Evolution is not a Reason

Evolution is an account, but not a reason. 

It is common these days to for scientistic reductionists of various stripes to make claims of the type, “X came about because of evolution. It is intersubjective in the sense that it arises from a transpersonal procedure, that has affected the whole species; but it is nevertheless basically adventitious – i.e., false – and therefore open to my preferred ad hoc revisions without fault or blame.” For X, substitute human morality, sex roles, social organizations, religious experience, what have you. The assertion is tendentious, because it is made in the interest of knocking down the counterargument that there are such things as objective morality, sex roles, and so forth, that, precisely by virtue of their objectivity, impose limitations on what we may properly do, which it is evil to transgress. Those who make such arguments want to rationalize their immoral project of putting the whole human order up for wholesale revision on account of the supposition that that “order” (sic) is nothing more than the meaningless product of a continuous process of essentially random, amoral wholesale revision. 

They won’t want you to take their arguments as a justification for making off with their televisions or their wives. But they do want you to take them as sufficient justification for their sexual proclivities. 

But note that to say “X came about because of evolution” is only to say, “X came about because X came about.” “Evolution” in that sentence is not an explanation of what came about: it just is what came about, period full stop. Nor is the process of evolution capable of explaining anything; for “the process of evolution” is just another way of saying, “the way things happen.” It tells us nothing about why things happen, or happened. I.e., it doesn’t tell us the reasons that things happen, or happened; doesn’t tell us the logic that informs what happens. To say that X happened because of evolution is just to say that X happened because X happened. It’s obtuse.   

This does not at all mean that the research programs of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology are bootless. On the contrary: if there are certain things that seem to go along with the practice of being human, or of being human in society, that should indicate to us not that such practices are meaningless and unfounded, but precisely the contrary. If iterated natural selection is anything other than chaotic noise, it is a way of fitting humanity to the world by a procedure of trial and error. It is a method of learning; and learning is always about something, so that if natural selection is producing an actual order in humanity, that order addresses and responds appropriately to – i.e., is proper to – the nature of reality. When, e.g., evolutionary psychology tells us that women generally prefer to mate with men who show a good likelihood of being able to provide for them and defend them, we may infer that it is objectively better for men to support and protect their wives, than not; i.e., that the preference that men should be providers and defenders is built into the world

Ditto for the research program of comparative religion. That many cultures worship a god who rises again from the holocaust of his sacrifice should tell us, not that Christianity is nonsense like all the other Corn King religions, but that there is something about the notion of sacrificial death and resurrection that is profoundly true. It should prompt us, not to dismiss the Resurrection, but to take it with much greater seriousness. The same may be said for the universal belief in angels, gods, demons, demi-gods, humans who become gods, shades of ancestors who must be honored and may help us, and so forth; and for the universal belief in prayer. 

That almost all human cultures have traditionally believed in angels, or objective morality, or a Most High God, should not persuade us to jettison such notions, any more than the fact that all human cultures have traditionally credited the color blue, the pull of gravity, and the taste of sweetness should persuade us that there is nothing in reality to which they properly correspond. That men all see who are not blind does not mean that there is no such thing as light.

25 thoughts on “Evolution is not a Reason

  1. Indeed, evolution is not itself a reason at all for anything. However saying that… say… morality evolved because it conferred an advantage in biological fitness is, at least in theory, a testable hypothesis. The more I read of evolutionary psychology (and I don’t read much mind you), the more I am convinced that the entire field of study was founded to prove traditional morality correct… or at least biologically advantageous, which is probably the most science could ever say anyway.

    And if the evolutionary model is correct, then why on earth would that which developed over eons of human history NOT somehow represent an advantageous equlibrium? Doesn’t exactly work as a solid rational confirmation of traditionalism… but it’s really unlikely to EVER prove it wrong.

    • “morality evolved because it conferred an advantage in biological fitness is, at least in theory, a testable hypothesis”

      Problematic.
      1) Evolution being a historic and contingent process does not usually generate testable hypotheses.
      2) Casual use of the word “morality”.
      Understood properly, the idea “morality evolved” is perhaps not meaningful.

      • There are multiple related senses of the word morality. Surely objective observers could agree upon some minimal measures of “morality”, e.g., taboo, tribal mores, social norms. Just because there is more to morality than that doesn’t mean that there is less.

        A testable hypothesis does not, strictly speaking, require repeatability. The hypothesis could be something more like, If X is true, we should find evidence of Y in paleolithic dig sites or some such thing. It’s not as hard as physics, but its solider than hand-waving and just-so stories.

      • The word morality is used too casually in evo science. That is because it is not the word the philosophers use. The definition philosophers (and almost every other human of history) uses is the transcendent universally objectively true one. Evolution by itself has no accout for this definition.

        I always wonder why evolutionists pick and chose their primate/ancestral/evolutionary moralities. Evolution doesn’t say which moralities we should uphold. Some saw we should behave a certain way because it has worked for the apes. Many say some animals are gay, so gay is OK. I wonder why we don’t feel comfortable with women practicing decapitation and cannibalism shortly after copulation?

      • Bohemund,
        We can distinguish between a Law of Human Nature and moral codes that are instantiations of the Law of Human Nature in particular places and times.

        Now The Law of Human Nature can only change if the human nature itself changes.
        DeWe Defining humans as rational animals, we exclude pre-human ancestors (assuming the evolution of man). Thus the Law of Human Nature does not change given the rational nature of the humans.

      • I realize (I think) what you’re getting at Vishmehr… I’m just saying that there are things that a part of morality, that everyone everywhere objectively recognizes as being part of morality, that are to a significant degree measurable–in other words that yield to an empirical study.

        That some people falsely believe observable, measurable social customs to be the entirety of morality does not change this fact. That some people, falsely believing social customs to be the entirety of morality, and then using this false belief to derive norms for human behavior which are against the Natural Law, again, also does not change this fact.

        It is, I think, no more offense to morality, understood in its totality as deriving from both Natural and Divine Revelation, to conceive of parts of it evolving through natural means any more than it is an offense to True Religion, again derived from both Natural and Divine Revelation, to believe it too may have, in part, evolved naturally.

      • Indeed, that was part of what I was trying to get at in this post. If morality is objective, then the fit of humanity’s mores thereto, mediated by natural selection, is *just what we should expect to discover* happening in the world. The analogy is to light. We have eyes because light is real. By analogy, we have moral sensibilities at all only because morality is real, and conforming ourselves thereto confers biological advantage. If morality were not objectively real, then moral behaviour could not confer any reproductive advantage, except by random, meaningless accident. Materialists want to argue that this is just the way that righteousness does provide its advantages. But this assertion implies that the random meaningless accident of that reproductive advantage occur again and again and again, in fact virtually all the time. And that’s very difficult to credit. It would be as if we looked at a clock we knew was not running at all, and found that it told the right time 99 trials out of 100, no matter when the trials occurred.

      • Kristor, Bohemund,

        I do not believe that the theory of Evolution through Natural Selection aka reproductive advantage explains all animal behavior, let alone the idea of applying this to human behavior and morality.

        The Natural Law is a facet of Love; at the most basic it says Have Charity and Do What you Will.

        I do not understand the motivations trying to link Charity with reproductive advantage, now or in past. This enterprise, I believe to be unproductive and misleading –individually it could not lead to holiness; intellectually, it is dubious to harmonize with classical philosophy; politically, it goes to discredited and discreditable swamps of social darwinism and eugenics.

      • Vishmehr:

        I do not understand the motivations trying to link Charity with reproductive advantage, now or in past.

        Does charity generally (obviously I don’t mean in every. single. case…) confer a biological advantage or not? If not, what then are God’s promise of blessing to Israel if they obeyed his commands? Love of neighbor, faithfulness to wife and family, honor, courage, temperance, &c., confer no reproductive advantage to the virtuous? Absolutely none? A god who demanded such “virtue” would be capricious indeed I think…

        The Natural Law is a facet of Love; at the most basic it says Have Charity and Do What you Will.

        Are we to believe, then, that what we will, assuming regeneration and the knowledge of God’s will, is utterly divorced from our own natural history? Every single tiny little thing that we will? Are you a believer in Total Depravity or something? [And if so, how can I trust your answer… heh…]

        I do not believe that the theory of Evolution through Natural Selection aka reproductive advantage explains all animal behavior

        Well no one was really arguing that it explained all animal behavior, but in principle, if we somehow knew enough (doubtful in practice), it could… It obviously could not explain all behavior of rational creatures, however, because it cannot explain rationality. But that doesn’t mean it could not (or in fact, does not) explain the animal impulses of such creatures.

      • I do not believe that the theory of Evolution through Natural Selection aka reproductive advantage explains all animal behavior, let alone the idea of applying this to human behavior and morality.

        But the whole post was about how the theory of evolution doesn’t provide a proper explanation of any aspect of animal behavior. It provides only an account of animal behavior, and a proposal about how it came to be. In that sense, Bohemund is right to say that natural selection can in principle provide an intelligible account of living creatures. It can show how organisms make sense given their history and their environment.

        But there’s no way natural selection could have constrained populations toward righteousness as reproductively advantageous a posteriori if righteousness were not inherently good a priori. If righteousness were not good a priori, it could not anywise be good a posteriori, or in any other way – i.e., it could not have helped anyone, or any population, flourish. Yet if we ask whether, mutatis mutandis, a predominantly righteous population is likely to prevail over a predominantly wicked competitor, the question answers itself: yes, of course!

        Again, the righteousness is not righteous because it is a trait of a population that has just happened to prevail over its competitors and the other hazards of existence. On the contrary, the population has prevailed because it has been righteous. The advantage that follows from righteousness is due to the fact that righteousness conforms an organism to the real moral structure of the world, in just the same way that sight conforms an organism to the real electromagnetic structure of the world. As the spectrum had to be there in the first place before sight could confer advantage by informing the animal about opaque regions of its environment, so the moral structure of the world had to be there in the first place, in order for a population to capture an advantage by fitting itself thereto.

        Thus it is not evolution that explains morality, but rather the moral structure of the universe – of the Natural Law – that explains the general creaturely nisus toward the good, which in turn shaped the course of evolution. Morality accounts for facticity, and not vice versa.

        NB that I’m pretty sure I am agreeing with you here.

      • Bohemund,

        At an individual level, Charity has and can not have any tendency to individual reproductive advantage. Charity is about mortifying the biological self. One becomes a priest or is killed off in a remote mission.

        At most a charitable family man has reproductive advantage vis a vis a mob of nihilists but that’s a low bar.

        There is also no reason to think that Israel enjoyed any particular reproductive advantage vis-a-vis other long lived nations. Note that Hindus now exceed more than one billion and also Chinese.

      • Charity is about mortifying the biological self. One becomes a priest or is killed off in a remote mission.

        That’s just crap. So the married state is NOT, after all, a vocation? So the zeroth commandment is, after all, abrogated? So the historic inability of the saintly Christians to deal with human sexuality is not an embarrassing defect but a norm for us?

        Charity might very well be “about” mortifying in our biological selves those things which war against the spirit, but not about mortifying the biological self, per se. That sounds dangerously gnostic… Are you sure you don’t believe in Total Depravity? Becoming a priest or being killed off in a remote mission is one way, and not a sure way by the way, to sanctity. Being a devoted breeder might very well be another… and besides the Church can only get saints… if they’re BORN.

    • What is reason for what simply depends on what one chooses to base one’s thinking on. If you choose Christianity as your base of thinking, that’s fine. But I can, and do, choose evolution as the base of mine and this does result in the exact same traditional morality as you point out. I have written an article on this – Human Evolution – that I hope the open minded here will read.

    • There is also no reason to think that Israel enjoyed any particular reproductive advantage vis a vis other long lived nations. Note that Hindus now exceed more than one billion and also Chinese.

      Well… they rather famously didn’t follow God’s law very well. You could make an argument (I won’t) that Hindus and Chinese followed it better. Look, the observation that virtue leads to success is so old, universal, and well-established that it appears to be completely self-evident. The only unique insight that Christian revelation brings to the question is that it sometimes does not. Cf. King David on the issue.

      • And you equate success with reproductive advantage?
        And a Christian martyr a failure then?

      • You do understand, Vishmehr, the difference between mean and variance, right?

        Obviously, success tends (i.e., on average, i.e., stereotypically) to confer reproductive advantage…

        Obviously, a Christian martyr is no failure spiritually speaking, i.e., in the way that matters most, but if they die without children, then their genes die with them… and that may be a net negative for the world left behind only to the extent that their martyr genes (if they exist) might have further benefited others via their progeny. There is, of course, no reason especially to expect that any particular martyr dies before reproducing (however unsaintly such an activity might appear to some)…

  2. This argument is emotional not rational. Natural earthly things tend not to be considered as special as things that are supernatural. By giving X a natural origin it is intended to make it seem less sacred or special. There is nothing logically against X both having a natural origin and being real and transcendant, but the argument works on a emotional level because it does tend to take the shine off of whatever you are talking about.

    • Right! The very most basic aspect of existence – the fact of existence itself – we totally take for granted. We almost never even notice it. But it is such fundamental things that are the spookiest and weirdest of all.

      As Lewis said, “Nature is the system of miracles to which we have grown accustomed.” Or something like that.

  3. “objective morality, or a Most High God”

    Interestingly, not all cultures have believed in these things.

    • Yeah (I changed the post to read “almost all” human cultures). But not all men are interested in women, either. That doesn’t mean that heterosexuality is not woven into the order of reality as the proper relation between the sexes, or that homosexuality is not a disorder. Homosexualists like to point to homosexuality in some animals as evidence that some homosexuality in a population of animals is not abnormal. Which may be true, but is totally beside the point. That disease is common doesn’t make it a form of ease.

      Most cultures have not believed in quantum mechanics. That doesn’t mean quantum mechanics isn’t true. If high civilization keeps on long enough, we may suppose that eventually most people will come to have confidence in quantum mechanics – actually, those who rely on transistors already do. So likewise with the Most High God – that some cultures seem not to have discovered him doesn’t mean those that did are wrong.

      But in any case, historians of religion have as I understand it recently jettisoned the notion that religion originally began with a primitive animism, as anthropologists have discovered that most polytheisms had a Most High God.

      Mind you, I’m not disagreeing with you here. Just ruminating.

  4. Hey I currently focus my studies on other topics. Maybe someone can throw me a bone: have we a good explanation of how mutations occur? Specifically, has the notion that phenotype can mutate genotype been discarded or strengthened? Have we observed helpful mutations in nature occurring which result in new functions or new organs (vice adaptations of existing abilities or tolerances- which constitute the extent of any observed “mutations” I was able to find previously)?

    The steelhead salmon has fascinated me because the theory is that they are related or the same as the rainbow trout. Except one can live in the open ocean. That is a HUGE adaptation that intrigues my biologist friend.

  5. There are a couple of other factors too.

    One is that natural selection refers to adaptation in the past – under the ‘ancestral’ conditions when selection occurred. Just because we were adapted to a past society does not mean those adaptations still work.

    Secondly, adaptation refers to reproductive success, which ultimately refers to gene frequencies – adaptation does not necessarily have anything to do with health and happiness, except in so far as H*H are means to the end of reproductive success.

    (The example I often use is that men will, on average, live longer if castrated – but this will of course drastically reduce their reproductive success…)

    The most obvious example of all this is high intelligence in women. At some places and times it seems clear that higher intelligence in women was associated with higher reproductive success (probably due to lower mortality of offspring) hence was adaptive – but in the modern secular West higher intelligence is associated with lower reproductive success due sub-replacement fertility, and so high intelligence has become objectively maladaptive.

    Even though higher intelligence is associated with longer life and better health, it is still maladaptive in modern situations.

    (This picture is very clear for women even within Western societies, but the picture is less obvious among men unless you look across the whole world, comparing between countries, when the maladaptiveness of higher intelligence also becomes obvious.)

    Yet even if all the above is true, as I think it is, other forces are at work too, and the maladaptive effect of higher intelligence can be overcome – by traditional orthodox religiousness (e.g. Amish, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and also by Mormons).

    In sum, evolutionary psychology is very interesting! – but does not provide moral clarity let alone guidance, nor even much of an idea of ‘natural law’ – too many caveats and complexities, too many simplifications, too many other factors, too much conflict between what makes humans long-lived/ healthy/ happy and what is good for reproduction.

  6. True religion, if followed, will not be biologically maladaptive for society as a whole.

    False religions will be maladpative to some extent, which may (or may not) show up in measurable social statistics, fraught as they are with innumerable cross-correlations.

    Such maladaptations as occur due to false religions may nevertheless be less pathological than in the case of a society possessing true religion but following it poorly. It just depends.

  7. Dear Kristor, I think you don’t fully understand evolution. It is random only in the sense that a shot fired at a crowd hits someone randomly, yet it is caused by the man who pulled the trigger, not by chance. Evolution is about radioactive particles hitting our genes, causing genetic damage, which results in mutation, which is tested through natural selection. The cause is well-known: radioactivity. Not just “evolution” or “random chance”.

    • Thanks for your comment, Miklos. I do actually understand the neo-Darwinian hypothesis of radioactively generated mutation; I got it back in sixth grade, in the third paragraph of my first lesson on Darwinism. But if you read the post over again carefully, you’ll notice that it isn’t about mutagenesis at all. Indeed it is totally silent on that question. It is, rather, about natural selection, which – being the assertion that things that don’t work so well don’t succeed as well as things that do work well – is, not just common sense, but tautologically true.

      If you mean to argue that evolution is not random, then – I agree! Random phenomena cannot be understood at all. This does not prevent many apologists for neo-Darwinism from insisting that evolution proceeds randomly. It was that silly, self-refuting assertion I was interested to demolish. To reiterate my main point: if natural selection is more than random noise, it is a means whereby the created order brings forth those forms it prefers, and destroys those it does not. If in other words there is really at work in evolutionary history something we can accurately call “selection,” then evolution is *guided.* Selection among alternatives according to some order *just is* guidance.

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