Have Humans ‘Won’ Evolution?

In the comments of my last post on evolution and the source of moral law, I had a bit of a back and forth with Matt about whether evolution favors altruism.  I want to single out his comments for two reasons.  First, I thought he displayed admirable humility in admitting he didn’t have the evidence to back up his intuition.  A lack of data didn’t mean he had to give up his opinion (after all, scientists usually aren’t agnostic about what experimental results they expect) and he did a nice job explaining where his expectations came from.  Hurrah for civility!  Hurrah for not assuming every question can only be explored or answered through experiment!

And the second reason I want to highlight his post is because he said something else I really disagreed with in a follow-up.  He wrote:

I’m making the assumption that humans are a cooperative species and then further making the assumption that because they’re “on top,” that it’s good to be cooperative. Which is a bit circular.

My objection isn’t that it’s circular.  Correlation-causation problems can be pretty hard to untangle, so you might end up with only weak evidence.  My problem is Matt’s characterization of humans as “on top.”  Now, as a blatant speciesist (as I’m told we’re now called), I don’t have a problem saying there’s some quality that makes humans better or more worthy of moral consideration than other animals, but I think that criteria is totally orthogonal to the the selection pressures that evolution responds to.

Evolution cares if you survive, and your children survive, and their children survive.  It doesn’t care if any of you create art or build up civilizations.  It doesn’t give you points for causing the deaths of other living things.  So humans aren’t necessarily higher in a rank-ordering by evolutionary fitness than, say, algae, even though it looks like we’re ‘defeating’ plenty of other organisms lower on the food chain.  (And let’s not even get into the bacteria that live happily in our intestines).

In fact, humans are arguable reducing our worth relative to other creatures by the standards of reproductive fitness.  Modern medicine, welfare socialism, etc make it a lot easier to survive evolutionarily disadvantageous conditions.  Instead of submitting to environmental pressures, we just change our environment until we can live comfortably in it.  Down the road, this may get us into trouble if the environment undergoes shifts we can’t reverse and we’re unwilling to modify ourselves.

But I think Matt’s comment wasn’t really meant to be about reproductive fitness narrowly defined.  Success in an evolutionary framework doesn’t feel much like flourishing to us.  We want a definition that recognizes some kind of distinction between us and, say, cholera.  We’ve got a strong intuition that there’s some other metric that we can apply to living creatures.  Hey, I agree, but I don’t think we’ll ever get there from evolutionary biology or psychology.  We have to look to a different discipline.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

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  • anodognosic

    If our moral intuitions rely on our nature, and our nature is evolutionarily contingent, can atheists escape a sort of moral chauvinism? I’m inclined to bite the bullet and say that we can’t, and that we have to go ahead and be speciesist and believe in our moral intuitions for no ultimate reason other than that they are our moral intuitions. I also don’t have a big problem with that. Thoughts?

    • http://www.twitter.com/fodigg Matt

      I think human morality unavoidably has some element of belief in human primacy. Yes, we should resist the urge to safeguard only the species we find cute and cuddly, but at the same time I would feel no moral objections to wiping out the viruses and bacteria that prey on humans.

      I’d argue maintaining samples of even these should we find a use for them later, but as for wiping them out in the wild, oh yes. I think you’d have a moral obligation TO take such an action if it were in your power, and then only because we are human and these things prey on us.

  • Philosoraptor

    My only thought is… well YEAH.

  • Alex Godofsky

    “But I think Matt’s comment wasn’t really meant to be about reproductive fitness narrowly defined. Success in an evolutionary framework doesn’t feel much like flourishing to us. We want a definition that recognizes some kind of distinction between us and, say, cholera. We’ve got a strong intuition that there’s some other metric that we can apply to living creatures. Hey, I agree, but I don’t think we’ll ever get there from evolutionary biology or psychology. We have to look to a different discipline.”

    At some point shouldn’t we just give up and concede that for all we’d like to claim victory over nature, maybe the bacteria really do have us beat?

  • Chris

    “Evolution cares if you survive, and your children survive, and their children survive.”

    —- I would have to disagree with you on this point. Evolution is the RESULT of what survives. Evolution, as a process, doesn’t care which survives, or anything survives – as shown by the vast array of species that didn’t survive. It’s not because “evolution” didn’t want them, it’s because they just didn’t survive.

    Evolution has no goal. It’s not to move one speicies into another, to produce, or to create…it’s a selective process with results that either last or don’t, via “natural selection.”

    That is to say, an evironmental change that “causes” a certain species NOT to survive is not because evolution wanted this to happen. THAT it happened is evolution.

    Thus, that humans are able to cooperate is not the will of evolution – it’s the human behavior resulting of a WANT to carry on. Thus we have succeeded…but someday we may fail to.

    Evolution – doesn’t care either way.

    • leahlibresco

      Yup, this is dead on. I was a little sloppy in my language in because I was talking about factors that are irrelevant to evolutionary selection and it was faster to anthropomorphize and say ‘doesn’t care.’

      • Chris

        In reading the referenced post (response to Wood) I’m not exactly clear on where you sit with morals and science. Harris’ landscape deals only with survival and comfort. Of which I would say morals encompass far more than that – and if “greater good” is the only goal. Doesn’t that leave the “greater good” to be defined only by the greater?

        Or am I way off base. I’m not a great fan of Harris’ explanation, far too many question than answers.

        • Chris

          Evolution and morals. Sorry

        • leahlibresco

          I find Harris’s Landscape extremely unsatisfactory.

          • Chris

            Thanks for the link. I have to admit I haven’t read the book, only seen him summarize it- from your post I don’t feel I’ve missed anything. What I found very interesting though is when he would bring up chess and “good” and “bad” moves and compares the landscape as such. Howe Ed hat he fails to remember is those moves are “good” and “bad” ONLY because of the actual rules of chess. No rules, no chess, no “good” or “bad.”

            Almost by accident he somewhat makes a case for a moral (rule making) authority.

  • TheresaL

    I think you described evolution well, except I’d be more specific and say, “evolution cares if you survive long enough to have as many kids as you can successfully raise to go and have as many kids as they can.” Even if you manage to survive to 150 years old, your fitness is zero if you never have children (except indirect fitness if personal reproduction was sacrificed to raise several close kin).
    When I taught biology labs, some of the students were troubled by this because they didn’t intend to ever have kids but didn’t like hearing that they would be considered completely unfit. But I think their discomfort just came from the use of the term “fitness” which has such a positive connotation. If Darwin had picked a more neutral word, maybe it wouldn’t bother them at all.

  • http://www.twitter.com/fodigg Matt

    Hey, thanks for the response! I’m glad I was able to spark a topic of discussion. I find it interesting that you interpreted my comments in terms of a comparison between reproductive success and being “morally better.” I actually see natural evolution as lacking any moral component, which is what fueled my initial response to the previous topic. When I claimed that humans were “on top” in an evolutionary sense, my meaning was not:

    - that we have superior morality, or
    - that we are “beating” other species, or
    - that our population is the largest, or
    - that our success can never be undone,

    —but simply that we have more control of our evolutionary destiny than any other species to date. We are better situated to not only influence our own evolutionary progress (and therefore safeguard our survival to some degree) but also that of other species around us. I think that evolutionary “success”—though certainly relative compared to our environmental neighbors—has more to do with control than population statistics or birth/death rates. Otherwise we wouldn’t be running the risk of losing-for-winning if our success goes so “horribly right” that we overwhelm our environment, killing off potentially beneficial evolutionary partners and putting our own survival at risk. If humans were able to suddenly limit their population (or even shrink it over time) while encouraging the reproduction of “competing” species—but all this was for our own benefit and survival—I would still see us as “on top” from an evolutionary standpoint because our increased control promotes our continuation as a species. (At least, until it all backfires and we get killed off in the zombie apocalypse.) I feel the fact that we can even consider the consequences of our own evolution as opposed to just abjectly following our reproductive impulses hints at our evolutionary success.

    However, I do believe that when one starts talking about the human RESPONSE to evolutionary forces and the consequences of a growing human population—raising such topics as population management, transhumanism, cooperation with domesticated and wild species, stewardship of the environment, and general quality of life—then you have officially entered the realm of moral debate. That we can consider long-term success vs. short-term success is a sure sign of our intelligence—our greatest tool in the evolutionary struggle—but in exercising that tool we are moving away from the purely “evolutionary biology” realm and considering a more comprehensive definition of “success” than simply evolutionary success. So I do agree with Leah’s conclusion though I stand by my claim that we are evolutionarily dominant.

    (And of course, as I typed the above post about how evolutionarily dominant we are, my wife’s chihuahua repeatedly slapped my leg with her paws until I scooped her up onto my lap out of habit. Hmm.)

  • Loud

    Hmmm. I WOULD say we are on top. Although I doubt that animals can adapt enough to become a new spicies, I don’t completly reject it. Assuming it is ture (since I would have nothing to post about if I didn’t err on the side of openmindedness) Evolution and all that is the developmental prosess of one species changing into another, more highly developed spicies. Saying that “The goal of evolution is reproducing a lot” is like saying “the goal of racing is to run alot”. A large amount of people from one country can keep running without dropping out and still lose to runners who represent another country with less racers. It dosen’t really matter that much if a lot of one particular group finnish the race if another, smaller group fills all the top spots.
    So then, you need another way of deciding who wins, and I would go with the developmental stages of the speicies in question. Think about it. We can live in near any earthly enviroment and have found ways to survive, though not yet live and thrive, in space. We have advanced communication, technology, and more intelligence than your average dolphin. While every other animal seems to have come to a stanstill physically and intellectually, Man’s hight, health, and intellect have improved greatly in the last few hundred years alone. And, intellectually, it seems we might keep expanding for a while yet. Not only are we more highly developed, we are are still developing. Yes, I suppose they, too might be developing. But the animal evolutionary process is SO SLOW that, ulike with man, you have to streach back beyond the reach of written history into the pre-history to find the smallest pieces of evidence of that. Maybe I’m wrong about developmental stages being the meter, but if I’m not, Mankind FTW!

  • @b

    Beyond our intuition that historical facts are helping us to better explain morality (that ethicists are gaining credibility, not being squeezed out of academia proper) is our deeper intuition that one day sufficiently good explanations will in fact seed compelling rhetoric that profoundly improves human behavior en masse.

  • AnonCath

    Do you think another species is debating this same issue somewhere? The fact is that humans are simply incomparable to all other creatures because of our ability to reason and thus control our environment unlike any other living creature. Health care preserves lives, aborts them, creates them in test tubes; social movements encourage or prevent offspring. The rules are simply too different to make this conversation meaningful in any way. I find a far more fascinating discussion would be about if Evolution in the Darwinian sense even applies–why or why not, and what those implications are–rather than assuming it does and discuss if we are winning it.


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