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Morality and evolution 4: Is morality fitness-enhancing?

Last updated on 22 May 2014

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If we agree that morality enhances fitness, because it enables cooperation, several questions arise: what sort of fitness enhancement does it provide and to what? In short, what is the selection process tracking? To say that morality provides a foundation for social cohesion and the consequent benefits that accrue is not enough. We have to be exact about it.

I think that there are several levels of context in which selection tracks fitness in moral contexts, and several kinds of thing that are fitness-enhanced. I will call these levels 0 to 4.

Level 0: Primate society

Level 0 is the prehuman PSSS (Primate Standard Social Structure). Here individuals compete for mating and resources for reproduction, such as food, territory, shelter, etc. They do this by pairwise competition, using positive signals (grooming, permitting mating access, resource sharing) and negative signals (the primate threat stare, stature raising, and acts of violence). This raises the genetic fitness of the individuals who succeed in attaining group membership. Individual groups may flourish as well if cooperation is well managed and effective norms are enforced. Consequently, the fitness bearers are individuals and their reproductive lineages, and groups, insofar as they are sorted out through mean fitness, competitively with other groups. Transmission of this is largely done via genes and niche construction. However, there is evidence of cultural transmission among primates, and so mimetic (behaviour-copying) channels of transmission of norms are also likely.

Level 1 is the human standard social structure. This is not a question of implementations of social structures, because I consider it very likely that humans have a vast array of actual social organisation, and nothing will be all that universal, but instead a matter of the inherited dispositions to acquire local social norms. One is not born with the Golden Rule, for example, but if that rule is the norm of the postnatal society, as the individual matures, they will tend to acquire that norm just because it is the local norm. This, however, will compete with other dispositions – to acquire mating opportunities through social popularity and resource acquisition, for example. Individually, we “learn” a number of competing exigencies, and instrumentally attempt to satisfy them as best we can. This is a tradeoff, so moral rules (like Kant’s proscription of ever lying) will be treated in a casuistic fashion, to offer the best outcome the agent considers it can achieve (and of course, success at that will be determined post hoc).

Level 1: Human dispositions

In level 1 morality, one acquires the rules of society in an undetermined fashion; one does not learn from experience that the Golden Rule works, but only that others think it is worthwhile. We tend to use shortcut heuristics to acquire social knowledge (see Gigerenzer’s work) because we cannot construct that knowledge by induction, nor even by abduction. Because we have these inborn rules some stimuli and not others are more salient to us, and we construct our generalisations from these stimuli and not others. Consequently, the emotional contexts of responses by other agents (such as family or friends) will tend to carry more weight when we construct our moral framework than objective reportage of what works.

This means that we should be careful of thinking that moral rules are simple summaries of past success-acquisition. Moreover, while we may construct some of our moral generalisations, given that we (and not the other primates) are symbol users, much of it will be passed on to us verbally or by demonstration (mimesis), and this relies heavily therefore upon our inherited capacities to learn and process language and copy behaviours, with correction. Such learning “scaffolds” human development and socialisation. A feral child will not learn social norms properly past the age at which such basic cognitive resources develop.

We tend in this context to give greater weight to kin than to strangers, and so our rules will tend to guard the family in proportion to the relatedness of the individuals. Kin-tracking is directly related to inclusive fitness. In this context, nepotism and xenophobia are Goods.

Level 2: After the Neolithic Transition

Level 2 is what I call the Post-Transitional context. Once populations exceed working memory constraints for tracking reciprocal altruism, abstract indicators of social commitment (and hence trustworthiness for reciprocal benefits) must be called into play. Social divisions arise in terms of class, division of labor and skill, and ethnicity, and so these indicators, which I call “tribal markers”, apply. Instead of tracking hundreds or thousands of individual, one merely has to track these indicators as instances of class, and societies tend to have only a few such classes. Note: I do not mean the sociological sense of class as a measure of wealth or power, here, but the more logical sense. Nevertheless, these classes are arrayed in terms of high status to low status, and there may be more than one set of hierarchies in play, complicating the simultaneous judgements individuals must make upon encountering a representative of these classes. For example, a Scot was lower in status than an Englishman in the colonial era, but a Scottish aristocrat had a higher status than an English wheelwright, not matter how superior the latter thought their nation.

Now the rules are driven by cultural norms and institutions that serve the overall interests of urban societies. The fitness bearer is the urban society itself, and the social benefit is social cohesion that permits the high status classes to benefit most. Around this time, warrior classes arise (“equestrians”, “knights”), and their interests are served by their being part of, or rewarded by, the highest status classes. This division of political and economic power is seen very early on, in the appearance of distinct early Neolithic architecture that is clearly the residences and forts of a ruling class, around 10,000 BCE to 3000BCE. Where the ordinary folk had round houses in Anatolia, for example, we start to see rectangular floor plans and much larger buildings.

Consequently, we see moralities that are fiercely in favour of the local settlement: gods are local, rituals are local, and loyalty to the state and the rejection of betrayal becomes institutionalised. Religions arise around this time (meaning, a sacerdotal division of a priestly class or vocation). Since this period is pre-literate in the main, the transmission of the rules is by symbolic communication and force majeure. The fitness bearers are the classes themselves (and in particular the high status individuals within the class – status hierarchies apply within as well as between, classes), and when a class that has the highest status is overthrown (as in the Hyksos taking over from the prior rulers of Egypt), there is a period of major restructuring of fitness of the classes.

Level 3: Imperial ethics

Once states come into being, much of the ethics has to do with the gaining and maintaining of cooperation, and the punishment of defection, at the state level. When nearly homogenous states, ethnically, start to cover greater ethnic diversity (and that will include religious diversity, diversity of taboos and rituals, diversity of economic and ecological contexts and behaviours, etc.) that becomes difficult, and so ethics for the state will be invented. Patriotism will replace ethnic loyalty. Following the law will replace following village custom. The pre-eminence of the ruling class becomes a moral question: kings and their families must be regarded with awe and strict protocols.

Imperial ethics are superstructures of urban ethics, and they can be more ephemeral even within a series of generations of a single dynasty; but usually they are simpler and more long-lived than most ethics, because being simpler they are more easily adapted to local and transitory circumstances. Imperial ethics can even survive a revolution, as they did in the Soviet case – all that changed were the ruling class attributes.

The fitness bearers here are the imperial institutions, and (usually) families that head up these institutions. Imperial ethics are primate social dominance behaviours writ large, very large indeed. Consequently, when empires fall or are revolutionised, the ethics do not need much revision. Transmission of imperial ethics is done through literary and institutional modes, of course, but also tends to have a strong monumental aspect – norms are enforced by stelae or other monuments with inscriptions.

Level 4: Industrial ethics

You might, if that sort of terminology pleases you, call this Colonial ethics. To have industry is, of necessity, to have a cheap labour pool and cheap raw materials, and so it must be colonial. [By the way, I do not think we are any distance at all from being colonial; so there simply is not yet any post-colonialism except in some special cases, and not enough of them to form postcolonial ethics.]

Colonial or Industrial ethics are the first truly universal ethics, in that all must attend to the structures of the industrial age, irrespective of class, ethnicity, or physical prowess. This, of course, does not mean all equally benefit from industrial ethics, of course. Dominant families, groups and tribes continue to benefit most.

Industrial ethics are largely consquentialist. What counts is the outcome for the interest-bearers (continued production, wealth acquisition, stability of the workforce, etc.), and as the interest-bearers become multinational in scope, so too do they undercut the ethics of empires.

Who benefits

So the question as to when ethics is fitness enhancing depends on what level or type of ethics we are discussing, who or what the fitness bearers are, and the scope and context of the type of fitness. What is fit in, say, Transitional contexts (for example, the tribalisms of some European regions where family defeats national interests) will be very different for fitness in industrial situations, and it is my opinion (note: not well thought out belief!) that most ethic conflicts occur when these different levels conflict; otherwise, ethical rules tend to settle out stably when the social context is itself stable. Village ethics, for instance, do not change much unless extra-village conflicts occur.

I may do several more in this series to draw it all together. Then again, I may not…


  1. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    The post has a fitting title – but it seemed to me to implicitly acknowledge the existence of morality as a given. Perhaps it is merely an easier way to speak, just as evolution is often spoken of in teleological terms. It’s a pet peeve of mine (you guessed).

    If the title had been ‘Do behaviours that enhance fitness become identified as moral?’ we might have seen a different post and one that explored the evolutionary perspective of individual ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ acts.

  2. Roger Shrubber Roger Shrubber

    I’m missing what I wanted to see, which is more allusion to the equivalent of ‘bird song’ ethics that are roughly hardwired provided we get some reinforcement along the way. The bonding of child to parent, and the evolutionary advantage of it, the pain in its loss, the balancing requirement to explore the word. These (and their neurochemical foundations) are the trade routes laid down by evolution. The actual trade that takes place, the actual ethics develops to take advantage of these routes develops according to opportunities, costs, tolls and taxes. Perhaps Industrial Ethics matches to centrally planned trading.

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