Tuesday, 23 February 2010

A Darwinian basis for citizen ethics

Last weekend the Guardian newspaper initiated a debate, Citizen Ethics in a Time of Crisis, publishing a pamphlet with contributions by "prominent thinkers exploring key questions about ethics today".

I agree entirely with them that ETHICS is fundamental to solving the problems of modern society - on which, not just our well-being, but our very survival depends.  However, useful ethics cannot exist in the vacuum of idealised, romaticised, theologized, or purely opportunistic values and assumptions, which characterise the Guardian's assemblage of "prominent thinkers", but must be rooted in the Darwinian nature and demands of the individuals and groups to which they apply.

Why Darwinian? Because man is a product of Darwinian evolution and thus essentially Darwinian in nature. Any ethics not based on this reality lacks sound and sustainable foundations.

Before continuing, let me clarify what I mean by "Darwinian", because the word has been terribly misused and abused - to the extent that there are now powerful taboos against using it in any social or political context, because of its association with a ruthless struggle for survival and advantage over others, which is incompatible with a just and harmonious social and political order, social Darwinists having used it to justify social and racial inequalities, and the Nazis their ideology of a master race with the right to subjugate or exterminate what they deemed to be inferior races.

There is certainly a brutal and ruthless side to our Darwinian nature, but our capacity to love, reason and empathise with others are also its products. Human nature, our emotions and behaviour patterns, are adaptations to an environment very different from the one most of us live in today; we need to recognize this and develop an understanding of it, and its profound implications for understanding our situation and civilisation (i.e. the political and economic power structure which underlie it), instead of ignoring or denying them, as we do at the moment.

There are two principal reasons why we deny it: one is the conscious fear that recognising the Darwinian nature of our situation would legitimize and revitalize the past assumptions of social Darwinists, or even of the Nazis, which has led to massive social, political and professional taboos (in the relevant disciplines) against doing so.

The other reason is the, largely subconscious, fear of exposing the actual, though perverted, Darwinian nature of our civilization, i.e. of the political and economic power structures which underlie and permeate it, but which our dependency on, familiarity with and rationalisation of blinds us to, our large "prime-ape" brain being naturally disinclined to undermine the socioeconomic order and environment, on which its owner depends, by recognising its true, Darwinian nature.

We need to understand our own Darwinian nature, how it has shaped the existing political and socioeconomic order, and how it plays out within it, having effectively replaced the natural environment in which human nature (emotions and behaviour patterns) evolved. Only then, on the basis of this understanding, will we be able to develop a rational, humane and, necessarily, Darwinian ethics, which might yet save us from the dire situation we are in.


  1. Interesting points indeed.
    It seems as if we are back to the bottom line point that according to presuming Darwinian theory whatever has happened was Darwinian and so whatever has happened was Darwinian.
    Presuming a Darwinian history there is absolutely nothing that can be brought in as evidence against it since all things, even objections, are subsumed into Darwinism.
    For example Darwinism is “brutal and ruthless” and also “love, reason and empathise.” It is all and in all, it is a catch all term and unchallengeable as agreeing with it serves a Darwinian purpose and disagreeing with it serves a Darwinian purpose.
    Thus, we must follow Darwinism up until we do not like (as per modern day 1st world country “ethics”) and then we must rebel against Darwinism as rebellion against our Darwinian nature is also Darwinian.

    It is no wonder that Philip S. Skell, “the father of carbene chemistry,” member of the National Academy of Sciences and Emeritus Evan Pugh Professor at Pennsylvania State University noted,
    “Natural selection makes humans self-centered and aggressive — except when it makes them altruistic and peaceable. Or natural selection produces virile men who eagerly spread their seed — except when it prefers men who are faithful protectors and providers. When an explanation is so supple that it can explain any behavior, it is difficult to test it experimentally, much less use it as a catalyst for scientific discovery.”
    Also, Benjamin Wiker seconds that observation by noting the following in his consideration of “Game Theory”,
    “By using games with fewer rules than Candy Land, the Darwinian game theorists are claiming ‘to uncover the fundamental principles governing our decision-making mechanisms.’ We’d better take a closer look, starting with their presuppositions…The answer seems to be that whatever has survived must be the most fit; therefore whatever exists must have been the result of natural selection. Fairness exists; therefore, it must be the result of natural selection. Q.E.D. It is always convenient to have a theory that cannot possibly be proved wrong.”

    From this follows your insistence upon adherence to useful Darwinian ethics and your dogmatism is ready to go, “useful ethics cannot…but must be…we need to…We need to” and yet, if I disagree then, you guessed it, that too is Darwinian.

  2. Mariano, I'm very sorry that it has taken me so long to discover your interesting comment, the reason being that I have been neglecting to subscribe to my own posts! A mistake that I am now correcting.

    In response to your comment: Darwinism can be “brutal and ruthless”, but given human consciousness (which other animals seem to lack), it doesn't have to be. If we love beauty and diversity (human and non-human), as I and many others do, we can try to preserve them.

    However, one can hardly blame even the most enlightened individual for giving priority to his and his own family's survival and well-being.

    However, this doesn't preclude concern for the survival and well-being of others. On the contrary, if others are hard pressed in the struggle for their very survival, it will pose a threat to his and his family's own well-being.

    What's essential, and what I am arguing for, is a Darwinian perspective in understanding ourselves and the power structures of state and economy that our perverted Darwinian nature (in the artificial environment of human society) has given rise to.