Absolute Morality and Evolution

Its been a while since I posted to this blog. I’ve been a bit distracted lately trying to juggle some major website updates while stick-handling a formidable relocation and downsizing. Exhausting!

In an effort to keep things alive here, I’m re-posting a piece I wrote some time ago that I think might still spark some debate. In the article below, I contemplate how current secular thinking on the evolution of our species is at odds with the concept of a recently-achieved morality.

Here we go…

Two Moralities

The concept of an absolute morality is upheld for the most part by the religious, each religion competing for the acceptance of their particular absolute morality. On the other side of the debate are the voices of atheism who generally declare that relative morality is, by its very flexibility, preferable to the unyielding absolute morality of religion. These polarized opinions dominate the debate on absolute morality and are used by both sides to support or attack opposing views on the existence of God and the theory of evolution.

Relative morality and the theory of evolution are both important tenets of atheism. These principles are strongly espoused by leading commentators such as the geneticist, author, and professional atheist Richard Dawkins. We’re encouraged by Dawkins et al to accept, as a foundation of our overall reality, that all life on our planet evolved from a common ancestor. Our common ancestor appeared spontaneously due to a favorable alignment of elements sometime in the distant past. It is important to note that current scientific thinking aligns with this point of view

In this article we’ll take a secular look at relative and absolute morality in the context of the theory of evolution.

Evolution 101

It’s believed that complex, thinking human beings who are able to comprehend and debate the concept of absolute morality, evolved from a single cell. This cell evolved from an ancient mixture of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon that spontaneously achieved life. Our first cell wasn’t intelligent itself or subject to an intelligent design, and yet it made all the right choices along the way to become you and me. All agree that the odds against that happening are astronomical. But according to scientists the length of time over which evolution occurred, and the number of spontaneous genetic mutations occurring over that time, were so enormous as to support eventual defeat of those odds. That’s a lot of time and a lot of lucky mutations.

But after a while, it wasn’t so much about lucky mutations. Life on our planet became complex enough to compete for resources. So the Darwinian mechanics of natural selection or survival of the fittest came into play. Most of us are familiar with these ideas. Beaten out by the strong, the weak don’t get to breed so it’s the genes of the strong that get passed on. Likewise, those most successful at hiding from predators or adapting to nasty weather get to reproduce and pass on their talents and characteristics to future generations. And through these processes, life has been refined into the wonderfully diverse and successful flora and fauna of planet earth. Congratulate yourself and your forebears on a job well done.

The Good Die Young

What does this have to do with morality? Think about it. If, during our evolutionary journey, we had embraced a morality involving any material degrees of kindness and gentleness, we never would have survived.

When we competed for resources with say, the Neanderthals, were we nice about it? Did we demonstrate caring and compassion for our fellow not-so-bright humanoids? Did we deem it immoral to let them die off? No, we didn’t. Homo sapiens as a species was smarter than the Neanderthal, so we looked after our own interests and we got to breed and evolve successfully. We’ll never know, but perhaps the Neanderthals were nice to us. Nice guys finish last.

Did our nomadic Homo sapiens ancestors stay behind to look after the weak, the physically and mentally handicapped amongst them? Or did they follow the herd or move on to greener pastures and leave the less fortunate to die? Apparently the vast majority moved on, unable to care for those who couldn’t travel with the tribe. Any who had developed a moral thinking that caused them to stay behind to look after the sick; lame and elderly wouldn’t have been able to survive. So they wouldn’t have been able to breed successfully and therefore wouldn’t have been able to pass on their misguided morality to future generations.

Our loving and caring attitude toward family and our feelings of love for a potential mate are explained by scientists as having evolved to ensure the survival of our species and our own particular bloodline or gene set. Yet as a form of primitive morality this attitude could not have extended toward any competing species, or toward those of our own species who were not of our bloodline or tribe. Because had we helped those who were less fortunate than ourselves we would have encouraged them to breed and compete with us for resources. And by engaging in moral and ethical fair play in competition for these resources we would have weakened our gene pool by encouraging mediocrity in an environment of “something for everyone”.

Clearly, according to the theory of evolution, morality, if it ever reared its silly head, must have been bred out of our species because it simply doesn’t lend itself to self-preservation.

Morality – A Recent Fad

So if we didn’t evolve morality where did it come from? Here’s what Dawkins has to say about modern morality…

“If you actually look at the moralities that are accepted among modern people, among 21st century people: we don’t believe in slavery anymore, we believe in the equality of women, we believe in being gentle, we believe in being kind to animals. These are all things which are entirely recent. They have very little basis in Biblical or Quranic scripture. They are things that have developed over historical time through a consensus of reasoning, sober discussion, argument, legal theory, political and moral philosophy. They do not come from religion.”

According to Dr. Dawkins’ published views on evolution and genetics, taken with his statement above, our intelligence, instincts and feelings have apparently evolved over millennia, but not those thoughts and feelings that support present day morality. It was our entirely recent reasoning, sober discussion, argument, legal theory, political and moral philosophy that caused us to be kind and gentle. And indeed, we’ve seen that none of these processes would have been beneficial or even complementary to the evolutionary process. Had they occurred in our early existence, we might have inadvertently stumbled upon a primitive morality during our climb from the slime, perhaps resulting in kindness to animals and Neanderthals. Our short, sad story would have been one of group hugs, kindness to bunnies, starvation, and our eventual elimination from the contest.

What Now?

In the past, morality was detrimental to our evolution, but today morality is encouraged. So what of evolution?

Has the process of evolution stopped for our species? Some say the question is moot. There isn’t a competitor remaining on the planet that poses any realistic threat to humanity in terms of competing for space and resources. Sure, we could all be wiped out by an unfortunate viral mutation which would redefine the rules of the game for any surviving species, but as long as a thread of humanity remains, we rule, we win.

Yet there remains an 800lb Darwinian primate in the room. According to evolutionary law we haven’t stopped evolving, we continue to compete with each other. With each generation our species will continue to change based on which genes are dominant and able to breed, and as garnished from time to time by random genetic mutations.

We’ve evolved high intelligence, so for the time being we’re really smart. We’re no longer ignorant of the forces of evolution. We won’t be blindly driven to the next speciation event, or Homo sapiens 2.0. And it follows that if we make the right choices we might have some say in how we evolve from here.

Morality will influence our choices.

A Moral Dilemma

As our evolutionary journey continues, each individual will face a fundamental moral dilemma. Simply put, “Why should I care how humanity evolves?”

Indeed, who cares? You’re living your life as best you can; you try to be nice to others and you’re probably more worried about global warming than who gets to breed. Evolution won’t impact your grandchildren’s lives let alone yours!

It’s reasonable to assume that most of us will ignore matters of evolution. We’ll take a default position of, “What’s in it for me?” as we have allegedly done for millennia, and thus we’ll allow evolution to continue its own course.

Except that from this point forward we’ll have to be nice due to Dawkins’ consensus of reasoning, sober discussion, argument, legal theory, political and moral philosophy. And being nice is contrary to the concept of survival of the fittest and, as such, evolution. So on that basis we’re likely cause a devolution into oblivion by literally killing off our species with kindness.

So we either die off as a species or, to prevent that outcome, we ditch Dawkins’ modern morality and devise a new, more evolution-friendly relative morality, or more effectively, a state-defined and enforced absolute morality (think eugenics, think selective abortion, think Nazi).

Which approach do you choose for humanity? A group hug into extinction, or an evolution-friendly relative morality?

Perhaps a more sensible approach lies in the context of Christianity and our creator-God. This allows us to be nice without fear of extinction.

Make sense?

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