January 26, 2006

Ethics and evolution

Beyond Evolution : Human Nature and the Limits of Evolutionary Explanation
Anthony O'Hear Clarendon Press, Oxford 1997 Reviewed by Max Payne.
Max Payne is a former lecturer in philosophy and chair of the Network Trustees
Therefore just as biological evolution over 3 billion years has given us our eyes, our teeth and our hands, it follows that it will have given us the basic instincts by which we guide our lives, even if they are masked by a complex process of social conditioning. Our aggression, sexual lusts and competitiveness all fit into this picture very well, as indeed do other attributes like patience and a capacity for hard work. The problem arises with moral concepts such as obeying the rule of law, and altruistic self-sacrifice. If mankind is the natural biological product of a process of natural selection, where did such anti-competitive attitudes come from?
The answer of the Neo-Darwinians is that altruism is a product of natural selection like everything else in our nature. There is an evolutionary advantage to a species, if there is a tendency for individuals to sacrifice themselves to the common good. If one member of a flock gives warning of the approach of a dangerous predator, that individual may be picked off, but the remainder escape to reproduce and preserve the species' genetic pool.. The author of "The Selfish Gene", Richard Dawkins, has even suggested the existence of a gene for altruism.
However the question of ethics and evolution is far wider than O'Hear indicates. It is one of the great issues of human culture. Is the rationality of a late 20th century Anglo-Saxon intellectual the final point in the evolution of consciousness? The question is not asked. In Mahayana Buddhism the compassionate Boddhisattva renounces Nirvana until all life has passed through the portals of final enlightenment before him. Following the Neo-Platonist Plotinus, the great Christian theologian Origen held that the great process of cosmic redemption will finally lead even the Devil back to Heaven. These metaphysical systems are all concerned with the upward evolution of consciousness, not with physical biological evolution. . But Henri Bergson, Sri Aurobindo, Teilhard de Chardin and Ken Wilber have all made just this link.

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