, seeing as other programs have succeeded in  teaching humanoids to walk or even run**. This particular example was going off the best of the previous generation, which may not have been the fastest possible variation anyway. It just happened to be the variation that wasn’t selected against.

 

We are aware that the winners in these systems aren’t the “best” for any given metric, they are simply fit enough to continue. An appeal to evolutionary fitness is somewhat like an unholy marriage between an appeal to nature and an appeal to tradition. A system that selects against unfit populations isn’t necessarily separating the wheat from the chaff, it is simply searching for something that is fit within the constraints provided.

 

We would be best to recognize this in systems involving competition and dying off. A competitive free market doesn’t necessarily pick the business that provides the best service, it simply selects for businesses whose practices are fit for current economic conditions. Providing an unfettered platform for every viewpoint doesn’t necessarily cause the ideas with more truth value to catch on, it selects for ideas that can be marketed well and sound appealing.

 

One curious example of this appeal to evolution comes from internet celebrity Jordan Peterson, who is not an atheist. On his first appearance on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast he appealed to a type of Darwinian truth, where something’s truth value rested on its outcome. This is to the extent that two identical laboratories studying smallpox would have a different conception of truth if one happened to accidentally leak the virus and kill half the global population on a fluke accident.

 

On his second appearance, Peterson described religion through a similar evolutionary lens. According to him, an innate aspect of human behavior is to practice religions, which provide archetypal narratives and traditions that develop over time and give us a sense of meaning. Due to the longevity of these archetypal narratives, religions have proved themselves as valid moral foundations.***

 

Interestingly, I think it’s apparent that religions have developed in an evolutionary manner, I simply disagree with Peterson that this gives any insight to their validity. The cults that flourished tended to be ones that either retain members or evangelize well enough. A cult that maintained a dogma of “live-and-let-live” probably would not last as long as a culture of dependency on church authorities.

 

The religions still around today are ones that were not selected against, and we can see the mechanisms by which they maintained their fitness. Churches today provide in-group comfort, a sense that the church is the only way to eternal salvation, a promise of an eternal afterlife, and access to spiritual truth (that conveniently only religious authorities can provide).

 

Most readers of this blog can recognize easily that religions are robust only in the sense that they have found a social niche and have firmly grown roots. This says nothing about their truth value, the institution of religion only survives as a function of survival within the confines of societal behavior.

 

We must recognize that an appeal to evolution is fallacious. While evolution is true, and implementing evolutionary algorithms can lead us to discover certain truths about nature, we must be cautious about inferring exactly what these truths are. In many cases, the only truth to be gleaned is that organisms within these systems tend to flourish. If we are trying to measure morality or truth or some other value, perhaps we can make more robust assessments with an alternative metric.

 

Fortunately, when it comes to morality, most atheists appeal to something beyond evolved behavior. Whether it’s a deontological set of moral rights or an appeal to positive or negative consequences, we don’t need to consult chaotic natural predation to have a firm moral foundation.


After proofreading this, I realize that I might have implied that evolutionary algorithms and “learning” neural networks are directly analogous to evolution in that every generation is “better” and the previous one dies off. These are common misconceptions that creationists have about evolution. Without disrupting the flow of the essay by inserting another paragraph, I will simply clarify here. Some offspring may not flourish as well as their parents in a given environment, yet still be fit enough to reproduce. Furthermore, while there will be genetic variations from parents to offspring, the genetic makeup of the population can remain fairly stable. Offshoots from this population can both survive, and as such we can “still have monkeys” and humans, since monkeys and humans both share a common ancestor from long ago.

 

*Obligatory link to Frans de Waal’s Ted Talk on moral behavior in animals, which is almost a cliché when referencing natural moral behavior.

 

**These programs were probably initialized where the first generation contained some preprogrammed behaviors like being able to stand. These initial conditions can drastically affect later generations.

 

***If anyone thinks I am in anyway misrepresenting him, by all means, please say so in the comments and please clarify what he means. His belief in religious archetypes is something that comes up in multiple appearances of his, not just Waking Up, yet when I describe his behavior I am accused of misrepresenting him and told to watch more videos of his. Further viewings don’t appear to reveal his message beyond this understanding, at least from my vantage point. While I hate to be uncharitable, this leads me to believe that he is either intentionally an obscurantist or simply a poor communicator, but I am open to good faith explanations.

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