The Rev. Dr Stephen Ames completes the series on genes as the language of God:

Our theme is asking if genetics is the language of God. John Wilkins has discussed in what sense can we say that ‘genetics’ is a ‘language’. His main point is that it is an analogy but one that is not illuminating. It evokes the idea of intelligible patterns in the structure of genes and the way they interact with the organism and environment to eventually bring living things into existence. A drawback for John is that it gives too much away to proponents of Intelligent Design (ID). I am not a proponent of ID.

Recall how talk about this discussion of the idea of genes as the language of God came about. On 26 June 2000 at the White House Bill Clinton as the President of the United States pronounced the first survey of the human genome 90 per cent complete. ‘Today,’ said Clinton, ‘we are learning the language in which God created life.’ Standing beside him was Francis Collins the Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in America and headed an international race against time and commercial interests to sequence the 3.1 billion letters of the human genome.

The question whether genetics is the language of God comes through the religious belief that God is the creator of the universe, who sustains the universe in existence. Evolutionary science provides our best scientific account of how live has evolved, which includes the many new forms of life that have thereby come into existence.

For those who believe the universe is created by God, this is the idea that God creates ex nihilo – not from any previously existing ‘stuff’ – and sustains it in existence. Evolution and particularly genetics is part of how life in all its forms has come into existence. From a theological standpoint this is part of how God has created the life producing universe in which we live. Hence Clinton’s words and Collin’s book The Language of God, A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief, (New York, Free Press, 2006).

This already provokes many questions. For example, aren’t religion and science in fundamental conflict? See the trials of Galileo – “By stifling the truth that was there for all to see, the Church destroyed its credibility with science.” [David Griffith after playing the lead role in Brecht’s play Life of Galileo in 1994.] Secondly, why supposedly, would God use evolution to bring life into existence? Doesn’t the book of Genesis present God speaking ‘let there be light’ it is was so, and so on for the sun and moon and plants and animals. God speaks and it happens. Another question is, ‘if God created everything, what created God?’ I will say a little about those questions later. For the moment let’s keep with our theme.

Galileo has something relevant to say. In 1615 he was asked by the Grand Duchess Christina to explain how to reconcile his telescopic observations and Copernicus’ sun-centred view of the universe with the Bible’s teaching that the sun, moon moved around the earth. Galileo answered in terms of God being the author of ‘Two Books’: the book of Scripture written in human language, and the book of nature, which God created, written in the language of mathematics and geometry. Because God is the author of both Books they cannot be in fundamental contradiction, when both are read correctly. (Of course how to apply Galileo’s principle will take us into another set of questions.)

Following Galileo’s view, not just genetics but the whole universe (multiverse), with its many levels and forms of intelligibility, including mathematics, may also be thought of as the many ‘languages’ of God. Here ‘language’ is used to highlight an analogy between human language and other different forms of intelligibility needed to understand the natural universe.

A Christian theologian, Maximus the Confessor (b. 580CE), understood the universe to be created through the divine Logos (Word) and as a result all creatures are many different logoi (words). Maximus would probably enjoy an idea shared by Prof. Paul Davies’ and philosopher of science Susan Haack; that scientific theories are analogous to a vast crossword puzzle with the ‘words’ being different theories interlinking, and the ‘clues’ being the empirical data of sciences.

One of John’s concerns is that speaking about genetics as the ‘language of God’ gives aid to the proponents of ID as they attempt to argue to God from the search for intelligent causes operating in nature. I am not a proponent of ID because I think it is a version of the ‘god of the gaps’ argument. By contrast it is quite possible to talk about the ‘fine tuning’ of the physical constants and laws of physics for the production of carbon based life, without presupposing or entailing a ‘Fine Tuner’.

Galileo is not doing this. He starts from the view that natural universe is like a book written by God (who created the universe), who as its ‘author’ has written it in the language of mathematics. This is a theology of nature. It seeks to interpret nature and mathematics in the light of a prior belief in God. It is not a natural theology, which attempts to prove the existence of God from using ordinary human reasoning about ordinary processes including all the natural processes that the natural sciences describe. This is what the ID movement is attempting to do. I think there are better alternatives. In any case, it is quite different from Galileo.

The idea of the ‘language of God’ or the ‘word of God’ meaning the language or word spoken by God is found in different religious traditions. For example for Hinduism Sanscrit is the language of the divine realm. In Islam Arabic is the language God chose to communicate the words of the Qur’an to the Prophet. In Judaism G-D gives speaks to Moses from the Burning Bush giving the divine name. Christianity believes that God has spoken in many different ways but now has spoken to us through his Son.

I have left some questions to be answered now. Let’s start with a very common question: if God created everything what created God? This is asked by Prof Dawkins and by Peter Adam and by students I meet. The answer is that if God created everything then any supposed ‘contender’ for the job of creating God has already been created by God. The atheist physicist Lawrence Krauss made this point in his book A Universe from Nothing, Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, (New York, Free Press, 2012,p.173) made the point that if God is the cause of all causes, then you can’t ask what created God. People offer strong reasons for not accepting the idea of God – lack of evidence, the problem of natural evil, irrelevance, among others. But asking what created God is not a reason for rejecting the idea of God.

A second question: Isn’t there a ‘warfare’ or an inherent conflict between science and religion? This is known as the ‘conflict thesis’. It goes back to John W. Draper’s History of the Conflict of Science and Religion (1875) and Andrew D. White’s A History of Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Historians of science since the 1960s have forced a profound rethink of this ‘conflict thesis’. Historical scholarship shows that deep theological commitments and motives underpinned the work of figures like Kepler, Descartes, Newton, Boyle who were the leading lights of the rise of early modern Science in Europe (16th–17th Century).

This brings us back to the Galileo Affair. It is very complex event set in the context of the Protestant Reformation and the Counter Reformation by the Catholic Church. When the Affair is used to promote the ‘conflict thesis’ a key point is the claim that Galileo showed us the truth about the solar system but the Church stifled this truth and destroyed its credibility with science. Galileo made stunning telescopic observations which certainly contradicted the old earth centred model of the heavens, with the sun and moon and planets circling the earth. However this didn’t prove the sun centred view of Copernicus. This is because all of Galileo’s telescopic observations could be explained by the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). In his model the sun circled the earth while all the planets circled the sun. The Jesuit astronomers of the day reproduced all of Galileo’s observations but espoused Tycho’s model. Galileo also supported his view with an explanation of the tides, which predicted a 24 hour cycle, not the observed 12 hour cycle. Galileo was alerted to this discrepancy but thought it could be explained by the odd shapes and varying depths of the ocean floor. The Galileo Affair does not support the ‘conflict thesis’.

Another question was why would God create a universe for some purpose and then use evolution to bring life into existence? For a fuller answer see my paper ‘Why Would God Use Evolution?’ in, J. Arnould OP, ed., Darwin and Evolution Interfaith Perspectives, (Adelaide, ATF Press, 2010), 105–128. Here are the ‘bare bones’. For some readers it may be the first time you have encountered theological reasoning. Here I am starting with a traditional idea of God that God is all powerful, all knowing and all good, who freely creates the universe ex nihilo and sustains it in existence. (This will be a theology of nature not a natural theology.) I am working towards understanding what kind of universe we might expect such a God to create (should such a God exist), by reasoning largely from the idea of God.

I draw on the work of a theological ‘giant’ Thomas Aquinas from the 13th century (see his Summa Theologiae 1a,103.6; 1a, 105.5). Aquinas asked whether God would create a universe in which things had their own real powers or would God be the only power in the world? Would it be the fire that warmed you or God in the fire that warmed you? Aquinas’ view was that God is the primary cause, creating from nothing and (continually) sustaining in existence all the secondary causes we see operating in the world. For Aquinas, God is that than which there is none greater. Therefore we should prefer to say that God creates things, with real causal powers, rather than with no real powers. This is because it is a greater exercise of power, which creates things that are not only good in themselves but the cause of good in others.

For Aquinas, God creates things in such a way that things have the dignity of also being causes, rather than, so I would add, the indignity of also not being causes. In God’s creation there are no ‘wall flowers’ – everything has a part, everything is a ‘player’.

On similar reasoning I should say that God maximises these features of creation, rather than minimises them. I should therefore prefer to say that this God creates a life producing universe, which is better than only producing an inert universe, or a merely mechanically interactive universe. Therefore we should expect that things make other things and overall creation makes itself as much as possible as a life producing universe. Of course this is easily extended to a life producing universe that produces intelligent life. This understanding of God claims to express at least one thing that is of value to God as creator: creatures as co-creators and that God maximises the realisation of that value in a created universe.

Now let’s pause here and ask what this theoretical idea of the God created universe might look like in fact. Can theology take us that far? The answer is ‘no’. Here is why. On the idea of God we are working with, God freely creates the universe ex nihilo. Because it is freely created we cannot derive in detail what the creation will look like from the idea of God. We should expect it to be an intelligible universe and open to rational explanations because God is all knowing and all powerful. Because the universe is created ex nihilo it means there was no prior ‘stuff’ that God used, so we can’t figure out from the ‘stuff’ what the universe might look like since there was no ‘stuff’. How could we find out what this God created universe might look like in fact? We would have to go and look, use all our senses to gather data and use our reason to understand it in different ways.

If you think that our universe is created by such a God then this would be the way to find out what kind of universe it is. This could take at least three quite different forms. One is scientific, another is theological and the other poetic. For example Charles Darwin, naturalist extraordinaire, did go and look and after gathering lots of data and lots of hard thinking came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection about the evolution of life by natural selection. He showed we are living in life producing universe. Secondly, If we used the ideas drawn from Aquinas then we could say that God uses evolution because what is of value to God is creatures as co-creators, all the way from the simplest to the most complex creatures. Perhaps one or more of the exoplanets astronomers are finding will have the ‘signature’ of life. Thirdly, an example of a poet extraordinaire is Gerard Manley Hopkins (see for example his poems, God’s Grandeur, and, The Windhover).

Finally, we come back to the question about what the Bible says on God creating the world. Everyone quickly turns to Genesis chapters 1 and 2. (A helpful book is S. C. Barton, and D. Wilkinson, eds., Reading Genesis After Darwin, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009). The above discussion seems very different. There are three brief points to make.

Firstly, it is a question of how to understand the text. St. Augustine (354–450CE) in his On The Literal Meaning of Genesis interpreted Genesis as saying the earth received the causal power to bring forth plants and trees, not that plants and trees were specially created. The above account expands this idea.

Secondly, there are many other accounts of creation in the Bible. For example John’s Gospel (1:1–4) speaks about the divine Word through whom all things were created (this was mentioned above in the work of Maximus the Confessor.) The above discussion fits well within that account of creation.

Thirdly, Galileo’s ‘Two Books’ principle says that if we are confident of our scientific knowledge of some part of God’s creation we ought to allow that knowledge to inform biblical passages that are speaking about the same part of creation. Galileo’s principle calls all who accept it to seek the theological message that God give us through the biblical passage.



This will be my final post in this series. In the next, Stephen will respond, giving a theological account of the importance of language as a literal, not metaphorical, way of understanding the world for a theist.

For those who do believe in God, the issue is: Does God speak a language of natural causes? That is, if God creates things (depending upon the religion, either out of nothing or out of prior stuff), does he use a language of nature to do it? In Genesis 1, God says “Let there be..” and the heavens and the waters of the deep are separated, and many theologians have understood this to mean that God makes things into an order by simple commands. That is, there is a divine language.

But the metaphor of a language of physics (natural law) or a language of biology (DNA) suggests something different from creation. It suggests that in order to get a certain outcome in physics or biology, God must use the laws of physics or biology. This might be theologically problematic. How you sort that out as a believer is going to depend upon one of several options (some of which are considered heresies in orthodox Christian circles).

The view that God must use natural law assumes that God cannot intervene in natural processes, and this is widely rejected by theists. But there is another version: that God uses natural law but intervenes (as it were, in the boundary conditions) to give the right conditions for his desired outcomes. This was a view used by Darwin’s correspondent and defender, Asa Gray, who said that God channels variations on which natural selection acts, to be useful (that is, to serve up the mutations that selection needs to evolve a population in the “right” way). Let’s call this Interventionism.

Another view, is that every event that happens, from the decay of a single atom to global warming, occurs because God directly makes it happen. Laws and regularities in the natural world are just God being consistent. This is called Occasionalism. If one believes, as most theists do, that God causes some things to happen (either as miracles or as natural processes he wants to occur), then there is a spectrum from full-blown occasionalism to infrequent interventionism. Only if you think God created the laws of physics and thereafter never intervenes (perhaps because he has made the universe so that it must end up serving his Plan, which raises hairy questions about determinism), do you think that the “language” of the world must be some causal process like physics, or more locally, genetics.

So I would suggest that the theological issues are more complex than the metaphor of God using a language suggests. This is the latest version of God as a geometer/mathematician (a view found throughout the scientific era: e.g., Galileo, Descartes, Blake) using mathematics as his language of creation. Stephen will have something to say about this in the next, and final, post.

If we are to ask whether genes are God’s (or anyone else’s) language, we better first ask what is a language. Languages are divided into natural and formal languages. Human language is a natural language because it evolved haphazardly, and its utility is the result of a process not unlike natural selection in biology. So the word “dog” in English applies to canines more or less (does it cover coyotes? African wild dogs? Jackals?) because of a long association between the word and dogs in the minds of English speakers and listeners. The word “dog” is about dogs (philosophers say, it “refers to” dogs; and in philosophy, when a word has quote marks, it is being mentioned as a term; when it does not it is being used to refer to the things it refers to).

Now, natural languages have grammars, but they also have exceptions; they are messy and inconsistent. Formal languages (like a well-defined programming language, or mathematics) are consistent and not messy (though they can be complex). We might ask then whether genes are a natural language or a formal language. The genetic code evolved, and it evolved so that each triplet code results in a particular amino acid residue, so it might be a natural language. On the other hand, it is highly structured and insistent, so perhaps it is a formal language.

Arguments against the naturalness of DNA as a language sometimes rely upon the fact that common aspects of natural languages are not found in DNA:proteins relations. Here are two:

All known human languages exhibit something known as “Zipf’s Law”. This is a statistical feature of many kinds of large data sets (i.e., of measurements of populations), which, when mapped on a log-log graph, display an inverse linear distribution:

The relationship between linguistic sequences of a certain length and their frequency should be this sort of inverse linear kind. However, when DNA sequences are analysed, they do not exhibit this sort of relation (Tsonis et al. 1997). That doesn’t mean DNA isn’t a language, but it does undercut the claim out of the box.

Another argument is the problem of displacement: human languages involve reference to things that are not present, such as an absent friend. But DNA does not “refer” to anything; instead, it produces the RNA products.

Now there is a kind of language act that makes things happen: it is called a “performative” act. An example is the sentence: “You are under arrest”, by a policeman, which makes the person be under arrest, or “I now pronounce you husband and wife” when said in the right circumstances by a marriage celebrant. The act of saying it makes it so. But performative acts are not the whole, or even a large part, of language. We tend, at least in the western tradition, to make words have power. Consider the opening of the Gospel of John:

In the beginning was the Word (logos) and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

In the older Jewish tradition, such a role was played by Wisdom, a kind of causal instrument of God. And God’s own words had power, as the opening of Genesis that John’s gospel paralleled indicated. So the temptation is to think that in science, words (here, the “words” of genes) also have power.

I think this is a mistake caused by a false transference of human (and potentially divine) powers to the non-human world, which is usually referred to as “anthropomorphism” or projecting human properties to nonhuman phenomena in the world. It generally has been regarded as an error in science for four centuries (but not always by philosophers or religious believers).

In science, causation is about physical interactions, not semantic interactions (except when a semantic processor such as the one between the ears of any normal human being over the age of 4 is processing words as received sounds, etc.). DNA acts as a template because it forms weak bonds between the nucleotide sequences and the RNA monomers in the polymerase.

So perhaps what we mean by “X is a language God uses to do Y” is that God uses regular causes to achieve some or all of his aims. This is not inconsistent with any science, of course, since science works by positing and testing regularities of phenomena, and calling them causes. However, it has an unwanted side effect: any regular cause of any kind at all becomes “the language God uses to do Y”. So chemical bonds are a language of God, as are the laws of physics, and so on. This may be acceptable to many, but it seems to me that in the end the idea of it being a language becomes unnecessary: it is enough to talk about causes (and we will in the next post, do precisely that). In the event that DNA is a language because it is a regularity in the world, there would seem to be an indefinitely large number of such languages in the universe. [And this might encourage those who see God as a geometer or mathematician to suggest that the language of God is numbers, not genes. This is a widely held view.]

So on balance, I think that referring to DNA as a language is generally fairly harmless (unlike the use of “information”, which is a much more abstract property, and more misleading), but that it is not something that makes any claims with content. It is an analogy only, and doesn’t illuminate things to any real degree. One has to ask, what is gained by calling DNA a language?

One advantage, shared also in calling genes information, is that it sets up a “problem” that can be “solved” by divine action or intention. For example, one of the main kinds of advocates for genes as linguistic things is the intelligent design movement. If genes are meaningful, or the result of some intent, then that implies that one needs to have a deity (or something very like it) to give that meaning. If genes are not informational or linguistic things, though, but at best only something that can be analogised to language, then that “solution” is no solution at all.

I do not wish to suggest that everyone who uses this analogy intends for there to be a Designer or Speaker of genes; obviously many do not (including Dawkins). But it seems to me that we give away too much territory to the Intelligent Design folk by accepting in the first instance that genes are informational or linguistic. In the next post I will argue (in dialogue with Stephen Ames) that even theists need not make this analogy carry too much weight, and that they can as easily accept unintentional processes as they can any other kind of scientifically investigable process.


Tsonis, A., Elsner, J., & Tsonis, P. (1997). Is DNA a language? J Theor Biol, 184, 25–29.

Genes are more commonly regarded as information than as a language, and in fact the informational metaphor underpins the language metaphor. In this post I will consider how genes came to be called information (that is, how the Dawkins view of genes as computer messages came to the fore), and what it can and cannot mean.

In The Blind Watchmaker (1986), Richard Dawkins compared DNA to computer programs (instructions for building organisms):

It is raining DNA outside. … [downy seeds from willow trees] The cotton wool is mostly made of cellulose, and it dwarfs the tiny capsule that contains the DNA, the genetic information. The DNA content must be a small proportion of the total, so why did I say that it was raining DNA rather than cellulose? The answer is that it is the DNA that matters… whose coded characters spell out specific instructions for building willow trees… It is raining instructions out there, it’s raining programs; it’s raining tree-growing, fluff spreading, algorithms. That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy disks. [Chapter 5, p 111]

Floppy disks have been superseded by USB thumb drives, but the point is clear enough – DNA is information, not just a molecule. It’s not a metaphor.

However, many have tried to make this “plain truth” work, and failed. There are many reasons for this, but first let us look into the history of the idea that DNA is information.

As I noted in the first post of this series, the notion that inheritance is about information long precedes the discovery of DNA, let alone its structure and role in inheritance. But the idea that DNA is information goes back to the two discoverers of how DNA was structured, Francis Crick and James Watson. At first, back in 1952, the structure did not give the way DNA made proteins; it took some time to figure this out. In 1958, Crick published what came to be known as the “Central Dogma” of genetics:

Central Dogma Crick 1970 combined

[From Sandwalk’s excellent essay on the Central Dogma.] On the left Crick diagrammed all the possible ways sequence information could be passed on between DNA, RNA and proteins. DNA could copy itself, pass sequential information to RNA molecules or to proteins or all three; and the same was true for the other two types of molecules. In fact, Crick said, it only is passed on according to the right hand graph. Later, we discovered that some RNA sequences can be reverse transcribed into DNA, especially through the medium of what are now called retroviruses. Crick gave the following definition of the Central Dogma:

… once (sequential) information has passed into protein it cannot get out again.

It is very important to note that the “information” here is the linear sequence of the base pairs matching up to a linear sequence, first of RNA (tRNA), and then later of the proteins (through intermediary molecules of mRNA). Nothing beyond this is implied by the Central Dogma, and we can usefully call this “Crick information”, as Griffiths and Stotz do in their book. The passing of sequential or Crick information is thus a kind of templating from a sequence in the DNA to the [often edited] sequence in the RNA to the finished protein. It is not as “instructions” that Crick posited information. You lose nothing if you drop the word “information” in favour of “structure”, and I will argue there are good reasons for this.

When Crick was writing, information was all the rage. In 1948, the so-called Communications Theory of Information, made mathematical by Claude Shannon at IBM, was published, and many scientists thought this was a fruitful way to approach scientific problems. Inheritance seemed like a transmission of information, and so it was natural that Shannon’s scheme would be brought to bear. However, it was ultimately rather fruitless.

Another information idea, coincidentally published the next year by Norbert Wiener, is called Cybernetics. Here the information is about control of one thing by another, through signals. Cybernetic ideas about genes have been more fruitful, but in the end they turn out to be just analogies that are not terribly deep (in my opinion).

The code aspect of genes: what it is and isn’t

Code language is widely used when talking about how DNA causes proteins. Terms like editing, reading, transcribing, and expressing are all used in the technical literature. DNA is “expressed”, and “edited”; a gene is regarded as an “open reading frame”; DNA is “copied” or “replicated”. Such terms point up the leading property of DNA – it is both long lasting and its structure can be duplicated, not unlike a document. For this reason, some scientists refer to genetics as a “codical domain”.

But what is happening physically is that DNA molecules are split into two strands by helicases, and then either transcribed by polymerases, and RNA made from it, or that new DNA is made. The DNA and the RNA are just as physical as the proteins they produce. As Weiner noted in his book:

Information is information, not matter or energy. No materialism which does not admit this can survive at the present day. [p132]

Following Weiner here, DNA is a physical structure, and it is not “information” in the sense used by communications or computation theories. That sort of information is an abstract entity, a property of mathematics, not physics. Genes are not that kind of information. A mathematical model of genetics, especially population genetics which describes how genes change in populations, contains information about genes, but that’s a different kind of information too; it isn’t what those who say genes are information mean by it.

So the Crick information model – that genes are templates for the structure of RNA and through them of proteins – seems to be the only meaningful sense in which one can say genes are information.

Other types of information in genes

There are some other senses in which genes are supposed to have an informational aspect. They are the program sense, and the game theory sense.

Program/recipe: genetic control versus genetic involvement

The program or receipt metaphor has been used by many evolutionary biologists, including Ernst Mayr and Richard Dawkins. It is used in Dawkins’ quote above: genes are instructions. There can be no doubt that genes are involved, either directly or indirectly (say, by building molecules that have functions) in the development of living things. They are “first among equals”. But how can they be “instructions”?

Recall the mnemonic

G & E -> O

from the last post. In order for genes to be instructions, there would need to be a “computer” to “run” the instructions (or in the case of a recipe metaphor, a cook and kitchen to make the recipe). What could do this for genes? It would need to be not only the cellular machinery that expresses genes – ribosomes and so forth – but also the organism itself, which turns on and turns off genes, and the environment that provides the source material. So the mnemonic would have to become

G & O[<tE -> O[t]

or, the genes G, together with the state of the organism before now O[<t], together with the environment E, gives the organism now O[t]. While this is true enough, the metaphor no longer seems to hold up. Why not just say that genes and organisms and the environment gives the later organism? There is no temptation to talk about some abstract program, and ascribe to genomes powers they do not have.

Incidentally, while the Human Genome Project delivered the entire genome in 2000 (it’s been revised a bit since), we have yet to discover what sorts of effects most of the expressed genes actually have, and it will probably be another century before we finish that. And of course most of the genome is unused junk.

Game theory: genes as bookkeepers

There is one final metaphor that is possibly more than a metaphor that we should look at. It is yet another view that is found in Richard Dawkins’ work: genes are strategies in a game. Here the metaphor is backed up by extensive mathematics: a field known as “game theory”, developed to deal with Cold War threats and counter threats, turns out to be very useful to model how genetics changes in certain conditions (when the fitness of genes and their propensity to work together to against each other within a single population are known).

This was the basic underlying metaphor of The Selfish Gene: genes have interests, and behave (evolutionarily) like self-interested players of a game known as The Prisoner’s Dilemma. The details are not important here.

Game theory treats genes as “players” or agents. But genes have no strategies themselves; it is just that the mathematics of games can transfer to genetics. This often happens, that mathematics developed for one field get used in other fields. It doesn’t mean that the properties of that first field (where game players are rational and selfish) apply to the new field, only that the maths applies.

In fact, the game theory view has been called by Stephen J. Gould a “bookkeeping” view of evolution; you track the “wins” and “losses” of a given gene in a mathematical scorecard. In other words, selfish genes exist only in how you record the outcomes of the evolving population. It’s useful, but it doesn’t mean genes actually are strategies, nor that they have them.

Next I will discuss why genes are not a language.

Further information:

Molecular Biology (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Biological information (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

A video on epigenetics:

[Morality and Evolution 1 2 3 4 5 6 7]

So far I have made out the following arguments:

  • Evolution does in fact debunk moral realism, as the fitness bearer for a moral claim is the agent in relation to others in their group, not the truth of the claim
  • There is no Milvian Bridge, therefore, from success due to actions based upon moral claims to the truth of those claims
  • Instrumental facts necessary for taking successful action are not moral facts
  • Morality is based upon the Primate Standard Social Structure of social dominance relations, as instantiated in humans (uniquely, perhaps)
  • It relies upon there being classes of agents in a large society, as the number of individuals we can track is sharply constrained
  • With the Neolithic transition to sedentary agrarian populations, we began to need rules of behaviour that exceeded small group size norms
  • With the arising of states, we began to develop rules of the city, in which loyalty and cooperation is owed to institutions
  • With industrial/colonial states, morality becomes an economic, consequentialist, system of rules

This leads to some conclusions that many may find objectionable: as the environment (and here I mean all the affordances of the surroundings of a social group, including other groups and trading opportunities, as well as agriculture and other natural resources) changes, the optimal rules also change. Morality is therefore not something that is constant among human populations. Some rules may stay more or less constant, but the overall scheme does not, and hence neither do the underlying justifications for moral rules.

This deeply undercuts the reason for an evolutionary ethics, a popular enterprise in the late nineteenth century that built upon the long standing tradition of finding moral exemplars in nature (even in the book of Proverbs: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard. Consider her ways and be wise”, 6:6). Evolutionary ethics proceeded in two ways:

  1. Look for a human universal moral nature, and argue that this gives us moral ends
  2. Look at other species for exemplary cases and argue that this justifies human morality

The trouble with 1 is that the human universals always tend after a while to evaporate, or turn out to be over interpretation by researchers keen to find precursors to Christian, European, capitalist social norms, in part to justify the universality of those norms, and in part to justify the subjugation of other cultures as being incompletely evolved and in need of paternalistic oversight (by colonialists). Evolutionary psychology continues to do this from time to time (as, to be fair, also does most other psychology of a certain kind). It seems it is very hard to not think of one’s own values as somehow privileged and the best. I’ll get back to that.

The trouble with 2 is that it fails the phylogenetic test. What ants, antelope or antbirds do has very little bearing upon what humans do. Even if they inhabit the same or a closely analogous environmental challenge, as soon as you delve into the details of how behaviours are enacted and what particulars in the environment these other species exploit, the analogy quickly goes away. In short, as I have argued in my book The Nature of Classification, you get nothing out of an analogy that you didn’t insert in setting it up, and so it is again too easy to privilege one’s own moral values.

The famous Naturalistic Fallacy presented by G. E. Moore in his 1903 Principia Ethica was in fact a direct attack upon the idea that we could get moral goods (“the Good”) from observation of natural facts, and was a rebuttal against the evolutionary ethicists such as Herbert Spencer. No matter what fact one describes, one can always ask “but is it the Good?”. I believe evolution implies that nothing is the Good in and of itself. As Shakespeare so rightly had Hamlet say: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” [Act II scene 2]. Moral claims cannot be justified by facts unless a hidden premise is added that such facts are good or bad, and of course this is viciously circular. Evolved capacities may permit cooperation and enhance fitness; they do not justify values.

This sets up a conundrum that confronts me when I am asked why I am moral, as I said in the introduction to this series. Yes, apes follow norms, and enforce them, and we are apes. What else would I expect? But why am I moral in this way, and not some other? Insert your favourite moral monstrosity here involving Nazis…

And that is a harder question. Why do I continue to think that it is moral to look after the weak and poor in my society, even though Market Fundamentalism has taken over and discarded them? Why do I think I have a duty of care to look after anyone’s children in distress, not merely those I am closely related to? How is this justified?

And this gets back to my privileging my own values. Of course I do. As Hilary Putnam once wisecracked, I should use somebody else’s values? They are mine and would lead to a world I would prefer. But I cannot justify them beyond saying they are what I regard as virtues. In other words, moral foundations are not ever justified; they are chosen or acquired in some manner, and perhaps reflected upon if one is some kind of a philosopher (amateurs welcome!). A duty is a duty because it is a duty. I am a virtue ethicist, which is a shock, because evolutionists are not supposed to be. I do not justify, though I might explain, my values. They are just my values. Whatever ants, crocodiles and eland may do, I am a human being who prefers a certain type of world, and so I act to bring it about. Utilitarian considerations of greater fitness are almost irrelevant.

This rather existentialist position is not, I think, popular among moral philosophers, although it is very popular among so-called Continental philosophers who read their Nietzsche (from whom I did not get it, by the way, and whose moral norm choices I would tend to repudiate). It raises all kinds of difficulties, such as the “what about the Nazis?” objection. But I think I can deal with those. In the end, evolution explains why we have moral norms and why some moral norms are widespread (especially those that favour relatives – nepotism is a moral rule and more widespread than ethics texts indicate), but it doesn’t ever justify moral rules except instrumentally.

For the record, most of my moral rules are of a Millian liberal bent (not my public polity rules, but in private, I should be free to do what I want so long as nobody’s rights are violated). But I cannot justify this beyond a fundamental value that my life is my own to do with as I wish without undue coercion. I can’t prove this; but just try to take it away.

We tend to think that there must be a fundamental moral set of facts that justify our (or perhaps someone else’s) moral norms. I think this is a mistake of language (the language game of moral philosophy, inherited from theology), as any good Wittgensteinian should. I think moral specifics are justified by moral generalities, and there the justification game stops. I must be moral – I’m a pretty normal ape. But I can only be moral according to my values, and there’s an end to discussion.

So, to answer in more detail my theological interlocutor: I am moral because that is the human thing. I am moral this way because I want a world without interference in people’s lives, especially mine and my children’s. This is because I care about them, and to be consistent I must care about others (bring in Rawl’s Original Position argument here). I think it works for apes like us.


Moore, George Edward. 1903. Principia Ethica. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rawls, John. 1971. A theory of justice. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[Morality and Evolution 1 2 3 4 5 6 7]

In any field that has statistical variation, it is necessary to isolate the variables. Biology is all about statistical variation of populations, and so we must expect that any account of morality that is based upon biology will have variation along a number of axes. Here I wish to sketch out what the variables might be.

All human dispositions vary in individuals [Why dispositions and not behaviours or beliefs? Read my series on Evopsychopathy. We evolved to be disposed to acquire beliefs and behaviours in particular ways, not to acquire beliefs and behaviours directly as a result of any level of selection]. That is, a population will have a distribution curve of traits for any traits that can vary individually and independently. Given my account of moral dispositions in the previous posts, I suggest that we can usefully begin to visualise moral dispositions in the following manner:

  1. There will be tails for any distribution that are seen as over-cooperative (“saintly”) or under-cooperative (“evil”). This is a fact of statistical distributions.
  2. Norm enforcement exists to deal with the detection and sanctions of deviant behaviours like these.
  3. Depending on the value of the variable, sanctions will be applied against such deviation:
    1. Rewards for cooperators, unless the cooperation causes coordination problems (there is such a thing as being too saintly)
    2. Punishments for defectors: precautionary measures included.
  4. If there is a stable mode in the populational distribution, it will represent the average best tradeoff of costs over benefits to cooperation. However, in unstable environments (say, constant invasion, or changing trade conditions), the mode may be a transitory optimum, and possibly one that is best adapted to past conditions, given the delay in social adaptation. If things are too chaotic, it may be the mode represents only the more conserved behaviours, and not any kind of optimum at all.
  5. If there is a skewed distribution of behavioural dispositions, then the null hypothesis must be that there is some selective pressure to which a population has not yet adapted, and a mode that trades off costs and benefits (at that level) optimally. If there is a flat normal distribution, then either there is no selection on that axis, or it has been greatly relaxed. A tight and high normal distribution suggests high levels of selection on that axis.

The implications of these considerations are that the mere existence of a norm is no guarantee that it tracks past success (at that level of fitness bearer), and so we ought not expect that the moral landscape is an adaptive landscape to which morals have adapted, as Sam Harris has it doing. To show that this is the case, we would need to show that the context of the norm (biological, cultural, economic, etc.) is stable for long enough for the distribution of the population to normalise under selection. But let us suppose that we have such a case. What then?

Individuals within the population will tend also to vary in their dispositions over some curve. Some will be at the tails, most will be at the mode or near it, and some in between. What are these dispositions? From my fundament (sorry, from fundamental considerations) I offer these as a first cut:

  1. Other-regarding v self-regarding. This is a general cognitive style, not restricted to morality. It has been called the hererist–autist axis in studies of autism spectrum disorders, which can be seen as the extreme end of a general dispositional distribution.
  2. Virtue consequence. This is where an agent treats rules for their own sake (virtue) or as expedient means to an end (consequence). This is a standard distinction in moral philosophy.
  3. Conservatism v progressivism. This is the disposition of an agent to adopt or retain rules. Some people are disposed towards novelty (“early adopters”), while others are disposed against it (“late adopters”). In times of moral norm change, there will be some who hold out against changing behaviours no matter the consequences.
  4. Narrow v wide scope. Some will tend to broaden the scope of cases under which a rule is applied, while others will tend to be more restrictive. We might call the narrow case appliers legalists and the broad case appliers liberalists.
  5. Reflexivity v mimicry. Some tend to reflect upon the intension, or meaning, of a norm in their moral development. Others simply follow the observed pattern and do not reach any kind of reflective equilibrium (and of course most are somewhere in between these poles).

Now it is possible that these are not independent; that all conservatives are self-regarding virtue ethicists, narrow in their application of norms, and mimics; but if so, that is to be demonstrated empirically. I suspect that while there may be concentrations like this, there will be a spread of alternatives in the population. The modal distributions on this 5-space will be contextual and historical instances of strategies that work in a given environment, not universals about human behaviours. These are context-dependent peaks in the 5-space, and what counts as fit in moral terms depends on what resources and costs there are in the environment. Dawkins once used the metaphor of a Gangster Society (like 1930s Chicago). If you live in such a society, you have limited alternatives to be nice. If, on the other hand, you live in a Society of Friends, it is easier and more rewarding to be a grifter.

Societies can be flat, or they can be structured. The larger the population and the more diverse the ethnicity, the more hierarchical I expect a society to be. That is, those who have all the wealth and control will be a small, ethnically constrained, elite class. In a structured society like this, where upward mobility is difficult if not impossible, pressure from below will tend to undermine the societal norms in favour of class or ethnic norms. Conflict will ensue (this is hardly surprising news).

And finally, I would suggest that moral norms are heavily scaffolded. By this I mean that the development of moral norms is something that individuals receive from the social order and enforcement as they mature. Nobody reconstructs moral norms individually. You get them from your socialisation. An anarchical morality is a theoretical possibility, but in fact, it is impracticable. Even the most libertarian of rugged individuals gets their moral norms through socialisation. You couldn’t get them by experience. Consider how that would have to play out:

  • You would have to draw general conclusions from first principles, and where would they come from?
  • You would need to set up your own norms as hypotheses, out of an indefinitely large number of alternatives, and test them against the behaviours of members of your society.
  • You would deed to have some independent criteria for success of these hypotheses.

In short, moral norms are under determined by observation. Now suppose that you simply do what others do (mimic behaviours), and are sanctioned for this (rewarded or punished). Your norms will evolve rather quickly as action-guiding rules, without much if any reflection upon them and their justification. In short, the reward and lack of punishment is the criterion of success. This is much simpler.

But even reflection upon norms is scaffolded. Norms are justified by the social context (“God wills it”; “it is your duty as an X”, “what would life be like if everyone did that?”). When you first start to reflect upon the norms, these questions and a host of proffered answers, are the tools an agent will begin with. Few range far from these. Reflection is widespread, but not very deep.

All this leads to the diversity of moral behaviours and development one sees in a complex society, and indicates the difficulty in finding universals among all societies. Biology underpins moral behaviour, but at best our biology is an adaptation to constantly changing environments rather than to a singular social structure (whether 1950s suburban American capitalism, or to semi-nomadic foraging societies).

The final post will be “How should I choose to be moral, given evolution?”

[Morality and Evolution 1 2 3 4 5 6 7]

I should note that there is no set historical sequence implied in the levels 0 to 4, apart from the fact that we were primates before we were humans, so some sort of historical transition from 0 to 1 must occur before any of the others. Each layer contains the contexts of the lower layers, though, so we are always apes, humans, sometimes transitional, sometimes urban, sometimes imperial, and sometimes industrial. Consequently, one cannot draw inferences from one level (say the WEIRD – Westernised, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic – students of the University of Chicago) to all peoples in all contexts.

The layers interact fluidly, not deterministically. The speed and selection processes of each level will vary according to how stable the environment at that level is, and the stability of the fitness bearers, and the different levels will weakly interact, much of the time. Each level of ethical selection can superintend a lower level, but there is a limit to the degree and stability of that superintendence. For example, while our cultural ability to cook food may modify our jaw structure over many generations, if we collapse our society and lose fire, that influence of culture upon morphology will cease and biology will rapidly rebound (because the alleles are already in the population for robust jaws). Likewise, an ethical trait in an urban society may rapidly dissipate if society collapses back to kin groups and the HSSS.

The scope of the fitness is constrained by the extent of the fitness bearer. This truism means that where a social class lacks control (rewarding cooperation and punishing defection) the ethical precepts of that class lose all ethical weight for the other agents in the society. There will be conservatives (“it was better when the Party was in control”) and radicals (“we should defeat the Party now!”) for this process, of course, so this will not happen equally or uniformly across all situations in a complex society or ecological context. Those in marginal environments may revert to traditional ethical schemes more rapidly than those in resource-rich environments.

One implication I would like to emphasise is that a universal ethics requires a universal fitness bearer. If members of the tribe are held to be pre-eminent, the ethical conditions of the foreigner are not taken into account. Only with universal abstract agents like “human”, “adult”, or the extension of such categories as “child of [the] God” to those outside the religion can there be a universal ethics; otherwise those outside the favoured group, class or ethnicity are generally seen as sub-human in some fashion: childlike, less well developed, savage, incapable of love, altruism or charity, and so on. A modern example, just to show that these levels do not exist in a homogenous fashion through societies even when they are imperial or industrial, is when members of a dominant religion state outright that non-members are “unable to fully experience love”, or “life” or whatever. Every Easter, some bishop or pastor makes exactly this claim.

The notion of a “world citizen” is a prerequisite for a universalist ethics, and such ideas will continually battle against the smaller-in-scope notions of “us” against “them” for every kind of divide from empire to ethnicity or class, to simple kin relationships. I am most certainly not suggesting that such ethics are impossible; but they are not foregone conclusions of the world process, either. Partly this is because the more general the interest bearer, the weaker the individual benefit, and so the less rational it is for an agent to choose to act in a universal fashion unless the payoffs are exceedingly strong if successfully installed.

Famously, Peter Singer extended the ethical scope to include all sensitive species; one might wonder if this is in fact practicable. The payoffs, evolutionarily, will have to be very great for it to be the case that we successfully include other species in our moral equations. Again, I am not saying it cannot be done, and it is done to a degree in the prohibitions against cruelty to animals, but this might be seen simply as a consequentialist argument (children and adults who are cruel to animals will be cruel to other people as well).

To understand how this might happen, we need to understand the relation between biology and culture in ethics as in other domains. It has been argued that “genes have culture on a leash” and that biology is, if not destiny itself, then a major contributor to destiny. I think this is a mistake, and offer instead what I call the laminar flow theory of the relationship between culture and biology (and between culture at one level and at another):

Hydrologists know that large bodies of water, such as rivers and seas, can have currents moving at different rates, with different properties like salinity, temperature and direction of flow. These form laminar layers. A deep fast layer may not greatly affect a shallow slow layer, and all such combinations, but at the interface between them, there will be turbulence that does have some cross-layer effect. I consider the relations between the levels of biology and culture like a laminar flow: the influences are not one-way, nor even constant, between the layers. Time for a diagram:


The strengths and rates of the interactions here are notional: they may vary in any fashion depending upon the interaction type, the degree to which it is endogenously changing, and the selective value of each. The point is merely that each level can influence those above and below it and in variable ways. Lower does not always imply slower. Culture can be conservative and biology change in a rapid fashion, and vice versa. There may be general rules for this, but they aren’t apparent to me.

So moral duties to other entities will depend very much upon the degree of fitness that the moral layer imputes, the stability of selection for those moral duties, the influence on that layer of moral discourse of other layers, and so on. In short, it’s a blooming mess. We can, however, make some general rules of thumb.

I think that moral duties are less strong the less local the beneficiaries. I care more about the welfare of my children than I do about the welfare of my neighbour’s children in general, and more about them than the children of those over the hill, and so on. Moral concern is not transitive. However, I can care more about the moral rule than about my own children if conditions (in me, and in my social context) are right: consider the attitudes of “true believers” in communist societies. Likewise I can care equally about the welfare of a child portrayed pathetically on television (by an agency that wants your money; one hopes altruistically) as I do about my neighbour’s child, and so on.

The less like my own kind (social, ethnic, class) the less likely I am to extend equal moral rights. Justifications of behaviour, however, need not be explicit in this way. Sometimes I might say that whites should get more rights than blacks because I am white. More likely I am going to tell some story about God, or history, or genes, that justifies the view that I am inclined to have because I have an interest in the status quo, or the status I would like to be quo. False consciousness is ubiquitous.

Claims that morality is a summary of what previous societies found to work towards flourishing are partially right, but not simply true. If you restrict the scope of “society” and “worked” and “flourishing” to this class or that ethnicity and so on, then it is a truism: moral rules survive to the degree they help those that hold them to survive. But it does not mean that all past moral rules tend towards flourishing of all society, as conservatives often think. Nor does it mean that none do, as radicals often think. The reality is a matter of empirical investigation.

In the next post, I will attempt to discuss the variations in moral dispositions as a function of population structure. After that I will try to think through the moral implications: if these are all the outcome of evolutionary processes, what should I, as an agent, do and think? Then I will collapse in pain…