Universal Morality and the Attempt to Affect Evolution

Katherine Redford's picture

 In understanding biological evolution as a meaningless process with no certain destination or endpoint whatsoever, many questions are raised.  How does this explain the meaning that we as a human species have applied to our existence?  What, then, is the purpose of art or culture that we have created?  What about the moral standards we have applied to our societies?  It might be difficult to accept or admit that the moral codes, on which we base our governments, religions, and all social structures, may just be a by-product of the evolutionary process.  However, this fact may prove to be the reason that so many differing, and often contradicting moral codes may exist.  Additionally, we are also able to explain the reasons for which the evolutionary process came about.

 Evolution is in the most basic, purely scientific sense, a meaningless process, always moving forward, never with a destination.  Dennett calls it an algorithm, no matter what happens, the process of evolution will, inevitably and inherently, continue.  He goes on to say, as do other biologists, that any meaning applied to this evolution story, is simply interpreted by humanity. There is not real meaning.  Humans, during our relatively brief existence, have evolved to possess a bipartite brain.  This bipartite brain makes it possible for us to observe the story of evolution and apply a meaning, which we have interpreted, to that story.  Because biological evolution is meaningless, it did not come with a set of morality that humans might follow in the same way that it did not come with a meaning.  Rather, humans added these to enrich their experience on earth. 

 Upon study of existing moral codes, there are obviously vast differences among different human societies all over the planet.  In discussion for my evolution class we discussed the on going practice of female genital mutilation in many countries in Africa.  Many of my classmates who were learning about this practice for the first time were, obviously, horrified.  But as discussion continued important points were made, this is often practiced by women on women, and it is seen, in that culture as a coming of age process.  Additionally, some of the women in these African countries report that they don’t feel that they need the help they are receiving from western cultures who are horrified by the practice.
 What does this say about morality?  If this were practiced within the United States, our government would immediately be up in arms, horrified by the practice.  We would consider it, without a doubt, to be morally wrong.  However, in the countries where it is practiced it is not considered unacceptable.  This indicates that these two different cultures evolved separately and therefore developed two different moral codes.  Applying one of these codes to the other society simply does not function.

 Let us look at another example, in China, the national law states that it is only legal for a woman to give birth to one child.  Women who give birth to more can be expected to pay enormous fines for their “crime”.  In the United States, we have mixed feelings about this law.  Perhaps we feel as if the government is being too controlling, taking away what a woman’s right, to reproduce and raise children.  China might argue that it is for the betterment of their society, as China is the most densely populated country on the entire planet.  Their people’s biological success may depend on the limitation of the production of offspring even though it may seem to violate some “unalienable rights”.

 The point that one can derive from these differing takes on the same situation is that no one unifying morality exists.  The term that best explains this is ethics.  Ethics is the ongoing discussion and search for a common morality, but through my own observations, I have reached the conclusion that no one solid and universal moral standard could possibly exist.  Our search to find one will be fruitless.  What then is the purpose of this morality?  Because it evolved (and continues to evolve) differently in each society, it is the social structures attempt to control, or at least somehow affect evolution.  In other words, the population may biologically benefit from these “moral” standards.  What works for one society may not work whatsoever for the other.

 As humans, our bipartite brain is able to expand on this idea of what might help our survival as a species, and therefore were able to form the concept of morality.  In order for these actions to become universal, they needed to be a visible consequence that depended on the action of the organism, therefore providing a foundation for the concept of morality.  Instead of certain actions being only constructive or detrimental to an organism’s biological fitness, these actions took on higher meaning.  A difference between right and wrong was established.  Additionally, it is from these moral concepts that our religions and governments have developed, further enriching the idea of the moral human.
 While morality does find its original source in biology, its implications are now just as if not more significant at a social level.  These moral grounds decide who gets placed into jail, who is elected leader of a society, and what you teach your children.  Morality is a strong example of the possible interplay between biological evolution and cultural evolution.  It raises many questions about where one begins and the other ends as the two have evolved side by side, and affect each other in many ways. 

Works Cited
Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Simon and Schuster Paperbacks.  1995.
Education and Debate. 19 March 2007.< http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/319/7215/992>
Fiamma, Lavinia Evolution and Morality. 19 March 2007. <http://serendip.brynmawr.edu-
/exchange/node/238#comment-1001>
Grobstein, Paul. From Biological Evolution to Emergence to… “Universal Acid”? 19 March 2007. <http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_cult/evolit/s07/27feb07.html>
Mayr, Ernst What Evolution Is Perseus Books. 2001.

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