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Morality and Evolution 5: biology and culture

Last updated on 22 May 2014

[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…


  1. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    In other summarised news a paper titled ‘With Malice Toward None and Charity for Some: Ingroup Favoritism Enables Discrimination’ discusses a different view of discrimination. You don’t have to hate ‘others’ merely love ‘yours’ more – something which is a lot easier to build an evolutionary narrative around (and test, hopefully) and rather contrary to some of the ‘morals’ promoted in religious and philosophical works. No wonder ‘morals’ can be hard to live up to.

    • I don’t think this is an alternative to what I sketch here so much as an empirical demonstration of it. I was basing my point upon the variable weight we give to moral considerations of others outside our group; not just hating those.

  2. John, Thank you for continuing the series and sorry for the pain. My evolutionary derived disposition for empathy prompts me to ask in concern about the cause of your pain? Take care my friend.

    • If philosophy is not painful, you aren’t doing it right.

  3. “One implication I would like to emphasise is that a universal ethics requires a universal fitness bearer.”

    I don’t think this is quite right. Couldn’t a universal ethics come from a universal trait that is shared by all the fitness bearers? One that absolutely must be satisfied? In this case, that trait is…the survival of life. We ALL need this. So your laminar theory is a nice metaphor for the pulls between our various competing needs, but I would extend them (Peter Singer-like, but along the consilient lines of the entire realm of biology (the study of *life*), which E.O. Wilson outlined) to those pulls between:

    biochemistry -> molecular biology -> cellular biology -> organismal biology -> sociobiology -> ecology -> evolutionary biology

    Your 4 levels of history could be seen as a subdivision within the sociobiology sphere, and your mention of cruelty to animals is a characteristic of the pull from the ecology sphere. Individual flourishing resides in the organismal lamina. The lack of “free will” (here I mean “freedom to choose”) at the biochemical through cellular levels of biology mean they don’t really have any moral pull on us (though one could objectively analyse afterwards what those building blocks “ought” to have done to survive), but the rest of the levels do compete for our moral emotions in a universal fashion because we all share the trait of being alive.

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