Last month I wrote a clumsy post on “pop Darwinism,” where I asked a few questions about the trendy application of evolutionary psychology to modern ethical problems:
“My question: how does knowing the biological origins of our desires help us decide how whether to act on them? I don't see how this knowledge can do anything to help me order my own life, though I suppose it could help you if you were trying to control other people. From my subjective perspective, how can I know whether a particular desire is maladaptive? Trust the scientists? And even if it is maladaptive, what if I decide to do something with my life besides doing my utmost to ensure the continued existence of my own genetic material?
“The problem I have with pop-Darwinism, then, is that it takes a worthwhile field of human knowledge—the study of our genes and how they came to be—and tells us that understanding the origins of our desires is enough to make good decisions about them. But this understanding isn't enough.”
Confused? I know I am. But Will Wilkinson posted some good stuff from T.H. Huxley on the very same problem:
“The propounders of what are called the ‘ethics of evolution,’ when the ‘evolution of ethics’ would usually better express the object of their speculations, adduce a number of more or less interesting facts and more or less sound arguments, in favour of the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution. I have little doubt, for my own part, that they are on the right track; but as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, th’ere 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.
“As I have already urged, the practice of that which is ethically best—what we call goodness or virtue—involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows; its influence is directed, not so much to the survival of the fittest, as to the fitting of as many as possible to survive. It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence. It demands that each man who enters into the enjoyment of the advantages of a polity shall be mindful of his debt to those who have laboriously constructed it; and shall take heed that no act of his weakens the fabric in which he has been permitted to live. Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process and reminding the individual of his duty to the community, to the protection and influence of which he owes, if not existence itself, at least the life of something better than a brutal savage.”
Here's Wilkinson himself, bringing things up to date:
“One thing I think some ev psych fans have a hard time getting their heads around is that morality–the system of norms that regulates individual behavior and enables social coordination–is variable by ‘design,’ and that our evolved moral capacities are largely norm-acquisition devices which must wait to be calibrated by enculturation. We’re ‘fill-in-the-blanks slates’ not blank slates. There are what you might consider ‘factory default’ settings. (Which involves a lot of out-group slaughter, I’m afraid.) So, yes, certain configurations of moral sentiments, certain systems of norms, are more ‘natural’ than others. But they lead to relatively terrible societies–nasty, brutish, short, etc. The norms that undergird the peaceful liberal order of impersonal, extended, massively positive-sum exchange are the result of generations of often self-conscious resistance to the ‘factory defaults.’ Which is just to say, T.H. Huxley knew what he was talking about.”
It seems so obvious when Huxley and Wilkinson say it.