Can Evolutionary Biology and Naturalism Provide a Foundation for Morality?


From Tom Stoppard’s play “The Hard Problem”

Naturalism, physicalism, and materialism are synonyms. They are names for a truncated metaphysics that omits any notion of transcendence and divinity. Someone might try to take dualism seriously without God; a dualism that posits material reality, and consciousness as a separate substance with its own substantial reality. But this would mean recognizing that there is something nonphysical and invisible that cannot be explained by science and operates in independence from purely physical forces. In other words, a spiritual reality. Most materialists recognize this and have been leery of even using the word “consciousness.” At the present moment, for some reason, some percentage of analytic philosophers are willing to use David Chalmers’ phrase “the hard problem” to refer to the puzzle of how subjective awareness could arise from the lump of meat in a sentient creature’s head. Positing a giant mystery at the center of human existence is a dangerous game for a materialist. They will find the hard problem to be an indigestible lump that spells the death knell for their physicalist complacency. By accepting that it is a problem at all, they are effectively admitting defeat. If the hard problem were a gift, they would be wise to return to sender. Daniel Dennett puts it thus: “I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the 2way that dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.”[1]


Programmatically, not accepting dualism might not be a bad idea for a scientist. If a scientists were to admit that consciousness is just a total mystery this might limit further investigations into brain science. However, for someone who is supposed to be a philosopher and thus to be devoted to the pursuit of truth, not pragmatism, Dennett’s attitude is remiss. If the truth is that consciousness is a mystery, Dennett is being unphilosophical. But, since he is a positivist – the position that only scientific truths are true – this pushes him to identify with the research scientist. It is always a puzzle why positivists do not simply explicitly abandon philosophy, which they are have already done, and put on a lab coat and take up real science.

Nihilism is the obvious consequence of materialism. Bertrand Russell writes:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collisions of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human


Bertrand Russell

genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system; and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be built.[2]


Richard Dawkins concurs and contends:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you don’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”[3]

Dawkins is still pretending that evolution works through random genetic mutations and natural selection. He is committed to this because biologists, in their war with creationists, spent decades claiming that Neo-Darwinism was settled, accepted science, and it is most embarrassing to have to admit that he, and others like him, were wrong. Most proper research biologists, and especially physiologists, no longer believe the random mutation, natural selection notion. We know now that cells edit their own DNA in a process called “transposition,” and they purposefully acquire new characteristics from one cell to another in response to environmental pressures through horizontal 4gene transfer, which can occur between any type of cell and any other. It happens in real time, quickly, in some cases within minutes, allowing an entire population of bacteria, for instance, to become immune to an antibiotic within twenty minutes of exposure to the drug. Epigenetics grays out parts of the genome, again due to environmental factors, and these changes to the genome are passed down to offspring. None of this is random nor purposeless, but intentional. Speciation can also occur through symbiogenesis, two separate organisms merging as happened with chloroplasts in plant cells, and mitochondria in animal cells, and through hybridization, also known as genome duplication, neither of which are connected to random mutations. See Evolution 2.0.

Francis Crick writes “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”[3a] The fact that this thought itself must then be “no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules” and thus not be worthy of being taken seriously does not seem to have occurred to Crick.


Gustav Doré – Dante’s Inferno

Despite the ineluctable consequences of materialism, saying “Abandon hope all who enter here,” the sign above the entrance to Dante’s depiction of hell, is bad advertising for a metaphysical position. So, some materialists try to salvage some scrap of meaning from their nihilistic assumptions, which, of course, will end in failure.

One such attempt is to try to found morality on a naturalistic foundation. This cannot be done for a number of reasons. One is that materialism implies determinism. Determinism is the notion that every physical event has a physical cause and given the cause the effect is unavoidable. Human brains are physical objects, and all events in the brain are then the result of some prior event. All of reality is the inevitable outcome of the first cause which could be considered to be the Big Bang. As such, all events, thoughts, feelings, actions, are just part of an enormous sequence of physical processes. Humans feel like they are agents, centers of conscious decision-making, but this is strictly an illusion. Every thought, feeling, action was predetermined by physical forces arising at the moment of the Big Bang and the emergence of time and space. As such we can take neither credit nor blame for our actions, thus moral responsibility, for good or evil, does not exist. Sam Harris, in a podcast, stated that there is some necessary connection between the existence of the individual and freedom.[4] He is right. Harris, however, believes that the ego/individual is an illusion and thus so is freedom. This view is consistent with the notion of reality as a giant stream of inexorable physical forces stemming from the past and moving into the future.

To get the philosophical ball rolling, the notion of determinism has to be put to one side by the materialist in search for biological foundations for morality. Even having done this, immediate problems arise in that science is the study of objective reality, and “objective” can be defined as that which is measurable. “Science” is a particular mode of looking at the world and it cannot “see” the qualitative. It cannot see consciousness, emotion, love, beauty, goodness, right and wrong, value, purpose, or meaning. That is why science, left to its own devices, is nihilistic. Of course, actual scientists in real life cannot be nihilistic in their pursuit of scientific truths. They have to have faith and hope that the universe is fundamentally intelligible; that it makes sense and is accessible to human reason and experimental discovery. This cannot be proven before the fact. The nature of 96% of physical reality is unknown to us, according to physicists. Just 4% of matter is “regular” matter that can be seen. 96% of physical reality is supposed to be some combination of “dark” matter and “dark” energy – the word “dark” there being a place-holder and means “we do not know.” This means that science is a human activity that takes place in the larger context of human life. But to have this thought, it is necessary to acknowledge that science has severe limitations because it, ultimately, can only access physical reality. But that is precisely the thesis of physicalism – that “real” reality is physical and all phenomena can ultimately be reduced to the physical. The “mind,” for instance, is really just the brain, which can, in principle, be duplicated by silicon, artificial neurons, and the like.

Biology, since it is a science, is just not going to be able to find morality at all. Morality is a quality of actions, not a quantity. So, inevitably, in the process of biology trying to “explain” morality, it is going to end up explaining it away.

For instance, “love” for a biologist could either be defined functionally – love is that which bonds mates of certain species together to maximize the welfare of offspring – which would already be too soft and gooey for most biologists and I have personally never read a biologist suggesting this. Or, love could be reduced to a release of certain hormones in the brain, such as oxytocin, testosterone (sexual desire), or maybe dopamine. This is called “reductionism.” Reductionism claims that an otherwise puzzling, complex phenomenon can be reduced to a simpler component of the phenomenon without loss. A pithy rejoinder to such attempts was stated by Bishop Butler thus, “Everything is what it is, and not another thing.” Love is not a hormone; it is


Joseph Butler

love. It is partly a subjective feeling, partly a disposition to want to be near someone, to want to act in another person’s best interests, and, biologically, there might often be a hormone associated with the feeling. It is also a mystery. It can be puzzling whom we end up loving and whom we do not. In romantic love, there will also be respect, admiration, and trust. There will be a moral evaluation, as well as intellectual. Introducing your boyfriend by saying “This is my boyfriend, he’s a real dumbass;” or, “he’s a real jerk,” means you do not love him, because you do not respect and admire him.


If love were just a hormone, it would be boring and worthless and be of no real interest. Here is First Corinthians, Chapter 13:

13 If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Biological reductionists would have to rewrite it as:

13 If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but my brain does not secrete the hormone oxytocin, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but my brain does not secrete the hormone oxytocin, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but my brain does not secrete the hormone oxytocin, I gain nothing.

The hormone oxytocin is patient, the hormone oxytocin is kind. Oxytocin does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Those whose oxytocin levels are high do not delight in evil but rejoice with the truth. Those with elevated oxytocin levels always protect, always trust, always hope, always persevere. [Wouldn’t that be great?]

Elevated oxytocin levels never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and elevated oxytocin levels. But the greatest of these is elevated oxytocin levels.

The only interesting and meaningful position with regard to morality is moral realism. Moral realism is the notion that good and evil actually exist. Laws against murdering the innocent, rape, assault, theft, embezzlement, fraud, arson, etc. recognize that these things are actually morally wrong, not simply inconvenient. Moral realism entails that the statement “murder is wrong” is actually true, and “lying should be generally encouraged” is incorrect.

However, the most looking at morality from a biological perspective is going to be able to do is to claim that morality is useful. It is useful to think that murder is wrong and that lying is to be discouraged. Any society that abandoned these precepts would cease to exist within minutes. Everyone would simply kill each other and the minimal trust that is necessary between friends, family members, communities, and business transactions would be ruined by lies.

Since morality is supposed to have a normative aspect – i.e., having to do with what people should do, if morality is not actually true, there is no reason to act in accordance with it. If fire-breathing dragons do not exist, there is no need to buy and wear an asbestos suit for protection. If morality is a fraudulent sham, there is absolutely no need to obey its maxims.

The biologist can reply that morality is not true, but it is a useful fiction. In other words, it is good to pretend that morality is true. But this is simply to assume the truth of moral realism again; namely that it is actually good to do what is good. If goodness and evil do not exist it is not at all good to pretend morality is real.

Additionally, the concept of “useful” has to do with a means to an end. If the end has no value, then neither do the means. Extrinsic value is parasitic on intrinsic value. If human life has no intrinsic value, then something that promotes human flourishing, has no extrinsic value either. Biology cannot begin to account for the existence of intrinsic value, and therefore cannot identify extrinsic value either. Intrinsic value is an intrusion of the divine and transcendent into ordinary reality. If God by his very nature is good and divine, and we are made in His image and likeness, then we too have intrinsic worth.

Human beings and many lower animals seem to be born with the ability to perceive that fairness, justice, and thus reciprocity are good and true. A two-year old knows that it is not fair if his twin brother gets an ice cream twice the size of his. And a capuchin monkey will violently object if his fellow monkey is given a tasty grape instead of an insipid piece of cucumber for doing the same task. If I drive you to the airport, then it is only fair if, at a later date, you drive me to the airport. Reciprocity involves one person being in debt to the other and then paying that debt by performing a similar service in a never-ending cycle ideally bonding the two people forever.

This intuitive understanding of fairness cannot be put in syllogistic form. It cannot be proven argumentatively. If I buy you a cup of your favorite coffee, and you punch me in the face, that is not fair. If someone sees nothing objectionable in that scenario then he is a moral imbecile, and a sociopath. Goedel’s theorem proves that not all truths can be proven to be true. And axioms are self-evidently true and cannot be proven. Either you recognize that P = P or you do not. If you do not recognize that if something is equal to anything it is equal to itself, then there is nothing left to say. The goodness of fairness and reciprocity is axiomatic. Our minds, not being mere algorithm following devices, can perceive the truth of reciprocity as a virtue. How we can do that is a mystery. Plato’s suggestion was that we have perceived the form of justice in the life between incarnations and we can be reminded of this vision during the course of living. Whatever the explanation, the goodness and truth of fairness, of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is as clear to us as very nearly anything is. It is certainly clearer to us than the results of theorizing.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argues that being moral is useful in small 10communities.

“Natural selection favors genes that predispose individuals, in relationships of asymmetric need and opportunity, to give when they can, and to solicit giving when they can’t. It also favors tendencies to remember obligations, bear grudges, police exchange relationships and punish cheats who take, but don’t give when their turn comes.”[5]

It should be noted that there is no evidence that “natural selection” and “genes” have anything to do with this. If it were possible to point to the part of the genome that is responsible for believing that reciprocity is good and true, then it should also be possible to point to the part of the genome responsible for thinking that it is possible to point to the parts of the genome to explain our understanding of complex, conceptual, metaphysical truths like the goodness and truth of reciprocity. See John Cleese’s “The Scientists” for an amusing satire of this kind of thinking.

“Reputation is important, and biologists can acknowledge a Darwinian survival value in not just being a good reciprocator but fostering a reputation as a good reciprocator too.”[6]

Being moral has “Darwinian survival value.” Unfortunately, Dawkins cannot prove that surviving has any value, let alone a Darwinian one, whatever that is. In fact, sometimes surviving is definitely immoral. If a prison camp guard orders someone to torture and murder seventeen innocent people or to die himself, then it is time to die. Sometimes being a good and moral person will coincide with a person’s narrow self-interest, and sometimes it will entail losing friends, family, jobs, reputation, and his very life. Boethius points out in The Consolation of Philosophy that it is precisely when morality and narrow self-interest differ that we find out whether we are truly a good person or not.

“We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or “moral” towards each other. First, there is the special case of genetic kinship. Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favors given, and the giving of favors in “anticipation” of payback. Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness. And fourth, if Zahavi is right, there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising.”[7]

Dawkins argues that acting morally and engaging in reciprocity will help to foster a good reputation. You are likely to be seen as good marriage material and people will trust you in trade to keep your end of the bargain. You will get to pass on your genes.

“Could it be that our Good Samaritan urges are misfirings? … I must rush to add that “misfiring” is intended only in a strictly Darwinian sense. It carries no suggestion of the pejorative.

The “mistake” or “by-product” idea, which I am espousing, works like this. Natural selection, in ancestral times when we lived in small and stable bands like baboons, programmed into our brains altruistic urges, alongside sexual urges, hunger urges, xenophobic urges and so on.”[8]


A blessed mistake?

The individual biological benefits of morality, Dawkins contends, only work in small communities where everyone knows each other. In big, modern, cities, people are often relatively anonymous. In that case, our tendency to be moral has no survival value and is a “misfiring.” “Both [sexually desiring an infertile person and morality] are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes.[9] It is a mistake. Being kind and helpful will not be reciprocated and your reputation will not be enhanced.

Nonetheless, Dawkins celebrates the “blessed mistake” of continuing to be moral in large communities. He thinks that it is good that we continue to be good, even in this circumstance. Thus, Dawkins simply reintroduces moral realism into the picture. Having claimed that morality is not true, but is merely useful, he wants to say that being moral is good even when it is not useful. Having supposedly found a biological foundation for morality, Dawkins makes a moral judgment that has no basis in biology according to his own argument.

If moral realism is true, and morality is good even when it does nothing to promote survival or any other biological item, then trying to find a biological basis for morality is a wild goose chase and entirely pointless. If you are sitting on a huge pile of gold, there is no need to prove that gold exists.

[1] Dennett, Daniel, (1991), Consciousness Explained, Little, Brown, Boston, p. 37.

[2] Burtt E. A., (1932) The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, Kegan Paul, Trench and Traubner, London, p. 9.

[3] Dawkins R., (1995) “River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life,” BasicBooks, p.133

[3a] Crick (1994) The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, Simon and Shuster, London, p. 3.

[4] In the same podcast Harris and his wife discuss when they should tell their children that determinism is true – hypocritically imagining that they have any choice in the matter.

[5] Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006, p. 217

[6]Dawkins, p. 218

[7] Dawkins, pp. 219-220

[8] Ibid.

[9] p. 221.

18 thoughts on “Can Evolutionary Biology and Naturalism Provide a Foundation for Morality?

  1. Pingback: Can Evolutionary Biology and Naturalism Provide a Foundation for Morality? | Reaction Times

  2. Positivist accounts of morality cannot work as a deep foundation, but can work as approximation heuristics. The model of trying to predict someone’s future behavior from their past behavior and seeing if that implies he is dangerous for us or not does cover many cases of moral judgements. The issue is that practically all normal people would and should be dangerous to us if we were to try to do something very immoral to them, so it simply pushes the philosophical problem to judging how we ourselves should behave morally in ways that moral people will not react with violence. When a murderer is released from prison and settles somewhere, the neighbors can work up a nice bit of moral panic about him, they predict he might kill someone, but the point is, anyone would and should kill someone given a good reason e.g. self-defense, what they are moral panicking about is that the murderer might kill someone without a good reason, like taking his favorite parking spot. So what they are implicitly saying is that they themselves have such moral rules as they would not attack someone, forcing him to do self-defense, but they do consider any free parking spot fair game and do not find it immoral to take it. So it does not really solve the philosophical problem, but helps approximating it, because we can assume the average homeowner is probably not a particularly bad guy.

    I agree that deep foundations must be philosophical and at some level metaphysical, not quite in the “God sent a fax” sense but more like written into the fabric of the universe roughly how mathemathical laws of physics are written into the fabric of the universe.

    That is a similar kind of problem. Are Newtonian, Einsteinian equations true or just they happen to be good models, spitting out working predictions? Good but not true models are basically a form of statistical curve-fitting. Measure the height of 1000 young men, get a Bell curve, fiddle with equations until they fit the curve, and then you have a useful prediction machine for telling how many recruits are short enough to fit into a tank. Very useful, but lacks understanding what causes people to be short or tall, genes, vitamins etc. This is how models that aren’t true, just useful prediction machines work. Do Einstein’s equations only work on this level? Well, I am not an expert, but my gut feeling is that no, they are better than a statistical prediction machine. Which implies they are actually true. But that implies the universe itself runs on something like those equations, it does have an internal logic like that. Seriously, the easiest way would be to assume we are living in a simulation. Physicists simply reverse-engineer the source code of the simulated universe around us. In such a situation, the equations work because they are true, they reflect the equations out in the source code of the universe. And in a similar way, useful morality reflects true morality. Is there even a big difference between the universe-as-simulation theories and all religious, theistic theories? They are actually pretty close to each other IMHO.

    BTW the worst kind of “scientism” about morality is the “mirror neurons” theory. That because we cannot run a simulation of someone else’s brain, best way to predict someone’s behavior is to ask ourselves what we would do in their shoes. Which leads to empathy. It probably does, but empathy does not imply morality and it is quite weird and ridiculous how it is usually assumed it does. Empathic prediction of the behavior of others is a skill every succesful warlord had to have all through prehistory and history. One has to predict what tactics the enemy warlord is going to use. Yet, a warlord can still order captives to be massacred and then he can just walk away to not watch it, in order to not feel sympathetic pain. Or maybe he just holds a stiff upper lip and deals with the sympathetic pain. Or maybe after the Nth massacre he is desensitized to sympathetic pain. The idea that empathy leads to morality because we want to avoid this sympathetic pain is ridiculous, it only works for people who are really squeamish and quite weak, have a low psychological pain tolerance. My grandma regularly bought live chicken and killed them for cooking by cutting the throat, the carotid artery, I suspect 90% of urban liberals would be too squeamish to do that. Yet, all it takes is watching it a few times to get desensitized to it. And the same way, people do get desensitized to doing the worst kind of atrocities to people, too. Empathy doesn’t really work for the purpose of morality.

  3. I spoke today with someone who attended an event with Dawkins last week. He was asked five times about morality and its roots and he laughed it off each time, refusing to engage with the question.

  4. I՚m a naturalist and I honestly don՚t see any problem with consicousness or morality having a material basis. It՚s a hard problem for people who don՚t understand computation and systems, or for people with a theistic or similar agenda.

    Admittedly, it՚s only because I՚ve been thinking about the problem in the context of computation for 40 years or so. I don՚t think I have the energy to convince anybody who doesn՚t have that kind of background. I՚d recommend the book Vehicles by Valentino Braitenberg as the best introduction to this way of thinking. More advanced students may wish to read Good and Real by Gary Drescher which explicitly addresses the question of material foundations for morality.

    Those without a technical bent may come to the same insights via the Buddhist path. The teachings on emptiness (Anatta) are extremely compatible, and This is a form of eliminativism with a religious context that might make it more digestable than the kind found in philosophy of mind.

    • I’m a (retired) computer programmer, and I realised the impossibility of consciousness arising from material systems by thinking about how to program consciousness. When you start to think along those lines, you realise the absurdity of it, and I have yet to see anything that even starts to address the question.

  5. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 10/13/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores


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