Humanist Morality & Evolutionary Drag

Humanist Morality & Evolutionary Drag November 16, 2019

All morality is Humanistic.

Religion has been a key historical vehicle for promoting morality.  But morality has had nothing other than a human source,  never an otherworldly source.

As Humanists like to say,  no God ever gave humanity a moral rule;  humans thought up the moral rules.  And the font of morality is biology,  not theology.

Darwin espied the origin of morality in the fact that Natural Selection bequeathed to most species a healthy dose of inhibitions.  Successful species are inhibited from mortally harming all fellow members of their species. Members of a species may kill some among the species, but a species cannot prosper by killing itself off.

And more than that,  a species cannot thrive without cooperation and sympathy among its fellows.  We humans did not get to the current height of our evolutionary ascendancy and dominance by being inherently awful to each other.

Inhibitions,  and the drive toward cooperation and sympathy,  are the biological roots of what became,  over many,  many thousands of years,  moral dictates.

But consider the curious case that our moral rules often outstrip our biological capabilities.  That is,  humans devise lofty moral rules that the human biological organism cannot perform.

In mind we aim high,  in body we limp along.  We bend our bows and aim a mile beyond the moon,  but our strength lifts the arrows merely to a nearby field.

Let’s call this tendency to devise lofty moral rules that humans cannot perform  Evolutionary  Drag.  And here is one notorious example of evolutionary drag,  of devising lofty moral rules that humans cannot perform:

In the last few thousand years humans offered moral codes aiming to direct behavior toward licit sexual expression.  But over and over again humanity has had difficulty living up to these sexual codes.

The idea of evolutionary drag explains this by saying that millions of years of the evolution of sexual attraction and the biological urge to propagate cannot be easily blunted by behavioral norms arriving a few thousand years ago.

(It is a bawdy planet and has been so for many millions of years,  but our sexual rules would wish,  against Nature,  to spay and geld the late-teens of our species.)

Another example of evolutionary drag,  of devising lofty moral rules that humans cannot perform,  might be this:

There is a contemporary desire among some Humanists to eliminate world hunger,  since humanity appears to possess the operational means to do so.  This is certainly an elevated moral ideal.  But evolutionary drag prevents humanity from realizing this ideal,  because for hundreds of thousands of years our species endured deprivation,  and during that time humans shared food with immediate family only,  or perhaps only with the tribe;  humans did not share food with strangers,  not with all members of the species.

The residue of this ancient stinginess is the evolutionary drag keeping us from realizing the lofty moral goal of eliminating world hunger.

Evolutionary drag is a dark realization,  but perhaps we should imagine a brighter future.

Maybe we humans are at the beginning of the human story and nowhere near its end.  Maybe a hundred thousand more years of human evolution will permit humanity to shed evolutionary drag and either align moral sensibilities with biological capabilities or align biological capabilities with moral sensibilities.

We should make that our hope.  We hope that some day humanity will rise to the moral heights it has imagined for itself,  because otherwise Nature presents us with a jolting contradiction:

Nature allows humanity to see the potential moral excellence in all human actions,  but Nature does not allow humanity to achieve moral excellence in all human actions.

Not  just  yet.


Featured  image  ‘EVOLUTION’  by  Romano Guidotti  via  Flickr


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