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Letters to the Editor

Moral evolution

January 27, 2007

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To the editor:

In a recent letter it was claimed that evolution "has not and cannot" provide a moral compass. This assertion is completely and utterly false.

Evolution states that mutations in the DNA of a species allow that species to change, allowing that species to survive. It is simple how a moral compass would allow a species to survive. If a series of mutations occurred over many generations that created mirror neurons in the brain that allow an animal to feel the same emotions that you see on someone else's face, you would then be hesitant to kill others of your species. This means more babies are being produced and the species thrives.

As you can see, evolution can explain this and any queries about the creation of humans and all other living organisms on earth.

Nathan Rosenbloom,

Lawrence

Comments

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 2 months ago

Having said that, the actual eempirical evidence for kin selection is scant and not very convincing, and as Das_uber states, there is much literature to the contrary.

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yourworstnightmare 7 years, 2 months ago

Souki,

Naural selection happens at the level of the individual (e.g. does that individual survive to pass on his/her genes)? However, kin slection arguments state that individuals with shared genes (kin) will help each other survive and reproduce (empathy/altruism).

Dawkins' "selfish gene" ideas fit this theory nicely.

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Das_Ubermime 7 years, 2 months ago

There is a large body of scientific literature dealing with the errors in group selectionist thinking. Would you like references?

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Souki 7 years, 2 months ago

"Ah, but evolution of a trait only occurs when that trait confers a benefit to the reproductive success of an individual/gene. As such, it does not matter what advantage a trait confers to a species."

That isn't true. It's possible for groups of individuals -- populations or whole species -- to have reproductive advantages that each individual in the group does not possess alone. This is why evolution is something that happens to groups, not individuals.

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budwhysir 7 years, 2 months ago

Does anyone know what time it is??/

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Marion Lynn 7 years, 2 months ago

I am amazed at the numbers of primitive people which live in a theoretically advanced society.

Thanks.

Marion.

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jonas 7 years, 2 months ago

crono: Ahhhh. . . but taking such a thing, and then refining it, based on a knowledge of what humans ARE, that would be true progress, would it not?

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Das_Ubermime 7 years, 2 months ago

Souki,

"Natural selection is focused, to use your word, on the survival of genes of a particular individual, but evolution doesn't happen to individuals. It happens to species. Rosenbloom isn't suggesting that natural selection can explain morality but that evolution can."

Ah, but evolution of a trait only occurs when that trait confers a benefit to the reproductive success of an individual/gene. As such, it does not matter what advantage a trait confers to a species.

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crono 7 years, 2 months ago

Science can only describe what is---not what ought to be. Morality inherently involves questions of what ought to be. Thus, a code of morality cannot be derived solely through empirical science.

Scientists proudly tout evolution as a scientific theory. Any attempt to derive a satisfactory code of morality from evolutionary theory is doomed to fail.

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Souki 7 years, 2 months ago

Crono has his science and his logic wrong.

"First, you seem to misunderstand the essence of naturalistic evolution, specifically natural selection. Natural selection is not focused on species survival, but rather the survival of the genes of a particular individual within a species."

Natural selection is focused, to use your word, on the survival of genes of a particular individual, but evolution doesn't happen to individuals. It happens to species. Rosenbloom isn't suggesting that natural selection can explain morality but that evolution can.

"In other words, social Darwinism would suggest that I don't care about the genes of the rest of humanity as much as I care about my own. While I suppose an argument could be made that natural selection could lead toward the desire to preserve those that share genes with me (e.g., my children, my parents, my siblings), in other situations it is clear that such a force would not push an individual to use resources to ensure another's survival (what we would typically think of as "empathy") that could be otherwise use to secure the individual's own survival."

What you're talking about here isn't social Darwinism at all. But more imporant, you're confusing yourself and your survival with your genes and their survival. These are very different things, and understanding that leads to an understanding of such moral behavior as a parent's investing heavily in his children's survival.

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DuQuesne 7 years, 2 months ago

I would just say that we who claim the apex of creation - evolved to that position or otherwise having ascended to it - are capable of determining right and wrong independent of any great sky-god spirit/totem/whatever. Not having a thower of lightening bolts to keep us in line does not affect our ability to find where that line is.

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Jamesaust 7 years, 2 months ago

"Nice summary of "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins."

lol - how much more so if I had read it. Intriguing book recommendation though. I must check it out.

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Das_Ubermime 7 years, 2 months ago

Don't forget monster truck rallies and cow-tipping.

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jonas 7 years, 2 months ago

Das: That's probably true. But then, the only thing really made any better by losing the temperence of reason is Professional Wrestling.

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jonas 7 years, 2 months ago

Anyway, if you want me to disprove your ludicrous idea of the morality of nuclear war and human extinction, fine, here goes.

Morality is not naturalistic. It is a human invention and follows human rules. Thus any attempt to extend morality into nature any farther than how it effects humanity misses the whole point of morality in the first place. Hell, even the Bible says that, in different wording, in the very first book.

Second, the benefits the planet and other animals would recieve from the extinction of humans, if there were any, would be outweighed by the damage done to it in such a scenario.

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jonas 7 years, 2 months ago

whoops, missed part of my first paragraph revision

"and at any rate, until you are willing to clarify, specifically, what you are presenting as your argument in the same fashion as you demand of everybody else, and allowing for what assumptions and logical decisions it demands, I can't see how you expect anything more from anybody else."

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jonas 7 years, 2 months ago

You have no real position, Smith, nor any in-depth argument on which to base any references. I have asked multiple times, on the last thread, for you to answer my read on what you were trying to say, and you did not. Whether that was oversight or not, I would still appreciate a direct answer, and at any rate, until .

I did not call YOU names at all. I said that your argument was empty and absurd, and it was. I'm not going to humor your sensibilities by letting you say outrageous things devoid of any real meaning and pretending that you have made a rational argument.

I have also argued on several occasion with some degree of depth on what I base my code on, and what exists with which to do that other than the bible. In all cases, and with everyone else that has done so, your answer has consisted, though with generally more words, of nothing more than, "You did not use the Bible to do this, so you have not effectively argued your position." You have never, as far as I've read, actually shown WHY they are incorrect, just simple stated that they were and moved on to the next point.

You group a great many different alternative ideas, such as naturalistic order, social concensus, and the like into one grouping, and expect all arguments to somehow magically stick true to all these precepts, without taking any time to consider that these are varying position, and though they are all outside of the bible, making them a correct "us vs. them" scenario, they are no more similar in and of themselves than your position is to any other.

I will clarify, once more, on an alternative system of morality, that has been in effect more much longer than Christianity, and perhaps even the Hebraic principles. It's simple form is the golden rule. The logic behind it, when applied correctly, is as follows: I feel. I feel pain, happiness, fear, etc. These feelings, sensations, and emotions have frequently common sources. IE. I can predict what will cause these emotions within me. Since I am a human, and feel these things, then other humans must, as well, feel these things. Due to similar makeup and circumstances, I can further deduce that the sources of those emotional reactions, I can assume with some degree of accuracy, will remain consistent across other people. Since, in the scheme of things, I am no more important than the other people with whom I deal, by any standards other than personal ones, if I percieve actions that cause me negative feelings, emotions and injuries, I can deduce that those actions will cause the same, by and large, in other people. It is a double-standard, then, to insist that no misery be inflicted upon myself, while at the same time feeling free to inflict misery upon someone else. Doing so assumes, in some way, that I am different than them, and I am not.

Assumptions are necessary, of course. But then assumptions are necessary in all beliefs.

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Das_Ubermime 7 years, 2 months ago

Jonas,

I think that crono's point was that empathy alone is incapable of forming a moral system that people today would be comfortable with. Empathy is simply an emotional response, and like most, dangerous when not used correctly as humans are wont to do. I would posit that empathy without the temperance of reason is a poor system of morals.

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smith 7 years, 2 months ago

If, by absurdity, you mean that his position allows you to make an inference that makes minimal sense, has nothing to do with the conversation at hand, is rediculously extreme, and utterly banal and meaningless, then yes, his position leads to absurdity.

But of course my comments had everything to do with what he said. He made the assertion that his position led to something he would call moral. I argued against that by showing that on the one hand he did not demonstrate a real moral position but that what he actually showed did lead to absurdity. You have provided no argument or position in response to that other than calling names.

Of course, if that's the idea, then ALL positions lead to absurdity. Maybe that's because your argumentative style and compilation of loosely related thoughts is absurd. jonas

Not all positions lead to absurdity. So far you have yet to answer the position and have provided no rational or moral basis for your own. You have not provided any basis from your worldview on why you can even make a judgment on what is or is not absurd since it cannot provide a basis for knowledge and rationality which means it cannot explain anything in and of itself. I guess that leaves you calling names. Calling names is not an argument except for what it says about the position of the person calling them.

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yourworstnightmare 7 years, 2 months ago

JA,

Nice summary of "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins. A brilliant and breakthrough book.

There is much controversy about kin selection (i.e. empathy), but Dawkins' ideas about genes as you describe provide a framework in which to consider kin selection (empathy).

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yourworstnightmare 7 years, 2 months ago

It is helpful to realize that religion and religious thought is a product of human evolution and natural selection.

However, religion, like all selected traits, is context-dependent. A trait that provides a selective advantage in one environment can be a disadvantage in another environment.

The "human environment" has changed remarkably rapidly in the last 10,000 years, transitioning from hunter-gatherer tribal organization to agriculture and technology-based civilization. Our genes have not had the chance to catch up.

Therefore, we have stone-age religious tendencies in our genes but we live in a crowded, agro-technological society.

Now, the remarkable thing about the human brain is that it is plastic and adaptable. We can change our minds and adapt to new environments without changing our genetic makeup. However, the lure of religious belief in our genes is very strong.

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yourworstnightmare 7 years, 2 months ago

smith, your utter lack of sense of irony is amusing.

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jonas 7 years, 2 months ago

"Perhaps humanity is evolving to the point where it would be better for the planet and all other animals for us to all die. If that is so, then according to the view of Rosenbloom it would be ethical to start a nuclear war that would wipe all of humanity off of the map. In other words, his position leads to absurdity."

If, by absurdity, you mean that his position allows you to make an inference that makes minimal sense, has nothing to do with the conversation at hand, is rediculously extreme, and utterly banal and meaningless, then yes, his position leads to absurdity. Of course, if that's the idea, then ALL positions lead to absurdity. Maybe that's because your argumentative style and compilation of loosely related thoughts is absurd.

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jonas 7 years, 2 months ago

"Second, I think we'd all agree that "empathy" is generally a good thing. But for whom? And when? Should the German who feels empathy for the plight of his fellow Germans turn to slaughtering Jews? Should the Shiite who feels empathy for the plight of his fellow Shiites turn to slaughtering Sunnis and Kurds? Should someone who feels empathy for the poor steal goods from The Merc and distribute them accordingly? Should the teacher, seeing that a poor grade causes his student pain, refrain from giving Fs? The judge refrain from punishing criminals? In short, I find "empathy" an altogether unsatisfying determinant of morality."

In virtually all of your examples, you're manipulating empathy towards all humans into empathy towards a sub-category of humans, taking precedence over another sub-category of humans, which is cartainly not a good thing. If culture and race are abandoned as factors making one group more valid than another, and if someone really considers what empathy towards humanity really requires in all it's aspects, it becomes quite an effective moral compass. Certainly not an absolute, but then religion doesn't provide an absolute, non-contradictory point of view on morality as well.

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smith 7 years, 2 months ago

As you can see, evolution can explain this and any queries about the creation of humans and all other living organisms on earth. Rosenbloom

He has failed to show what morality is in any real sense as well as why an individual would be obligated to follow it in any sense. It is assumed that it is moral for a species to survive when that cannot be shown from a natutalistic worldview. Perhaps humanity is evolving to the point where it would be better for the planet and all other animals for us to all die. If that is so, then according to the view of Rosenbloom it would be ethical to start a nuclear war that would wipe all of humanity off of the map. In other words, his position leads to absurdity.

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Jamesaust 7 years, 2 months ago

"While I suppose an argument could be made that natural selection could lead toward the desire to preserve those that share genes with me (e.g., my children, my parents, my siblings)..."

I suppose this argument could be made too, especially seeing that it is constantly made.

Perhaps the bridge within this disagreement is to start with the thesis 'crono' has laid out (with which I largely agree) and then recognize that the genes shared with siblings are - from an evolutionary viewpoint (an abstraction to be sure) - almost all the same genes not only in cousins, or second-cousins, but also in a outreaching ring of relations beyond our traditional linguistic ability to name. In short, for 99% of the evolutionary history of human beings, one's larger 'clan' (not the species, mind you) carried the same genes as 'crono' gives credence to in much closer relations.

Thus, what is called "empathy" may also be thought of as an instinctive reaction of a single individual to take actions that have no direct reproductive benefit for him/herself but do have a benefit for his/her GENES' common replication within others - even far removed others. A 'morality' if you will.

Pushed past the close-knit evolutionary context - the one present in the modern world of the last several thousand years - a world where peoples migrated between regions - persons disperse, or are dispersed to the ends of the earth within a single lifetime, or a single day! - those instinctual 'empathy' actions may make increasingly "weak" evolutionary sense but evolution has not been given time to sort out the answer to the only question it asks:

does this action (or non-action) aid the reproductive chances of the genes in individual X (directly, and/or those same genes in A, B, C, D, etc.) to both reproduce and survive? The answer for individual X can be "no" even while the answer for the genes within individual X can be "yes" - via their duplicated existence (and reproduction) in other individuals of the species.

In other words: (a) X's genes do not 'care about' X, except to the extent X will further their reproduction, and (b) "they" are the duplicate genes existing simultaneously in multiple individual Xs. (slightly creepy, actually)

That explanation (if true) can explain a long list of behaviors that seem to make no sense in the context of reproduction of a single human being (or other creature) but nonetheless persist within some/all individuals in the species (persistence otherwise not possible in evolutionary theory).

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Das_Ubermime 7 years, 2 months ago

crono is correct. The point made in the LTE is contingent upon a group selectionist point of view. A point of view which is regarded as being scientifically invalid.

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KS 7 years, 2 months ago

A product of public schools, no doubt. 3D education.

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i_tching 7 years, 2 months ago

Compared to the weight of moral choice demonstrated in Bronze-Age mythologies, natural selection provides a rather more substantial method for developing understanding of behavioral codes.

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Dambudzo 7 years, 2 months ago

crono's explanation is exactly why religion has evolved into what it is taday.

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crono 7 years, 2 months ago

First, you seem to misunderstand the essence of naturalistic evolution, specifically natural selection. Natural selection is not focused on species survival, but rather the survival of the genes of a particular individual within a species. In other words, social Darwinism would suggest that I don't care about the genes of the rest of humanity as much as I care about my own. While I suppose an argument could be made that natural selection could lead toward the desire to preserve those that share genes with me (e.g., my children, my parents, my siblings), in other situations it is clear that such a force would not push an individual to use resources to ensure another's survival (what we would typically think of as "empathy") that could be otherwise use to secure the individual's own survival.

Second, I think we'd all agree that "empathy" is generally a good thing. But for whom? And when? Should the German who feels empathy for the plight of his fellow Germans turn to slaughtering Jews? Should the Shiite who feels empathy for the plight of his fellow Shiites turn to slaughtering Sunnis and Kurds? Should someone who feels empathy for the poor steal goods from The Merc and distribute them accordingly? Should the teacher, seeing that a poor grade causes his student pain, refrain from giving Fs? The judge refrain from punishing criminals? In short, I find "empathy" an altogether unsatisfying determinant of morality.

Third, if morality is so strongly and directly linked to genes, then how is it fair to punish those who commit moral violations? Or reward those who we deem morally commendable? Or train those with moral failings (as such training would inevitably fail)?

In short, you seem to have provided a weak moral compass at best. I'd hesitate to even call it a "moral compass", as it removes all sense of the weight of moral choice when carried to its logical end. A step to revising your argument would be to tie it more accurately to the theoretical basis underlying your claim.

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i_tching 7 years, 2 months ago

It is a simple yet beautiful, amazing, and awe-inspiring thing, that. Yet so many people prefer instead to cling to Bronze-Age mythologies that offer nothing but contradiction and strife.

Oh well.

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