thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Darwin’s bulldog

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The history of evolutionary ethics has been up and down. It is worth surveying some of that history so as to clarify the line I am intending to take, and distinguish it from other possible connotations ‘evolutionary ethics’ might have. A few of those connotations have been unfortunate to say the least – for example with links to eugenics and even Nazism.

This article follows Supernaturalistic fallacy in a discussion on The ethics of belief.

Three overall ‘positions’ seem to have been adopted over the years regarding the relation between evolution and ethics:

(1) ‘Evolution is good’:

On this view ethics is positively linked to evolution. For example ethical concepts, behaviour and experience are products of evolution. ‘Best’ and ‘most evolved’ may not be synonyms, but the best things are often the most evolved, and vice versa.

(2) ‘Evolution is bad’:

The forces driving evolution (eg struggle for existence and survival of the fittest) are what ethical life and ethical behaviour pit themselves against. Ethical values cannot be derived from evolutionary theory – quite the reverse. Ethical behaviour developed among rational social animals (viz. humans) to combat the untrammelled energies of evolution.

(3) ‘Evolution is neutral’:

Evolution is neither good nor bad. Positive ethical concepts, feelings, behaviour and experience may be products of evolution, but so may negative ones like warfare, murder, exploitation, selfishness and so on. Evolution and ethics occupy different logical spaces, so neither has any effect or influence on the other.

Before digging into evolution per se, it is worth mentioning that ‘evolution is good’ (1) can be seen as more specific variant of ‘nature is good’. Names like Blake, Rousseau, Freud and Thoreau come to mind. What is ‘natural’ (herbal medicine, alternative therapies, organic farming, heterosexuality, innocence, instincts, nudity, fresh air, …) is somehow better – including morally better – than what is ‘unnatural’ (conventional medicine, artificial fertilisers, insecticides, repression, homosexuality, clothing, civilisation, urban living, …). A significant offshoot of this is of course ‘ecology’: ecological alignment, recycling, energy and resource conservation etc are (morally) good whereas pollution, deforestation, global warming etc are (morally) bad.

But it isn’t all one-way. ‘Evolution is bad’ (2) can similarly be seen as a flavour of ‘nature is bad’. There is the concept of original sin for example, and the triumph of ‘good’ Christianity over ‘bad’ paganism, with its links to nature worship and sympathetic magic. In many religious and philosophical traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Platonism, Christianity, Islam, …) moral excellence is achieved by suppression and/or sublimation and/or dismantling of the natural animal self with all its fears and desires; sometimes involving ascetic techniques of escape from cosmic cycles of birth and death (and perhaps subsequent rebirth) – to eg immortality or Nirvana.

This stuff is not trivial. The connotations are legion.

TH Huxley

TH Huxley

A convenient and fairly level-headed place to start is Thomas Henry Huxley, whose views on the subject can conveniently be gleaned from his 1893 Romanes Lecture Evolution and ethics.1

Huxley was an ardent champion of evolution for much of the second half of the 19th Century. Although he was adamant that current organic species evolved from earlier forms, and that current organic structures evolved from earlier structures, Darwin could not convince him that natural selection was the mechanism of evolution. This was not because he could offer any better alternative, but because he saw nothing like the wealth of anatomical and other evidence supporting the fact of evolution.

Regardless of his agnosticism about natural selection his overall position was somewhere between (2) ‘evolution is bad’ and (3) ‘evolution is neutral’: definitely not (1) ‘evolution is good’.

Some illustrative quotations from Evolution and ethics:

…In every part, at every moment, the state of the cosmos is the expression of a transitory adjustment of contending forces; a scene of strife, in which all the combatants fall in turn.

… Where the cosmopoietic energy works through sentient beings, there arises, among its other manifestations, that which we call pain or suffering. This baleful product of evolution increases in quantity and in intensity, with advancing grades of animal organization, until it attains its highest level in man. Further, the consummation is not reached in man, the mere animal; nor in man, the whole or half savage; but only in man, the member of an organized polity.

…Man, the animal, …has worked his way to the headship of the sentient world, and has become the superb animal which he is, in virtue of his success in the struggle for existence. The conditions having been of a certain order, man’s organization has adjusted itself to them better than that of his competitors in the cosmic strife. In the case of mankind, the self-assertion, the unscrupulous seizing upon all that can be grasped, the tenacious holding of all that can be kept, which constitute the essence of the struggle for existence, have answered. For his successful progress, throughout the savage state, man has been largely indebted to those qualities which he shares with the ape and the tiger; his exceptional physical organization; his cunning, his sociability, his curiosity, and his imitativeness; his ruthless and ferocious destructiveness when his anger is roused by opposition.

(The ‘ape and tiger’ reference is to Tennyson’s In memoriam Canto CXVIII.2)

…But, in proportion as men have passed from anarchy to social organization, and in proportion as civilization has grown in worth, these deeply ingrained serviceable qualities have become defects. After the manner of successful persons, civilized man would gladly kick down the ladder by which he has climbed. He would be only too pleased to see ‘the ape and tiger die.’ …In fact, civilized man brands all these ape and tiger promptings with the name of sins; he punishes many of the acts which flow from them as crimes; and, in extreme cases, he does his best to put an end to the survival of the fittest of former days by axe and rope.

…The science of ethics professes to furnish us with a reasoned rule of life; to tell us what is right action and why it is so. Whatever differences of opinion may exist among experts, there is a general consensus that the ape and tiger methods of the struggle for existence are not reconcilable with sound ethical principles.

…Thousands upon thousands of our fellows, thousands of years ago, have preceded us in finding themselves face to face with the same dread problem of evil. They also have seen that the cosmic process is evolution; that it is full of wonder, full of beauty, and, at the same time, full of pain. They have sought to discover the bearing of these great facts on ethics…

Huxley then surveys ancient Indian, Greek and Semitic traditions which searched in vain for ‘a sanction for morality in the ways of the cosmos’, finding it

…as hard as we do to bring the course of evolution into harmony with even the elementary requirements of the ethical ideal of the just and the good.

…Thus, brought before the tribunal of ethics, the cosmos might well seem to stand condemned.

The three traditions responded in three different ways. The Semitic (Job) ‘takes refuge in silence and submission’, whereas both the Indian and Greek ‘attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable’.

The Greeks (particularly the Stoics) ‘invented Theodocies’ – attempts to reconcile the (real or apparent) evil in the world with the goodness of God.

The Indian path was ultimately the ‘Cosmodicy’ of reincarnation:

If this world is full of pain and sorrow; if grief and evil fall, like the rain, upon both the just and the unjust; it is because, like the rain, they are links in the endless chain of natural causation by which past, present, and future are indissolubly connected; and there is no more injustice in the one case than in the other. Every sentient being is reaping as it has sown; if not in this life, then in one or other of the infinite series of antecedent existences of which it is the latest term. The present distribution of good and evil is, therefore, the algebraical sum of accumulated positive and negative deserts; or, rather, it depends on the floating balance of the account.

…the only way to escape from our heritage of evil is to destroy that fountain of desire whence our vices flow; to refuse any longer to be the instruments of the evolutionary process, and withdraw from the struggle for existence. If the karma is modifiable by self-discipline, if its coarser desires, one after another, can be extinguished, the ultimate fundamental desire of self-assertion, or the desire to be, may also be destroyed.

For Buddha the end was the same but the means was less ascetic and more practical:

…Gautama declared extreme ascetic practices to be useless and indeed harmful. The appetites and the passions are not to be abolished by mere mortification of the body; they must, in addition, be attacked on their own ground and conquered by steady cultivation of the mental habits which oppose them; by universal benevolence; by the return of good for evil; by humility; by abstinence from evil thought; in short, by total renunciation of that self-assertion which is the essence of the cosmic process.

Bringing the debate more up to date, Huxley is happy to concede there are

sound arguments in favour of the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution.


as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, there is, so far, as much natural sanction for the one as the other. The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.

Another key fallacy

is the notion that because, on the whole, animals and plants have advanced in perfection of organization by means of the struggle for existence and the consequent ‘survival of the fittest’; therefore men in society, men as ethical beings, must look to the same process to help them towards perfection. I suspect that this fallacy has arisen out of the unfortunate ambiguity of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest.’ ‘Fittest’ has a connotation of ‘best’; and about ‘best’ there hangs a moral flavour. In cosmic nature, however, what is ‘fittest’ depends upon the conditions. … [If] our hemisphere were to cool again, the survival of the fittest might bring about, in the vegetable kingdom, a population of more and more stunted and humbler and humbler organisms, until the ‘fittest’ that survived might be nothing but lichens, diatoms, and such microscopic organisms as those which give red snow its colour…

His conclusion is quite simply

that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.

Not a conclusion everyone shared though


1 TH Huxley, Evolution and ethics, 1893.

2 Alfred Lord Tennyson, In memoriam, 1849.

© Chris Lawrence 2008.


2 Responses

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  1. The Huxley material is very interesting, as is the discussion of evolutionary ethics. However, you misrepresent William Blake in assimilating him to the Romantic elevation of Nature by Rousseau or (say) Wordsworth. Blake’s views are in many respects anti-Nature but pro-living creatures. This is hard to understand for people accustomed to Western dualism (good/evil, mental/physical) which Blake emphatically rejects. Blake is a radical monist, who takes Berkeleyan idealism and as it were stands it on its feet (as Marx did with Hegel’s dialectic). In Blake’s view, we are as we perceive, and the “we” includes the world that we perceive, because our separation from it is an illusion. The Nature we perceive is a distorted and diminished version of reality that mirrors our own fallen spiritual condition. Northrop Frye, in his seminal study *Fearful Symmetry*, observes that for Blake, “the Creation and the Fall are the same event.” Consequently, worshipping “Nature” *as it is to us in our fallen, shrunken condition* is a terrible idolatry, leading us to replicate the cruelties we see everywhere in the world around us instead of opening ourselves to Eternity. (He is equally opposed to the mechanistic universe devised by Newton, prophetically rejecting the absolute space and time of Newton’s system in favor of space as relative and time as a perceptual construct–closer to Einstein and quantum physics than to the science of his day.) Most of Blake’s poetic works are the “prophetic books” that comprise what he calls the Bible of Hell, turning conventional Judeo-Christian beliefs and narratives inside out and revealing the internal workings of the fragmented mind/world and showing how it can be healed.

    Bottom line: Blake was not only a very great poet and artist but a brilliantly original and subversive philosopher and psychologist. He is as worth study as any figure in the history of epistemology and ontology.

    Adam Cornford

    5 March 2013 at 6:30 pm

    • Thanks Adam – for your interest & responses both to this & to Whispers of the gods. I admit my inclusion of Blake here was a bit careless in retrospect 🙂

      Chris Lawrence

      5 March 2013 at 7:21 pm

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