Francis Ayala and Morality as Exaptation

In a series of films made in the late 60’s and early 70’s that are now considered classics of the genre, Christopher Lee plays a Count Dracula who is reduced to dust by sunlight, impaled on crucifixes, and is otherwise discombobulated by all the standard vampire antidotes, only to be improbably revived just in time for the next film.  The Blank Slate is like that.  It is a wonderfully useful bit of quackery to utopians of all stripes, and so keeps rising from its own ashes in one guise or another.  An interesting variant, the theory of morality as exaptation, was devised by  Francisco Ayala, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine.   In his words,

I propose that the capacity for ethics is a necessary attribute of human nature, whereas moral codes are products of cultural evolution. Humans have a moral sense because their biological makeup determines the presence of three necessary conditions for ethical behavior: (i) the ability to anticipate the consequences of one’s own actions; (ii) the ability to make value judgments; and (iii) the ability to choose between alternative courses of action. Ethical behavior came about in evolution not because it is adaptive in itself but as a necessary consequence of man’s eminent intellectual abilities, which are an attribute directly promoted by natural selection. That is, morality evolved as an exaptation, not as an adaptation. Moral codes, however, are outcomes of cultural evolution, which accounts for the diversity of cultural norms among populations and for their evolution through time.

In other words, departing from the old Blank Slate orthodoxy, Ayala is conceding that there is such a thing as human nature.  However, it doesn’t matter.  Our moral behavior is still completely malleable, because moral rules are almost purely a product of culture, and can come in any flavor you like.  This, we are told, is proved by the diversity of human moral systems. According to Ayala, it’s all nice and legal according to Darwin himself.  For example,

After the two initial paragraphs of chapter III of The Descent of Man, which assert that the moral sense is the most important difference “between man and the lower animals” …, Darwin states his view that moral behavior is strictly associated with advanced intelligence: “The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable—namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man” (ref. 1, pp. 68–69). Darwin is affirming that the moral sense, or conscience, is a necessary consequence of high intellectual powers, such as exist in modern humans. Therefore, if our intelligence is an outcome of natural selection, the moral sense would be as well an outcome of natural selection. Darwin’s statement further implies that the moral sense is not by itself directly promoted by natural selection, but only indirectly as a necessary consequence of high intellectual powers, which are the attributes that natural selection is directly promoting.

There’s just one thing wrong with the above statement.  Ayala is completely ignoring the phrase “well-marked social instincts.”  What did Darwin mean by “well-marked social instincts?”  It’s worth quoting him at length to find the answer:

A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections. He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth. By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts. His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience.

In other words, “social instincts” are other-regarding instincts or, as we would say today, predispositions, as opposed to such “sensuous passions” as the desire for food, sex, etc.  They are what modern scientists refer to when they speak of “hard-wired morality,” and were, for Darwin, as well as for many others since his time who have spoken of morality, not an “exaptation,” but an essential aspect of human nature, a precondition for the development of any manifestation of morality, whether in humans or other animals.  In other words, what Darwin was really saying is that “morality” is simply the expression of innate social or moral predispositions in creatures with a superior ability to reason about their subjective moral feelings or emotions.  That is how Darwin was understood by a long line of other thinkers, and, in fact, that interpretation would seem to be obvious.  Anyone who entertains any doubt on the subject need look no further than his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals with its many parallels between human behavior and that of other animals. 

Somehow, however, Ayala missed the point.  All that he will allow to the sphere of human nature is a “proclivity to judge” that somehow floats out there in the ether all by itself, with no basis upon which to make judgments.  In his words,

The question of whether ethical behavior is biologically determined may, indeed, refer to either one of the following two issues. First, is the capacity for ethics—the proclivity to judge human actions as either right or wrong—determined by the biological nature of human beings? Second, are the systems or codes of ethical norms accepted by human beings biologically determined? A similar distinction can be made with respect to language. The question of whether the capacity for symbolic creative language is determined by our biological nature is different from the question of whether the particular language we speak—English, Spanish, Chinese, etc.—is biologically determined, which in the case of language obviously it is not.

I propose that the moral evaluation of actions emerges from human rationality or, in Darwin’s terms, from our highly developed intellectual powers. Our high intelligence allows us to anticipate the consequences of our actions with respect to other people and, thus, to judge them as good or evil in terms of their consequences for others. But I will argue that the norms according to which we decide which actions are good and which actions are evil are largely culturally determined, although conditioned by biological predispositions, such as parental care to give an obvious example.

Here Ayala tries to leave himself some wiggle room by contradicting himself.  His norms are not purely culturally determined, but only “largely” culturally determined, and they are “conditioned” by biological predispositions, but just not enough to matter.  All but the wildest and craziest of the old blank slaters used to give themselves a similar “back door.”  For example, from zoologist, J. P. Scott,

There may be some biological basis for territorial behavior in people, but it is equally possible that it is a human cultural invention.

and from physical anthropologist Ralph Holloway,

Perhaps egoism and self-esteem are innate properties of the species man, but limited directions depending on the cultural milieu in which various peoples thrive or cope.

In the end, of course, as noted by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, none of this mattered.  The inevitable conclusion was still that, for all practical purposes, the only thing that mattered in shaping human behavior was culture.  The same is true of Ayala and his “predispositions” when it comes to morality.  In his words,

Moral codes arise in human societies by cultural evolution. Those moral codes tend to be widespread that lead to successful societies. Since time immemorial, human societies have experimented with moral systems. Some have succeeded and spread widely throughout humankind, like the Ten Commandments, although other moral systems persist in different human societies. Many moral systems of the past have surely become extinct because they were replaced or because the societies that held them became extinct. The moral systems that currently exist in humankind are those that have been favored by cultural evolution.

In fact, Ayala is putting the cart before the horse.  Moral behavior is not predicated on a high intelligence, nor is it an “exaptation” of high intelligence, only possible in man.  Rather, morality is fundamentally emotional rather than rational.  The concepts of good and evil themselves are subjective,  predicated on the pre-existence of these emotions, and could not exist without them.  Far from suddenly emerging as the result of the previous evolution of high intelligence, and understandable as the outcome of some rational thought process, morality is utterly dependent for its existence on emotions that are entirely analogous to those experience by other animals.  Human morality is simply the expression of those moral emotions in creatures with high intelligence.  We have a greater capacity to reason about what we feel than other animals, and we can rationally interpret what we feel emotionally in different ways, but, in the end, we are still acting in accordance with those emotions, not based on the outcome of some disoriented logical thought process.

The fact that there must be many variations in the details of moral behavior in creatures such as ourselves goes without saying.  The predispositions fundamentally responsible for moral behavior could not be programmed into the brains of wolves or chimpanzees in the form of a string of complex moral rules expressed in terms of human language.  The fact remains that these predispositions exist, and are responsible for the many commonalities in human moral behavior across widely different cultures.

There is no need to take what I say on trust regarding these matters.  Read books such as “Wild Justice,” and you’ll see that the evidence is already weighty, and will become more so as our diagnostic techniques enable us to probe human emotions and thought processes with ever greater resolution.  In fact, Ayala’s theory was born dead, and it appears that, at this point, even he realizes it.  In his recent papers, he stubbornly refuses to part with his “exaptation” theory, but adds ever more caveats about what people like Frans de Waal, Jeffrey Masson, and Marc Bekoff have been discovering about animal morality, and ever more weasel words about “predispositions.”

In fact, being stubborn pays.  Ayala just won the 2010 Templeton prize, which includes a tidy award of $1.5 million.  The prize

… honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. Established in 1972 by the late Sir John Templeton, the Prize aims, in his words, to identify “entrepreneurs of the spirit”—outstanding individuals who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality. The Prize celebrates no particular faith tradition or notion of God, but rather the quest for progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine.

Indeed, Ayala apparently considers himself, against all odds, a Trinitarian Christian.  All this comes as something of a surprise to his more orthodox fellow believers, who surely would have burned him as a heretic back in the day.  See for example, this and this.  And no wonder.  You could be a Pelagian, a Socinian, a believer in Communion in one or both kinds, or even a wild, unrecanting Arian, and Dr. Ayala can exapt a morality for you that’s as legit as the pope’s.  Apparently the Templeton Prize people weren’t so finicky about the minutiae of theology.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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