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.