There is a religion which oppresses women, which is enthusiastically adopted by marginalised groups, which hates democracy and which has declared the modern world to be a heresy they call “Americanism”. This religion, which is run entirely by men, demands of its adherents loyalty to a small group of clerics overseas, in a pseudostate set up by extremists. Its doctrine, to be sure, is hardly consistently adopted by many of its followers who have adapted to democratic civil society, but taken at face value that doctrine requires a theocracy imposed upon all who live under its rule. It has underlain many wars and atrocities, and collaborates with dictatorial states so long as they support its interests, although it has been known to turn on them too, when the chance arises.

Adherents of this religion are often accused of being terrorists and disloyal to their home nation. They are said to follow a legal system that they put above the laws of the land, and to undertake religious wars in the name of justice. Secularists have often attacked this religion in the name of modern society, and egalitarianism, which this religion opposes. It has generally rejected attempts at cross religious dialogue or tolerance for nonbelievers. It opposes secular education, and has set up schools run by clerics and religious authorities to ensure that its next generation is unaware of alternative views. It has media figures that attack everything they hate and wish to impose their views upon those who are not part of its society.

Clerics in this religion attack socially progressive viewpoints and proponents as going against the will of God, and insist that the only way to live is theirs, and so they justify horrible atrocities like killing Jews, stealing children, and prohibiting medical treatment of various kinds because it offends them as a way to “make the world just”.

What is this religion? It is Catholicism.

Any student of recent history (for a historian, the last 200 years are recent) knows these things about Catholicism. As recently as my childhood (granted, that is a long time ago in dog years) people were declaiming that the Catholics would outbreed us all (us being Protestants, and in my suburb, Anglicans and Presbyterians) and throwing stones at their children.

Ask yourself, gentle reader: do you fear the coming Catholic takeover of your democratic society? Sure, the various popes and archbishops (and one cardinal in particular) say fundamentally indecent things about how the rights and welfare of women and children are to be subordinated to the interests and dogmas of the Church, and if they had half a chance they’d block abortion even in life or death situations for mothers, but secular societies have forced the rank and file to accept that they are not in charge, and that they must live by the laws and mores of a modern society. Most Catholics in western societies even think contraception is acceptable, and more than half agree divorce and abortion are okay as well.

So why don’t we scream in the streets that Catholics are a threat to our values, way of life, and safety? Because they have changed how they live, and in the process, changed their religion as well. In the short space of a century (and believe me, in the lifetime of a religion, that is very short indeed) we have gone from the Catholic Church arrogating to itself the role of theocratic arbiter of what is right in every country to it being one among a plurality of religions, viewpoints and ways of life. More remains to be done, but it happens.

The same thing will happen with Islam. Indeed, Muslims have been enthusiastic adopters of secularism in many countries (pre-revolution Iran, pre-Erdogan Turkey, Indonesia) already. Most of the extremists are from the countryside, and rural peasants always are more conservative than urbanites, no matter what the nation, ethnicity or religion. But there’s another concern here: the sacrificial lamb, to use a religious metaphor.

Jews know this. They were used to justify every grab for power and money from Richard II to Hitler, and to denigrate every nation from Spain to America. They were a nice distraction from the real issues facing a political elite. Problems with the economy? The Jews. Problems with employment? The Jews. Terrorist acts by (in recent years) Muslims? The Jews set it up.

Muslims have a large number of extremists, to be sure, among their ranks. I suspect, however, this has more to do with dislocation, dispossession and marginalisation than it does with the admittedly awful doctrines of Islam, just as it did with Catholics before them. Dislocate, dispossess and marginalise any group at all, and they will become extremists. Workers in Europe before the Third Reich were the same (and unions were a convenient whipping boy for the Nazis also, as they are in rapaciously capitalist America). Kick a group long enough and it will try to kick back.

I have personally known many urbane, sophisticated, secular and science-based Muslims, working at a medical research institute for a decade. They came from the Arabian peninsula, from Pakistan, Turkey and other nations. All that mattered for them to be medical researchers was that they adopted the science. Likewise, all that matters for a Muslim to be a good citizen of a secular democratic nation is that they adopt our laws, civic values and practices. And they are. But marginalise them, exclude them from public discourse, and take away their citizenship, and you get what you should expect.

Humans evolved in tribes, our species’ equivalent of the general primate troop structure. This meant that members of the tribe benefited from shared resources, the protection of the group and the inherited knowledge of the tribe. It also meant that we will natively and naively defend our group against others, and demonise the other groups. You see it in sports, culture, nations and religions. You see it in class, gender wars (there’s a reason men tend to denigrate and discriminate against women and intersex) and age cohorts. And recently, Australia has been showing it in spades: beginning with the racist dog whistles of government policy towards refugees over the past decade (yes, Labor, I’m including your execrable craven cowardice too!). And right now that tribalism is being used to take away legal rights that Australians have enjoyed for over 60 years. We are giving up rights like the presumption of innocence, public accountability of government, and general human rights.

I also see tribalism in the attacks by the antireligious on all religious believers (in fact much of the tribalism of the skeptical community stems from attacks upon Islamic belief, just as the current rash of state sponsored racism does). The irony here is that the reason the West hates Islam is because it used to be a competition between Christendom and the Caliphates for control over territory; and now it is the competition for control of oil resources. That irony is lost on the supposedly progressive skeptics movement, almost all of the time.

The fact is, it is not progressive humanistic thinking to replace one set of tribalisms with another set; that’s just hypocrisy and self-serving behaviour. We can get that at the local store – why do we need to be skeptics to do that? Why do we need to promote sexism or anti-non-Western attitudes in what should be a rational movement?

I want to say that rationality leads away from these tribalisms, but in fact rationality is, as old David H said, a slave to the passions, and sometimes (most of the time?) those passions are self-interested in the extreme. Sure, there were the cosmopolitan rational thinkers like Russell, or Tom Huxley, but they would not even get a decent twitter following these days. You gots to hate if you wants the fans.

I’m sick of it. No more labels for me: there are people and their actions. If they act well, I don’t give a flying fornication what their label is. And if they don’t, I don’t care they are supposed to be my peeps. I’m an anti-semic from now on.

Err… wait a minute…

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.

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

Humans are apes, evolutionarily speaking. That is, while we are named distinctly in the vernacular usage from the rest of the apes (chimp, bonobo, gorilla, orang-utan, gibbons x 2), we fall squarely within the great ape clade. As such, we might expect that we share with them a social nature.* As I said in the first post, social living is what apes do. Moreover, apes have and enforce social norms. Usually this is based upon mating strategies that are typical for the species. Gorillas, for instance, live in troops of females with young, and a single male (a silverback) that defends mating rights against other unattached (“bachelor”) males. Common chimps live with in troops of several dozen, with an alpha male and several subordinate males. Bonobos have roughly equal numbers of adult males and females, and the alpha individuals can as easily be female as male. Dominant females also occur in chimps when no male is mature enough to compete for the top position.

In each species, norms are enforced by, in the first instance, the dominant individual (usually a male, as I said), who punishes those who fail to recognise the norms, and, in the case of dual gender social group species like chimps and bonobos, reward their allies. Frans de Waal has documented these behaviours in a series of engaging books [listed below]. Roughly, the smaller the sexual dimorphism (differences in size and traits between the sexes), the more equal the gender mix of a social group, and the more a dominant individual must “negotiate” cooperation within their troop. The reason for this is that if extreme polygyny is the rule, as in gorillas, the bigger the male has to be able to control access to his females. Bonobos, on the other hand are nearly the same size – males are around 10% larger than females, and the gender balance is more equal.

Humans, however, have even less sexual dimorphism than bonobos: the average size dimorphism is around 5% for males over females. And our mating strategies are much more equal: mates tend to be singles rather than multiples. Each species has its own version of the Primate Standard Social Structure (PSSS). Since, if we wish to understand human morality, we must consider how we vary and are the same as our nearest relatives, let me set this up, as I understand it.

The PSSS is based upon primates living in troops of varying size. A troop can be a family group, or it can be a more distantly related kin group. Outbreeding occurs when chances of meeting other troops is rare enough to ensure inbreeding among the troop members, but common enough that mates can be acquired from other neighbouring troops. Each troop tends to have its own range, and in chimps, for example, conflict at the borders of these ranges, and attempts to take control of resources and territory, can be quite vicious. Generally, however, primate interactions within the troop are peaceful, and involve only threat displays rather than actual violence.

Pairwise conflicts and transactions set up a dominance hierarchy among primates. Each individual tracks those troop members they are dominant, subordinate, or equal to, and thus a pyramid of relationships evolves over time, as members mature and challenge for status. High status individuals have first choice of mates, food and other resources like resting places. They permit secondary choices to the next rank, and so on. Generally these dominance hierarchies are fluid and not well defined past the third layer, of “gamma” individuals. As the dominant individual ages, younger members may challenge for the top position, often forming alliances with other individuals. Dominant individuals reward their allies and well-behaved individuals in the troop, and punish those who transgress the status quo (if they can). Grooming is one way that primates tend to reinforce these social relations: the higher the status, the more well groomed by others an individual is.

Troops have a maximum size, based on the working memory constraints for tracking cooperators and defectors. The more complex the signs of these behaviours, the smaller the maximum size of the troop. When the troop exceeds this threshold, it will split, spontaneously.

Now humans are apes, as I said, and so we should expect that humans will behave the same way as the other primates, and especially apes, do, because behavioural repertoires are evolutionarily inherited from species to species, which then adapts its species-typical social structure to suit the mating strategies employed. It is unclear what the sequence of human social adaptation and evolution was, but we can make some inferences from so-called “traditional” or “foraging” societies, which used to be called “hunter-gatherers” before anthropologists realised that most of the food was gathered, and very little hunted, in these societies, depending upon the environment.

Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at Oxford University, has christened what has come to be known as “Dunbar’s Number”, which is the mean size of social groups in human societies: 100-250, which an average of 150. He has argued that this is due to our cognitive limits at tracking reciprocal relations with individuals. We can only manage to keep track of around 150 social relationships, including family and their mates. Consequently, our social groups are usually about this size. In foraging societies, this is roughly the size of an unstructured tribe or village. By “unstructured”, I mean that there is no fixed social set of institutions that divide labor up and establish a ruling class, to which I shall return later.

So the end result is that a human troop will tend to be around 150 individuals (or greater – some researched put the number at around 300), and there will be only a pairwise-formed dominance hierarchy in such societies. The rules of cooperation are troop-based: one owes most support to relatives, and any support at all to troop members, not members of other troops, although territorial disputes may be managed in a ritual fashion akin to ape threat displays. One thing that is unique to humans, however, is that we trade resources between troops. In Paleolithic Europe, stone tools have been found as far away as 3000km from where they were mined and shaped. So our contacts between troops must be regulated by some shared norms.

This, too, is primate behaviour in the PSSS. Troops generally live in “bands” of up to several thousand individuals. In Australian aborigines in the southeast of the continent, regular gatherings of troops were held, to exchange mates and resources and undergo ritual behaviours that strengthened ties. Called “corroborees” by Europeans, these meets were social, political, and economic events, and happened regularly (every four or five years for southeastern aborigines).

A morality based solely upon troop (tribe) dynamics, therefore, will tend to treat others well only in proportion to the degree of troop (or band) inclusion, and the norms are those of the troop and band. Humans have one rather obvious added complexity: culture. We have highly diverse local cultures, and therefore cultural norms. It pays to distinguish between our biological (species-typical) dispositions to form norms culturally, and the norms themselves. As apes, we have the dispositions. As cultural agents, we have the cultural norms.

Something happened to human societies in the late Neolithic, so marked it is called the “Neolithic transition”. Agriculture made it possible for social groups to grow well beyond Dunbar’s Number in a very short time, speaking from an evolutionary viewpoint. High density populations of thens of thousands now lived in well marked regional territories, which had to be defended, as arable land and water resources were not uniformly distributed. Some cultures became semi-nomadic herders, while others became crop growers. Urbanisation began to occur, and now there had to be norms of the city (in Greek, polis, from which we get behavioural terms like politics, polite, and police, the norm enforcers).

Now the working memory constraints were well-exceeded, and as a result, norms began to be taught as codified rules. Moreover, thinkers began to identify obligations to those who were not part of one’s social network and familial groups. Out of this, morality was born (the term morality comes from m?s, plural m?res, a Latin word meaning “usage” or “custom”). The problem of morality is, I believe, a problem of urbanisation.

If this is the way to see the origins of morality, and as Sterelny and Fraser argue, morality is about the best ways to reinforce cooperative behaviour, which is the fitness enhancer of moral behaviour. Darwin held that it enabled groups (“villages”) to prosper over other groups, and so he is often thought to have provided a group selectionist account, in which the villages are the beneficiaries of moral conformity. Individual selectionists, however, take an agent based view. An individualist selectionist account, however, as we saw, can only work if the agent is already part of a cooperative society, so the origination of that milieu is left as an accident.

I do not know what I shall next write about. This series is taking a turn I did not anticipate.


de Waal, Frans. 1982. Chimpanzee politics: power and sex among apes. London: Cape.

de Waal, Frans. 1989. Peacemaking among primates. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

de Waal, Frans. 1996. Good natured: the origins of right and wrong in humans and other animals. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

de Waal, Frans. 2001. The ape and the sushi master: cultural reflections by a primatologist. New York: Basic Books.

de Waal, Frans. 2005. Our inner ape: a leading primatologist explains why we are who we are. New York: Riverhead Books.

Dunbar, Robin I. M. 1992. “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.” Journal of Human Evolution 22:469-493.

Dunbar, Robin I. M. 1998. Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Dunbar, R. I. M. 2012. “Social cognition on the Internet: testing constraints on social network size.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 367 (1599):2192-2201.

Dunbar, Robin I. M., Camilla Power, and Chris Knight. 1999. The evolution of culture: an interdisciplinary view. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


* Orangs are found in the wild in solitary ranges of males, encompassing several female smaller ranges. Females tend to bear single young, and raise them, but generally do not live in greater than pairs of mother and progeny. However, when orange are placed into groups, as in refuges and sanctuaries, they form social groups readily enough. It is possible that modern orang populations are relict populations living in marginal environments, and have recently adapted to this in the face of human (and possibly other, now-extinct, ape) incursion on their territories.

I posted this on Panda’s Thumb, but I thought I would repeat it here.

I occasionally get books for review unsolicited, and many of them are not worth noticing. However, Kostas Kampourakis’ Understanding Evolution is a wonderful resource for students of all kinds, including biology students.


Kampourakis, a philosopher at Geneva, has compiled and discussed sensibly a range of topics concerning evolution. He begins with the conceptual difficulties people have in understanding the evolutionary process, and why. In chapter 1, he discusses how we know about evolution, what questions it answers, and considers two cases that are close to home: domestication and epidemiology, the evolution of disease.

The evolutionary questions are about why living things evolved the way they did, about speciation, the process of evolving new species, and the hypotheses that these require. He talks about explanation (especially “inference to the best explanation“) and the use of scientific method in evolutionary biology. The sections on domestication of animals and on epidemiology are satisfyingly complete.

Chapter 2 covers religious objections to evolution, including, of course, creationism and intelligent design. He discusses the arguments made by ID, especially in the context of atheism and agnosticism. Arguments from design in nature are expounded and given a thorough treatment, including “artifact thinking” and complexity.

The he discusses world views in conflict, especially relating to Richard Dawkins’ views, and then more widely the views of both theist and atheist scientists. Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria” and Simon Conway Morris’ inevitability thesis are also reviewed. There is a nice discussion of the differences between knowing and believing and various kinds of methodological and metaphysical naturalisms.

Chapter 3 is titled “Conceptual difficulties to understanding evolution”. Here he discusses psychological essentialism in detail, and the “design stance” that Dennett identified. The problems of conceptual change, which I have published on myself, are then discussed. An example he uses is the shift from geocentric thinking to heliocentric thinking, and it is a good case study. The discussion on essentialism and design thinking, especially of artifacts, appeals to the psychological literature in detail.

Chapter 4 gives a complete and up to date account of how Darwin himself came to his theories. In particular he discusses how Darwin thought varieties became species, and gives a nice timeline of Darwin’s intellectual development. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how scientists and the religious reacted to the Origin.

Chapter 5 is about common ancestry. Usually books of this type focus upon natural selection, as if that were where Darwin’s originality lay. Kampourakis knows that Darwin’s true novelty lay in this idea instead. He explains how genealogical thinking allows us to reconstruct and classify the history of nature, and how thinking in terms of a historical tree of life made all the difference (and was Darwin’s first and main problem to solve). There’s a good discussion of molecular evolutionary biology here.

He gives an account of an often misunderstood notion in biology: homology. This is followed by phylogenetic classification and construction, and a discussion of the question of apparent similarities in biology: convergences (analogy, or homoplasy). Many clear and useful diagrams make the chapter even easier to follow. Then he considers the role of developmental thinking, and how evolution often modifies the timing of development.

Chapter 6 is titled “Evolutionary change”. It discusses “deep time” and dating of taxa and their divergence. Here he notes that while selectionist accounts are important, much evolution is stochastic, that is, chance. He discusses the difference of within-species evolution (microevolution) and between-species evolution (macroevolution) and gives a good summary of scientific ideas about these, especially the “major transitions” literature. The “selection-against” and “selection-for” distinction is explained here. Speciation and extinction are also explained. Then he returns to the question of inference, in a historical science like evolution.

Finally, in his concluding remarks, he discusses what evolution does, and does not explain, especially with respect to ethical and religious questions.

Each chapter has a good reading list, and the material is up to date in both science, and philosophy and history. He takes stances throughout but does so explicitly, allowing the reader to decide what to think for themselves.

This is an excellent, and long-needed book. The education of evolution in schools is now so poor in many countries, that this can act as both a primer and as an invitation to think further, and I would recommend it unreservedly to anyone who wants to know what evolution really is and means. It is not cheap, but neither is it as expensive as many books of its kind. Buy a copy.