Evolution, Revolution, and the Moral Philosophy of E. O. Wilson

Human history is a record of the attempts of our species to reconcile behavioral traits that evolved eons ago with rapidly and radically changing environments. Today we can follow the results of our latest experiments on social media as they develop in real time. As we observe the behavior of those around us, ranging as it does from the extravagant to the whimsical to the absurd, one salient fact should be kept in mind. With few exceptions, the actors in this drama don’t have a clue why they are doing the things they do.

We suffer no such confusion when it comes to the behavior of other animals. We don’t imagine that they are acting according to an “objective moral law,” revealed to them by their gods. We don’t imagine that they act the way they do because of a lively interest in the welfare of all chimpanzee kind, or all giraffe kind, or all alligator kind. We don’t imagine that they are motivated by a “culture,” which has somehow magically materialized out of thin air. We don’t imagine that they have nobly decided to dedicate their lives to the “flourishing” of their species. We realize perfectly well that they behave the way they do because that behavior has enabled their ancestors to survive and reproduce. Only when it comes to ourselves do we fall under the spell of such extravagant mirages. We are so addicted to the illusion of our own uniqueness that we have rendered ourselves incapable of grasping the seemingly obvious; that we are no different from them when it comes to the fundamental motivators of our behavior.

No doubt aliens visiting our planet would deem it a great joke that those among us who refer to themselves as “scientists” and “experts” assured us with perfectly straight faces for upwards of half a century that these fundamental motivators, known as “human nature” in the vernacular, didn’t even exist. The fact that the thing they denied was the reason for their denial made it all the more absurd. Our situation today is little better. There is a palpable sense in the air that a system that served us relatively well for many years is collapsing around our ears. A few of the brightest among us realize that the reasons for this are to be found in the human nature that was denied for so many years. They hopefully suggest that overcoming our problems is a mere matter of tweaking the old system here and there to bring it into better harmony with the evolved, emotional behavioral traits that we commonly refer to by that name. I have my doubts.

Consider, for example, the case of E. O. Wilson, one of the “brightest among us” I refer to above. Read the final two chapters of his Consilience, and you will see that Wilson understands perfectly well that human morality is a manifestation of emotional predispositions that evolved eons ago, just as Darwin suggested in his The Descent of Man. He realizes that these predispositions evolved because they happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in the context of small groups of hunter-gatherers, and that it is hardly guaranteed that they will produce the same result in the vastly different societies we live in today. He understands that, if the above conclusions are true, then morality must necessarily be subjective, a point of view he refers to as “empiricism.” He calls the opposite point of view, the belief that there is an objective moral law that exists independently of anyone’s opinion on the matter, as “transcendentalism.” He comes down firmly on the side of empiricism. And then he goes completely off the tracks. He tells us what we “ought” to do in a manner that would be completely irrational absent the assumption of “transcendental” morality.

I agree with Wilson (and Darwin) that what he calls the “empiricist” explanation of morality is correct. If so, then the “root cause” of human moral systems, in all their myriad forms, can be traced back to emotional predispositions that exist because they evolved via natural selection. These predispositions evolved in times radically different from the present, and we probably share versions of some them that are little different from those that existed in our pre-human ancestors. I personally conclude from this that, before blindly acting in response to my moral emotions, I need to ask myself if responding in that way is likely to have the same result as it did in the Pleistocene, or if, perhaps, in the context of the very different societies we live in today, it may accomplish exactly the opposite.

I have set goals for myself in life that I consider to be in harmony with the reasons for the existence of my moral emotions. They include my own survival and reproduction, the preservation and continued evolution of my species into forms that are likely to survive in plausible futures and, beyond that, the continued survival of biological life itself. If behaving as I am inclined to behave by virtue of my moral emotions will not serve those goals, but will, in fact, act against or defeat them, I conclude that I need to resist acting blindly in that way. There is no reason at all that any other individual is morally obligated to share my personal goals. However, I have, at least, laid my cards on the table. If someone tells me I am morally obligated to act in a certain way, or in other words that I “ought” to act in that way, I must insist that they also lay their cards on the table. Do they, too, have personal goals in life, and are those goals compatible with my own? If not, and they are simply blindly demanding that others act in ways that satisfy their moral emotions, what makes them think I’m obligated to comply? Unless one believes in a “transcendental” morality, no such obligation can exist. In spite of this, Wilson insists that I, and all the rest of humanity, “ought” to do what he wants.

The ”logic” Wilson marshals in support of this demand is less than compelling. It can be found in “Ethics and Religion,” the next to last chapter of his Consilience. He begins with an attack on G. E. Moore’s “naturalistic fallacy,” which he wrongly interprets as something akin to Hume’s prohibition against hopping over the is/ought divide. He assures us that this fallacy is itself a fallacy, “For if ought is not is, what is?” This non sequitur is what scientists refer to as “hand waving.” The question implies a “transcendental” moral ought, which is impossible if there are no transcendental good and evil. As we read on, we learn how he arrived at this remarkable question. He accomplishes the trick by simply hopping from the categorical ought of morality to the conditional ought of utility. Just as we “ought” to use a hammer rather than a screwdriver to drive a nail, we “ought” to do some things and refrain from doing other things to conform to the moral fashions prevailing among the academic tribe. As he puts it:

Ought is not the translation of human nature but of the public will, which can be make increasingly wise and stable through the understanding of the needs and pitfalls of human nature.

At this point, Wilson’s “ought” no longer has anything to do with the term as we commonly associate it with morality at all. It is completely divorced from its evolutionary origins, and has been re-defined to mean conformity to the “public will” that supposedly exists in societies utterly unlike those in which that evolution took place. Wilson does not feel obligated to explain to us how conforming to the “public will” is likely to enhance the odds of our genetic survival, or his genetic survival, or the continued survival of biological life in general. In fact, he has passed from “empiricism” to “transcendentalism,” promoting a personal version of the “good” which he has convinced himself is “good-in-itself,” but is really just the expression of an ideal that he finds emotionally comforting.

To what end is this “public will” to be made “wise and stable?” Translated to the present, which “public will” are we to prefer? The public will of that half of the population that supports Trump and agrees with his agenda, in the process condemning those who oppose him as evil, or the public will of that half of the population that opposes Trump and all he stands for, in the process condemning those who support him as evil? Wilson doesn’t leave us in suspense. The “public will” he refers to is the one generally supported by tenured university professors. Referring to conservatism he writes,

By that overworked and confusing term I do not mean the pietistic and selfish libertarianism into which much of the American conservative movement has lately descended.

This assertion that “much of the American conservative movement” is morally bad flies in the face of Wilson’s claim that he is a moral “empiricist.” Absent belief in a “transcendental” objective morality, it is mere gibberish. In keeping with the rest of his tribe, Wilson also considers globalism a “transcendental” good-in-itself. In his words,

In the long haul, civilized nations have come to judge one culture against another by a moral sense of the needs and aspirations of humanity as a whole. In thus globalizing the tribe, they attempt to formulate humankind’s noblest and most enduring goals.

This, too, is the affirmation of a purely objective moral code, and flies in the face of the reasons morality evolved to begin with. It decidedly did not evolve to meet the “needs and aspirations of humanity as a whole,” nor did natural selection ever take place at the level of a “global tribe.” In conforming to the moral ideology of his own tribe, Wilson falls into some amusing contradictions. He promotes globalization and open borders as “good,” but then informs us that,

The problem of collective meaning and purpose is both urgent and immediate because, if for no other reason, it determines the environmental ethic. Few will doubt that humankind has created a planet-sized problem for itself.

He goes on to evoke all the familiar environmental dangers we face, citing among others overpopulation leading to starvation, degradation of the water supply, etc. He is particularly alarmed at the increasing rate of extinction of other species, and of the specter of a world in which biodiversity is a thing of the past. If Wilson is really worried about the environment, why is he such a promoter of globalism and open borders? Think of it. Large portions of the globe in Europe and North America were occupied by peoples with a low birthrate, ensuring gradually sinking populations and a consequent decrease in environmental degradation and the possibility of restoring some level of biological diversity. Instead, in keeping with what Wilson suggested they “ought” to do, they threw open their borders and allowed a massive influx from regions with rapidly increasing populations, thereby rapidly accelerating environmental degradation.

Beyond that, Wilson’s globalist “ought” is a good example of how moral emotions can “malfunction,” outside of the environmental context in which they evolved. His big brain combined with modern means of transportation and communication have enabled him to imagine the existence of a global “tribe.” His moral emotions then suggest to him that no artificial borders “ought” to limit or restrain this “tribe.” The result is a classic morality inversion. From a genetic point of view, the evolved behavioral traits that promoted the survival of small, territorially isolated tribes eons ago now accomplish precisely the opposite when blindly applied to a global “tribe” of over seven billion people.

I don’t mean to pick on Wilson. From my personal point of view he represents the best and the brightest of modern academics. I merely point out that, like the rest of his tribe, and the rest of mankind in general, for that matter, he imagines that he “ought” to promote “human flourishing,” or he “ought” to promote “moral progress,” or he “ought” to promote a “just society.” In the process, he never stops to consider that, absent the motivating power of innate predispositions, it would never occur to him that he “ought” to do anything. In all likelihood those predispositions are similar to those that motivated our human and pre-human ancestors hundreds of thousands and probably millions of years ago. They are the only reason that we imagine that we “ought” to do anything at all. They evolved by natural selection, not because they promoted “human flourishing,” or “moral progress,” but because they happened to increase the odds that the genes responsible for their existence would survive. Under the circumstances it seems at least reasonable to consider whether the things we imagine we “ought” to do will accomplish the same things today.

There is no reason that anyone “ought not” to devote their lives to “human flourishing,” or that they “ought not” to fight for what they imagine is “moral progress.” I merely suggest that, before blindly pursuing those goals, they consider whether they make any sense at all given the fundamental reasons that we imagine we “ought” to do some things, and “ought not” to do others.

Meanwhile, as a system that seems to have served us well for more than two centuries appears to be collapsing around our ears, we hear suggestions on all sides that we need a revolution, or that we need to demolish the system and replace it with a new one, or that we must have a civil war to destroy those who disagree with us. It can be safely assumed that the people offering these suggestions are at least as clueless as Wilson when it comes to understanding the “root causes” that motivate their behavior. Before we join them in fighting for, and perhaps sacrificing ourselves for, the noble goals they dangle so invitingly in front of our noses, it may behoove us to consider our own goals in life in light of an accurate understanding of the fundamental factors that motivate us to have any goals at all. It may turn out that fighting for “noble causes” is not really the most effective way to achieve those goals after all.