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Discovering Religion: Episode 24 – Evolution of Morality & Survival of the Fittest

16 Jan Posted by in Eps/Transcripts | 1 comment
Discovering Religion: Episode 24 – Evolution of Morality & Survival of the Fittest

Among the proponents of a naturalistic origin of morality it is commonly argued that the perception of right and wrong is solely derived from evolution, with little to no influence from logic or reason. Through the study evolution we have come to understand the phrase “survival of the fittest” does not merely refer to “survival of the strongest”. By examining animal behavior, particularly that which belongs to interdependent social groups, we find the “fittest” group refers to members that best cooperate with one another and that show the greatest respect for social hierarchy, allowing them to attain mutual goals that would otherwise be difficult or impossible for the individual to achieve on his or her own.

However, an unfortunate reality of life’s ruthless struggle for existence is that the goal of one group is often the demise of another. Therefore, despite the understanding that Natural Selection favors animals that behave in certain ways in order to achieve a collective goal, that alone does not lead to a consistent and mutually beneficial code of conduct. As we will see, there is much to be learned from how animals socially interact with one another, which provides the basis of Primal Morality; however, without the ability to reason, we would not have the necessary tools to elevate our understanding of right and wrong beyond that of lower-order animal species, thus preventing us from constructing a moral philosophy that equally applies to ALL human beings.

Imagine one evening you are sitting at home with your wife and children, when there is a knock on the door. You get up to see who it is and you are immediately confronted by a man that is much bigger, stronger, and younger than yourself. Suddenly he begins to threaten and then beat you! Severely injured, he casts you outside your home where you lay helpless as he proceeds to murder your children and then rape your wife. Can you label the actions of the intruder as “immoral”? Are human beings unique on this planet for our capacity to commit such abhorrent acts on one another?

As you ponder these questions, let’s turn for a moment to the African savannah, the birthplace of mankind and home to some of the most spectacular life on planet Earth. Within this beautiful wilderness, the scenario of the home intruder has been played out countless times over hundreds of millions of years. Challenges over mating and territorial rights are some of the oldest conflicts on the planet and such displays can be found in almost every animal species throughout the world, although the severity of the confrontations can vary. However, within Africa’s lion population skirmishes can be of a particularly ruthless and cruel nature.

When a solitary male lion enters the territory of an established male with a pride of females and offspring, the younger, more virile male will often produce a challenge for territorial and breeding rights. A vicious confrontation ensues, and if the older male cannot perform his duty by holding his ground and protecting the group, then he will be cast from his pride where he will eventually die alone due to starvation without the females’ aid in catching prey. Upon assuming command of the pride the lion must kill all the cubs of the previous male, so the females will be receptive to mate and thereby focusing all resources to raising the offspring of the new male.

Are we able to judge the actions of this lion? By human standards, the lion has committed several of the most heinous crimes known to mankind. However, since the lion is acting in accordance with his nature, should we then consider nothing at all to be wrong with his actions? Could we even go so far as to consider his actions to be moral? It is common for the proponents of a naturalistic code of conduct to point to the animal kingdom as the origins of human morality. Often, vicious predators such as sharks or piranhas are referenced in order to lend support to the notion that despite being in a mindless feeding frenzy, there is still some semblance of moral conduct, for these predators have evolved to not turn on one another.

But is the fact that carnivores such as piranhas, crocodiles, and sharks do not eat one another really evidence of the evolution of morality? Perhaps. But imagine what would happen if a shark is unfortunate enough to be found bleeding amongst a group of his hungry peers. Sharks are known to attack one another at the sign of weakness or injury. In fact, it can be argued the reason these carnivores do not turn on healthy members of their own species is because they are not seen as a potential meal until signs of weakness are evident. Therefore, sharks do not show concern for the helpless. Indeed, the helpless are taken advantage of and preyed upon! Can this really be considered moral behavior?

Piranhas, sharks and lions are not the only animals known to turn on members of their own species in times of weakness, territorial disputes, or for mating rights. Indeed, our closest relative within the Animal Kingdom, chimpanzees, have also been observed going to war, attacking and even cannibalizing their rivals.

Wolves are another variety of social mammal that must prey on other animals in order to maintain their own survival. Carnivores such as these are more than capable of killing each other if they so desire, but, they do not. In fact, quite the contrary. In order for animals like wolves and wild African dogs to be successful in hunting exclusively from a food source that is much larger and faster than themselves, they must learn to work together within a cooperative, interdependent group. But not only are pack animals cooperative hunters, they care for one another and dutifully adhere to an established pack hierarchy as well.

Collective caring for the young is a behavior not only observed in carnivorous pack animals, but also in the prey they hunt. Oxen are known to stand guard and risk personal injury in order to protect the young of their herd, even in cases where the young are not their direct offspring. It is to the benefit of the group as a whole that individuals behave in certain ways, even when such behavior is not advantageous to the individual.

The reason we observe social animals protecting one another, rather than attacking and killing members of their own group, is not because they have a religious text directing their behavior. Rather, if the genes were not in place that deterred group infighting and encourage obedience to social guidelines, then the species would have no chance of survival, and thus, would no long exist for us to observe. For all we know, there could have been many different variations of social behavior that arose throughout the course of animal evolution. However, Natural Selection favored those animals that best cooperated with and cared for one another — and it is these traits that have found their way into modern-day species, among them animals that flock, herd, run in packs, and even group together within communities.

It is undeniable that life as we know it relies on the working-relationships we have with other members of our local community and even the world at large. The place you live, what you eat, the cloths you wear, how you earn money and where you spend it, is entirely dependent on the efforts of other human beings, and more than likely, many other people are dependent on you as well. The very success of our species is invested at the genetic level in the hardwiring of our brains, encouraging us toward group cooperation, obedience, empathy, and even conformity. Indeed, our desire to be accepted by others and to be included in the group is SO ingrained in our psyche that it can lead to negative and often destructive behavior.

Not only can the herd mentality produce bizarre alterations in behavior, it can even be used against us with devastating consequences, such as in cases of fervent nationalism that results in the loss of identity.

Despite the potential for abuse inherent within the herd mentality, if our earliest ancestors had not maintained a social structure that included cooperation, conformity, and obedience to social hierarchy, then our species would have long ago arrived at an evolutionary dead end. Although we live in a world of “survival of the fittest”, there would be no survival if the members of a group turned on each other and allowed one’s selfish desires to dictate their actions.

Throughout popular culture has spread a misconception about “survival of the fittest”, where the most ruthless and cutthroat members of a given society, or even corporations within a capitalistic economy, are encouraged to trample over the weak with the aim of becoming even wealthier and more successful.

However, in the context of a social animal the phrase “survival of the fittest” does not imply survival of the strongest. The term “fittest” refers to the individuals that best work together, that care for one another and help each other survive. This creates the conditions for a “fit” community, whose members can go on to perpetuate their genes and bring about the next generation. If the concept of “Survival of the Fittest” were merely the strongest male or female going around consuming all the resources and murdering their rivals, then the group as a whole would NOT be very fit. As we have just seen in the previous experiment, such groups are unsustainable, and as infighting continues the group will self-destruct in a matter of generations.

However, a fine line must be walked when one’s survival, or the survival of the group, in placed in jeopardy. In certain instances it may be evolutionarily advantageous to eliminate rival groups in order to gain access to contested resources. Although it was essential for our early ancestors to show kindness to other members of their own group, if they were to survive and successfully compete against other hostile groups, then they must not become docile and lose their predatory edge.

The tendency toward aggressive behavior has been retained in us at the genetic level — mind you, the same aggression that has been breed out of wolves, resulting in the infantile lapdogs we often treat as our children. It is for this reason there appears to be a conflicting duality within human behavior, exhibiting both altruistic tendencies as well as those of a violent and predatory nature.

Although it might be difficult to face the hard facts about our origins, if we are to truly understand who we are and from whence we have come, we must acknowledge our violent past and our place within the Animal Kingdom. Human beings, like other social animals, are both the products of their environment as well as their genes.  The concepts of Nature and Nurture govern every aspect of our social interactions, and they are at the root of violent and aggressive behavior.

In many impoverished regions throughout the world, orphaned children that are abandoned to the street often turn to a life of crime, becoming murderers at a very early age. Because there is no strong parental influence to teach them right from wrong, many of these children have no concept of human life and think nothing of murdering someone over a stick of gum or a pair of shoes. In addition, children that have been mentally or physically abused often regress into a feral state, lashing out at their parents, siblings, and peers.

The psychological development of children is so important that, if nurtured improperly, they require months and perhaps even years of rehabilitation. As we can see, the morals and values of a society must be taught, and those who have not had the benefit of this instruction early in life risk never being able to assimilate within that society at all. However, nature plays an equal, if not more  important role than nurture, a fact that has been experimentally demonstrated in the process of animal domestication.

Even though embryos attainted from aggressive foxes were transplanted into docile females, the resultant offspring still displayed aggression. As we can see, a large part of combative and violent behavior is invested at the genetic level. Regardless of the environment in which we live, we are ultimately a product of the genes that make us.

Like many varieties of social animal, groups of early hominids benefited by working together and adhering to an expected way of behavior. It is these traits that have been passed on by the reproductively successful members of every generation. But despite evolving the tendency to work toward a common goal, often the goal of one group was the demise of another. Human history is fraught with endless battles, wars, and even genocides; however, the same thing that makes human beings such efficient, ruthless killers also allows us to transcend the negative aspects our animalistic nature. Our intelligence not only provides us with the ability to design an efficient war machine, it allows us to empathize with the enemy as well. Our intelligence also provides us with the necessary tools to engage in scientific inquiry, enabling us to examine the various psychological and physiological states of human well-being through which we may construct a sound moral philosophy that is applicable to everyone.

Homo sapiens are first species on Earth to take hold of the reins of their own evolution. Instead of being subject to the laws of Natural Selection, where traits best suited for survival are selected by the environment, human beings have selected the environment that best suits their survival. This ability allows us to reshape the world as we see fit, both in our habitat and the way we interact with one another.

By adapting our moral behavior to the environment that we have made for ourselves, we are no longer held hostage to the aggressive traits that dominated the lives of our early ancestors, who traversed hostile environments in which violent competition over limited resources meant life or death. We are in the unique position of being able cast aside these vestigial behaviors by embracing science and technology, providing us the opportunity to glimpse the height of human well-being that is possible to achieve, if only we can successfully apply what we learn about ourselves.

If we are to subdue the negative aspects of our psychology, such as the herd mentality that results in the willingness to harm others when authoritatively direct to do so, then we must elevate our understanding of what it means to be moral, adhering to these principles with confidence and resolute conviction. By employing the tool of scientific investigation we have discovered much about human behavior as well as the mechanisms of action that produce alterations in our physiology.

As discussed in the previous Episode, medical science is able to determine what actions most effectively promote states of human well-being. The standard of behavior by which we experience health, happiness, liberty, growth, and prosperity are empirically confirmed — and for the vast majority of society that share these common goals, the decision to follow the objective standard of Secular Morality is an easy one. As we have seen throughout this presentation, the consequences of: Infighting and disobedience of authority; Abuse and improper nurturing of the young; A failure to cooperate and share resources or information; As well as infringing on the autonomy of others and the denial of well-being; results in the  self-destruction of social groups and, inevitably, the very extinction of the species.

By examining the behavior of other animals we can see that both the desire to care for others and the capacity to kill are derived from our evolutionary origins. However, a consistent, all-encompassing code of conduct can only be achieved by employing the tools of science, logic, and reason. Although we have evolved the intellectual prowess to transcend certain aspects of our nature, there are other facets of our evolution to which we are forever bound. Our emotions and the instinctual drive to abstain from and engage in certain types of behavior is an intrinsic aspect of what makes us human, and even though the monotheistic religions have made concerted efforts to demonize and repress facets of human nature, a mature understanding of our ‘lustful desires’ is just as important to the refinement of a sound moral philosophy as the preservation of individual autonomy and the promotion of well-being.

  1. ThrinaxodonNo Gravatar01-26-13

    Morality is ethics! Evolution says nothing about morality.

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