Saturday, December 31, 2011

"Evolutionary morality"

So, my brother used the phrase "evolutionary morality" in a message to me recently.  He's been interested, and been a supporter of, "creation science" before "creation science" was cool - so you can imagine we have some lively discussions.

In our last discussion, he used the phrase "evolutionary morality".  So, I've been trying to figure out what that might be.

Apparently, according to some creation science advocates, evolutionary theory is racist, responsible for the holocaust, is demeaning to humanity, causes moral decay, is counter to egalitarian ethics, promotes socialism, the common cold and head lice.

It's easy to just dismiss this as fantasy, and have the same old argument about Hitler's personal and public religious beliefs and all that nonsense; or rail about how Social Darwinism is a misnomer and has nothing do with Darwin's personal beliefs; or how the term "race" in the subtitle of some early editions of On the Origin of Species was a much more general term than it is used now.  Let's not.  The old ashes of that dead horses bones do not need to be beaten anymore.  I just wanted to point out the bones of the dead horse in the unlikely event you haven't tripped over them yet.

So, let's just clear this up a bit.  It would be completely dishonest to pretend that evolutionary theory has not been used by racists and eugenicists.  It has.  The tiniest bit of wiki-reading reveals that the co-option began very early as various translations of Darwin's book into other languages (notably French and German) were added to and changed to suit the agenda of the translators.  However, it would also be dishonest to pretend that somehow selective breeding, ethnocentrism, and genocide were inventions of evolutionary theory.  If they were, they would not exist before it, right?  I mean, you can find stories of the whole-sale slaughter of ethnic groups in very old accounts...well, like the Bible.  Also, evolutionary theory began to solidify around 1855, yet Friedrich the Great was selectively breeding humans to create a regiment of taller-than-average infantry around 1688.  How could he ever have gotten that wacky idea?  (Perhaps from those guys that were selectively breeding and hybridizing bananas.)

But, let's get back to the here and now.

I asked a friend of mine about why many people considered evolutionary theory "racist" and she explained to me that her father, a scientist himself, would never accept it.  As a black man living in the United States, he was referred as an "animal" and a "monkey".  To accept common ancestry of humans and accept the idea that humans are related to other animals; was simply emotionally impossible.  I find this incredibly regrettable, but I can't blame him one bit.

I had an interesting conversation with an old-school Nazi I met at the mall.  He certainly viewed non-whites as simply monkeys dressed up as people.  I'm aware that some "pro-white" groups teach that white people were created and non-whites evolved, and see inter-racial marriages and nothing less than bestiality.  I know, I know...I suggested NOT talking about Hitler, but Hitlers dead - the Nazi aren't.

Let me be clear about my position on that:

Is that where evolutionary theory leads?

Are we somehow destined to become racists, eugenicists, and complete arses if we accept the scientific consensus?  We will be compelled to consider the humans around us as "more" or "less" evolved as some sort of value judgement on their right to exist and reproduce?  Does accepting evolutionary theory require us to also accept a hierarchy of races with black people a the bottom? Does accepting evolutionary theory require that we reject the notion of a Creator-God?

Many Creationists answer all of those questions with an emphatic, "yes".  While the vast majority of evolutionary scientists slap their foreheads with their palms and say, "no".  If you doubt me - spend some time on YouTube - starting with this:

First things first.  What does evolutionary theory actually say?  Maybe, just maybe, we shouldn't be trusting Nazi scumbags to tell us the truth about science.  Similarly, we probably shouldn't be trusting a movie that quotes On the Origin of Species, a 150 year old book on the subject, to make a point that is contradicted in the next paragraph that they fail to mention.

Don't trust me either.  I'm not even a biologist.  I'll do my best, but if you actually care to understand the issues in-depth, go to the Talk Origins website or better yet, buy a book about evolution written by a biologist who writes text books. 

Be that as it may, here is a summary of my understanding of fundamental biological evolutionary theory:

1) There exists genetic diversity in living things.
2) The genetic traits of living things more suited for thriving within their environment and/or are more preferred as mates within their population, will be more likely to be passed onto the next generation.
3) The frequency of genetic traits within a populations of living things change in time.

Here is my understanding of the fundamental concept of common ancestry:

1) Early life was much different than it is today.
2) As populations of living things became isolated from each other, they evolved separately.
3) All current life on Earth can trace it's ancestry to early life.

The "Tree of Life Web Project" explains our current understanding of how living things are related to one another.

If we assume that is actually the case, does that automatically send us to racist crazy town?  Well, what are some common racist and eugenicist ideas?  Let's address them one by one.

There are distinct races.

Evolutionary theory says no.  There are populations of people that have been isolated from others, and because of that isolation have evolved separately.  However, there is a continuum of genetic diversity.  There is a multitude of ethnic groups scattered about human migratory routes.  There is an evolutionary advantage to having light skin in areas of the world where there is little sunlight, because of increased vitamin D absorption.  As populations of people migrated north from equatorial regions in Africa, those with lighter skin thrived better in that particular environment.  However, there is not a distinct "white race" or "black race" or "Asian race" or any "*blah* race" - which is probably one reason race-obsessed people have such difficulty deciding who belongs to what "race".  Instead of realizing that their model is wrong, they explain that natural multitude of human variation in terms of degrees of "racial purity".

Let's contrast this with an alternate theory to evolution: theistic polygenism. 

Polygenists say yes.  According to some polygenists, God created the races separately and placed them in separate areas of the world in order to keep them apart.  Just ask Judge Leon Brazile, who justified his ruling in the landmark interracial marriage U.S. court case of Loving v. Virginia by invoking his particular view of :

"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

To assert that there are distinct separate "races" or a biological category resembling the social construct of "race" is to deny evolutionary theory, it is not a consequence of it.

Some races are better than others.

Evolution tells us nothing.  Science does not make value judgements.  However, some have interpreted evolutionary theory to mean that some groups of people or individuals are more "evolved" than others.  This assumes that there is a linear progression to evolution making living things better and better.  This isn't the case.  All the is required for a particular genetic trait to become more prevalent is if more of the next batch of babies has it.  These are sometimes very specific to the environment, sometimes are pretty neutral, and sometimes are pretty bad in every way except survival and reproduction.  Genetic traits that become more prevalent in a population might have little to do with how "good" anyone is.  If we had the chance to meet some of our common ancestors, there is no guarantee that we'd find them "inferior".

Another common misconception of evolutionary theory is that since the population of humans that we are all descended from probably came from somewhere in Africa that Africans are "less evolved".  Evolution of African human populations didn't just stop once groups of people started moving around.  We have common ancestors, modern African people are not actually our ancestors.

Also, again, there is no such thing as a distinct biological category called "race".  There is a tremendous amount of genetic variation within each social construct of "race" - as much if not more than the genetic variation between them.  Even if you had some sort of criteria for judging "better", you're going to have a very tough time making value judgements concerning "races" if you buy into science, especially since many of the differences among "races" commonly used to justify racism are demonstrably the result of racism.  I'm just waiting until the local "pro-white" group buys into mainstream science and, in desperation, starts carrying around signs that say "The percentage of Northern Europeans with lactase persistence is 95%!  We are the master race!!!" during an annual milk drinking parade.  (Although, I'm not sure if they could possibly look any more ridiculous, but they could always try.)

About the only genetic traits that could be considered objectively bad are ones that are incompatible with comfort and life.  Some of these are more prevalent in some ethnic groups that others, such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that are linked to increased breast cancer risk.  This seems like a pretty stupid reason to hate on anyone, but I suppose if you really felt like it you could. 

Let's contrast this with a completely different idea: curses and blessings.

The Jews are cursed because they killed Christ - well, until Vatican II.  It is God's Will to enslave black people because they carry the "Curse of Ham".   Add to this list various and contradictory claims of  being a member of "God's Chosen People" based on ethnicity or "race".

People of the same race as me should attempt to eliminate other races or at least isolate them.

Again, evolutionary theory says nothing about this because science doesn't tell anyone what we *should* do.

However, one idea within evolutionary theory is that given a specific set of circumstances, living things with particular traits are going to thrive while others do not.  Which essentially means that genetic variation increases chances of survival as environmental pressures change.  Mass slaughter of entire ethnic groups is a great way of lowering the genetic diversity of humanity.  That's not good.  One immediate way that could be incredibly problematic is if you accidentally slaughtered one of the only groups of people that happen to have members with a natural immunity to the next pandemic.  Oops.

Isolation includes some of the same problems.  If your little in-group is isolated from the rest, there may be limited genetic diversity within the group.  So you are lowering the chances that there will be people within your cultural group surviving and thriving given various circumstances because your just too genetically similar.

Of course, both of these concerns are extremely minor compared to the ethical implications.  I just wanted to point out that evolutionary theory certainly doesn't require that you slaughter other ethnic or "racial" groups or freak out when your child brings home someone with more or less melanin in hir skin.

Let's contrast this with: Christian Identity Theology

A prominent figure in the movement is a cute little Quisling named Richard Kelly Hoskins, an American who identifies with the "Nordic Race" which apparently was descended from the original Israelites and believes that the Jews are literally the children of Satan, and uses the story of Phinehas in Numbers 25:1-15 as a justification for domestic terrorism against race traitors.  He wrote a few books, one called "Our Nordic Race" which included the lines:

"...we must add to the large number of states who already have laws prohibiting racial interbreeding and insure that these laws are made ironclad. It would be an irony indeed to protect ourselves against a second Pearl Harbor only to be destroyed by Marxist mongrelism from within"

He tries a little bit of pseudo-science here:

"When a race which produces original thought breeds with a race which produces little or no original thought, the resulting breed is a failure."

He also ran for office once:

"A political candidate need take just 3 simple stands. 1) Abolish usury. 2) Root sodomists from the land. 3) Outlaw racial interbreeding."

Just to put a fine point out his complete break with reality or decency, he is also a holocaust denier.  He does pepper his crazy with a few pseudo-science concepts such as "breeding" and "race" but he appears to be fueled primarily by the concept that the "Nordic Race" is God's Chosen People and that the United States is the promised land.  It sort of makes all those white blonde Jesus pictures I grew up with seem much more sinister.
We should prevent the genetically inferior from breeding or at least encourage the breeding of good "stock".

Evolutionary theory includes the concept of "natural selection" - note the term "natural".  Evolutionary theory does not directly concern "artificial selection" although both obviously involve genetics and heredity.  (Also scientists can artificially create select environmental pressures on living things to guide their evolution.  This is done a lot with bacteria.)  To say there are no implications would be dishonest.

To be fair, I have to say, that if I happen to be carrying some sort of serious genetically determined disease, depending on the specific situation I would seriously consider not having biological children and ponder why others in the same situation would.  However, we all know that in various times in our own history and even now, the number of traits that some regard as "undesirable" enough to actively attempt to destroy is frighteningly large and many of these traits have little to do with genetics and more to do with environmental factors and social perception.

Have you ever used some sort of ridiculously fake Ozark accent to indicate that what you were saying was stupid?  It's sort of an awful thing to do, but innocent enough right?  Well, reportedly some eugenicists thought that having a rural accent was justification for sterilizing people without their consent - because even with the doctors' considerable social privilege they were too stupid to understand the difference between an accent or dialect and a genetically based mental deficiency.  Ironic dotcha think?

The other problem with purposefully selecting-out undesirable traits within a population, is that under some circumstances they are desirable or have some desirable aspects.  For example, we are currently dealing with an "obesity epidemic".  This is a big deal, and at least in theory, we have control over our weight.  However, there are genetic factors that affect appetite, how the body uses fat, and how the body reacts to stress and a host of other fun things.  For example, about one in three American have a so-called "fat gene" FTO.  (It is most prevalent among Americans with European descent; a fact which could be used to taunt the lactase-persistance parade.)

Being obese is generally bad.  It is linked to all sorts of health problems.  It certainly would seem to not give an evolutionary advantage, especially since obesity is associated with fertility problems and complications in pregnancy.  How could being obese possibly be a good thing?  Shouldn't we take steps to eliminate FTO as well as the genetic mutation associated with binge eating and all other genes and mutations associated with obesity?  Everyone will have the same healthy appetite, the same healthy well-oiled fat burning apparatus, and it will be great!

Well, my husband read an incredibly depressing book a while ago, which detailed someone's experiences living in a society under famine.  Dying relatives became so common-place it was light conversation.  The author certainly saw a pattern in who seems to die first and who died last.  Well, who tended to survive?  It wasn't the thin people, obviously, but it wasn't healthy active people either.  The ones who fared best were the obese sedentary people (in jerkese that's "fat and lazy").  If those people had some of the genetic traits associated with obesity, went on to have more children than those without those traits, and passed those traits onto those children, the population evolved.  If the prevalence of genetic traits changes in a population, that population is evolving.  That is evolution by definition.  Attempting to encourage or discourage the prevalence of genetic traits that we have decided are good or bad, is not.

Biology and genetics can help us understand how nature works in order to make better decisions.  However, it doesn't say anything about where we should draw lines or make compromises or which ethical concepts we hold firm when discussing the difference between a genetic disease and natural genetic variation; or how a society views the autonomy and rights of it's citizens.  It certainly doesn't require us to start draconian efforts to "purify our race" or find the "most eugenics baby" or attempt to create some sort of homogeneous "master race".

Let's contrast this with: The Christian concept of Creation and Original Sin.

I've mentioned quite a few Christian ideas so far.  All of them are not the least bit mainstream.  Most Christian theology is not polygenist, does not accept the idea of curses or blessings on groups of people based on race or ethnicity, and certainly doesn't resemble the bizarre theology of the Christian Identity movement.  With this one, I'm going to hit the mainstream a bit.

We were created as perfect beings.  It was because of sin that we are imperfect.

This is a mainstream idea that is usually no longer interpreted the way it has been in the past.  Not too long ago, if someone were ill, or was poor, or heaven forbid had some sort of deformity, it was because of sin.  A baby with a birth defect was considered evidence of a mother's sin.  Those who were rich were considered blessed by God - Divine Right and so forth.  Left-handed people were sinister.

Very few people believe this today, however, the implications that there is some sort of perfect human is a persistent concept.  It denies natural variation as a potentially positive feature of living things, and instead replaced it with a model that makes it easy to consider traits outside the norm as perversions of this mythical "perfect human" brought about by sin, or being sinful.

God made Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve.  Transgender people are denying their God-given sex - men are men and women are women.  God made women to be good at this that and the next thing, and men to be good at this that and the next thing.

Does anyone actually believe that Alan Quist, once candidate for Minnesota governor, was informed by scientific research when he said, "Men are genetically predisposed to the be heads of households"?

It all boils down to a underlying idea that there is only one, perfect, way to exist that is ordained by God, and all other variation are dangerous, sinful and unhealthy.  God has made nature in His perfect image, and straying from that is going "against nature".  However, this concept of "nature" is not a scientific concept.  Within science, nature is what it is.  As one of my insightful young students once said, "It do what it do."

Some living things are humans and others are animals

We are animals.  We are vertebrates.  We are mammals.  We are primates.  We are apes.  Absolutely.  However, this applies to all of us.  Using the terms "animal" and "ape" as an insult, is generally used by people who consider themselves neither.

If evolutionary biology is true, what sets us apart from the animals?  Well, nothing at all.  There are plenty of things that humans are incredibly exceptional at, but biologically speaking, we are most certainly classified as animals.

A generation or so ago (and arguably now as well), people who were physically different were put on display.  The people who were put on display were not regarded as performers or entertainers or reality TV stars, but as essentially "animals" while the people paying money to go to the shows were considered, at the very least a "higher order" of animal. 

Here is how P.T. Barnum promoted an "exhibit" of African Pygmies.

Is it a lower order of man?  Or is it a higher order of monkey? None can tell!  Perhaps it is a combination of both.  It is beyond dispute the most marvelous creature living, it was captured in a savage state in Central Africa, it is probably 20 years old, 2 feet high, intelligent, docile, active, sportive, and playful as a kitten.  It has a skull, limbs, and general anatomy of an orangutang and the countenance of a human being.

The Bronx Zoo displayed a young man named Otta Benga who was also an African Pygmy, although they attempted to justify their treatment of him by explaining that the monkey house was the most practical place for Otta to meet the large crowds of people that came to meet him.

Many would see these actions and point to evolutionary biology as the cause of them.  The people put on display were sometimes billed as "the missing link" or some other sort of pseudo-scientific clap-trap.  As mentioned earlier, calling Otta Benga or any other human being a "missing link" or "lower order of man" is like calling your brother your great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great (well you get the idea) grandfather.  Evolutionary biology didn't cause anyone to treat a fellow animal with the "countenance of a human being" as anything other than a human being.

If evolutionary biology tells us anything, it's not that some humans are "animals" but that other animals may be much more like humans than we previously believed.  We now know that keeping chimpanzees in captivity, even in well-run zoos, leads to mental illness.  The worse the conditions, the worse the effect, but even in very good conditions the simple fact that the chimpanzees are confined leads to abnormal behaviors associated with psychological problems.  Similarly, some scientists do not dismiss the idea that dolphins and whales may have the capacity to mindfully commit suicide.  This disturbing possibility was given media attention when Richard O'Barry explained that one of the dolphins he trained for Flipper, Cathy, refused to breath as a means to end her own life.  He blames himself for bringing her and other dolphins into captivity and contends that doing so is inhumane.

Let's contrast this with: Dominion Theology.

I'm talking about the idea that God told humans to "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."

Some Christian thinkers have interpreted this passage as a mandate of "husbandry" which is the idea that humans should be good stewards of the earth.  Others - not so much.  This is what a Jesuit named Joseph Rickaby wrote in 1896:

"By divine ordinance the life of animals and plants is preserved, not for their own sakes, but for the sake of man." 

Others, like Augustine of Hippo, had the idea that people should be kind to animals, only because if they were not kind to animals this would carry over into a lack of kindness to humans.  It was also practical to be kind, because abusing your livestock is really financially irresponsible.  He also pointed at Jesus' drowning of the swine as evidence that refraining from killing animals was simply superstitious.

I wonder how these early Christian thinkers would respond to the research being done with other primates, showing that they are able to learn language, are self-aware, show empathy, and bond with one another.  Would it make sense to them that their philosophical ideas are being used to justify changing the face of the earth the way that we have, while treating all animals as things, regardless of the extent to which they are aware, feel and suffer? 

So, what is "evolutionary morality"?

As a rule, science does not deal with morality.  My knee-jerk reaction to my brother is simply to say, "There is no such thing!"  Arguably, however, there are moral implications to accepting evolutionary theory as valid.  Many people digest the ideas as simply a strong concept of interconnectedness and legacy, as well as an affirmation of the positive aspects of naturally occurring biological diversity.  While, some fixate on the tenuous idea of an evolutionary hierarchy, distort science beyond recognition or simply make things up as an excuse to hate-on people.

I can imagine a Christian reading this post being offended by most of theological ideas I discussed.  I hope they're disgusted.  The interpretations of those theologies are seen by many Christians as focusing on the wrong messages of the Bible, distorting the Bible beyond recognition, or simply making things up as an excuse to hate-on people.  Some may even go as far as calling a few of them good old fashioned blasphemy.  It would be incredibly dishonest and insulting to pretend as if those examples represented Christianity or how Christians, as a group, thought and felt.  Most Christians see the moral implications of their ideas as affirming life, treating all other human beings with respect, and treating all living creatures as sacred.

Whether or not someone accepts biological evolutionary theory does not determine whether or not that person is a crazy racist.  Just as, whether or not someone accepts Christian doctrine does not determine whether or not that person is a crazy racist.  (They aren't mutually exclusive either!)  Someone with the self-loathing to require using an immutable personal characteristic as a means of boosting a decrepit sense of self-worth and positive identity is just going to take any excuse, and half-learned fact, any obscure passage, any notion of confirmation of preconceived models of reality....well, what I'm trying to say is:


  1. Hey Melby, you are invited to ignore my blog :)

    I too got the Steve Finnell invitation and another similiar one where it was obvious they hadn't read my blog and had no idea where I was coming from. They just seem to want to gather as many followers as they can and then yell at them. I thought it was disrespectful and rude too and I appreciated your comments. I have done you the courtesy of reading your blog entry (well most of it anyway - it was very long - I skimmed a little).

    I am a Christian and I am rightly offended by many of the theological ideas discussed (and by many Christians who espouse that bullshit) because they do not represent what I believe, I'm of the more life affirming type that you describe.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yeah, my post got away from me a little bit - it ended up very long! The main point was simple though, regardless if you accept evolutionary theory or believe in creation without evolution; most people are going to use either to simply support the way they are already going to act toward others.

  2. I agree, as for me I have no trouble believing in creation with evolution. I deeply respect science and deeply respect that there is a mystery beyond that. If I cannot prove what I believe then I cannot arrogantly tell others they are wrong...bringing us all back to being equal again.