Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Why Evolution does not imply Social Darwinism

Over at Dispatches a poster asked:

Is it not logical and optimal to breed beneficial characteristics in humans and breed out unbeneficial ones? ...What are the grounds of promoting or assisting [nonbeneficial traits] when it seems to run counter to "survival of the fittest"?

This is a fairly common conclusion that some draw from evolutionary theory, but it is sadly very wrong. At basic philosophical level, it is deriving an "is" from an "ought", a problem that, despite the best efforts of Ayn Rand and others, has really never survived Hume's critique. Science is about what is. Ethics and morality are about what ought to be. Evolution is science. It says that the cumulation of random genetic changes over time has produced all life on this planet from some distant common ancestor. The short version is "survivial of the fittest", which is somewhat misleading. It provides insight into the flaws in the question above to note Darwin's preferred phrase: descent with modification.

It is simplistic and misleading to talk of "fittest", because it implies that "fittest" is an absolute objective trait of a being that we can measure and use to predict survival. Fitness is completely dependent on the environment. For example, take dogs and wolves. By any objective, contextfree analysis, wolves are more fit than dogs: they are, on average, larger, faster, tougher, and smarter. Yet dogs greatly outnumber wolves, due in no small part to forming a semi-symbiotic relationship with the most dangerous species on the planet: us.

Once evolution is understood in this context, it becomes clearer why promoting "beneficial traits" isn't going to mean in evolutionary terms what we mean when we normally use those terms. Nature, not our values, determines fitness, and nature changes all the time. There is also a more generic argument against social Darwinism. If we were able to successfully breed ourselves into some sort of supermen, we would reduce the genetic variation of the species. This would greatly increase our exposure to catastrophic events, such as disease. If there is any normative value from evolutionary theory, it is that heterogeneity is good.

It should also be emphasized that evolution is stupid. It only moves incrementally from where it is. It is incapable of looking ahead. Were it a mountain climber, it would climb, always upward, but in otherwise random directions and distances, until it came to a point with no possible upward step. It's odds of getting to Everest are remote. Likewise, it simply produces more of whatever survived more and reproduced more. It can't look ahead to potentially filling up the planet, or exceeding available food stores, or running out of oil, or the many other problems facing humanity. There is a good reason 99% of all species who ever existed are now extinct. If we simply let evolution guide our decisionmaking, we can expect the same fate.

In the end, even if we could objectively and absolutely identify a way to improve our species and its survivability through selective breeding, Hume can still ask "So what? It does not logically follow that because you can do these things you should do these things", and indeed he would be correct. Evolution is a scientific theory. It explains why many facts are what they are. It can never tell us what we should do about it.

7 comments:

dogscratcher said...

Well said. Makes me want to go back and re-read Hume.

Larry Arnhart said...

The is/ought dichotomy comes not from Hume but from Kant, who insisted that morality belonged to a transcendental realm beyond nature. By contrast, Hume explained morality as a consequence of the "moral sense" or moral emotions. Similarly, Adam Smith rooted morality in natural moral sentiments. Charles Darwin appealed to Smith and Hume in developing his theory of the moral sense in THE DESCENT OF MAN.

So are you arguing for a Kantian transcendentalist conception of morality as beloning to some realm beyond the world of natural causes?

ScienceAvenger said...

Hume said:

"In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it."

I'm not opposed to an is-ought relation. In fact I find it highly attractive. I just haven't seen a convincing case of it, and certainly not for social Darwinism.

Anonymous said...

Is it not logical and optimal to breed beneficial characteristics in humans and breed out unbeneficial ones? ...What are the grounds of promoting or assisting [nonbeneficial traits] when it seems to run counter to "survival of the fittest"?

This is a fairly common conclusion that some draw from evolutionary theory, but it is sadly very wrong. At basic philosophical level, it is deriving an "is" from an "ought", a problem that, despite the best efforts of Ayn Rand and others, has really never survived Hume's critique. Science is about what is. Ethics and morality are about what ought to be. Evolution is science. It says that the cumulation of random genetic changes over time has produced all life on this planet from some distant common ancestor. The short version is "survivial of the fittest", which is somewhat misleading. It provides insight into the flaws in the question above to note Darwin's preferred phrase: descent with modification.

It is simplistic and misleading to talk of "fittest", because it implies that "fittest" is an absolute objective trait of a being that we can measure and use to predict survival.
No it doesn’t – where do you get such rubbish? In scientific circles, ‘survival of the fittest’ is a description we use when determining, with hindsight, which species survived and why.
Fitness is completely dependent on the environment. For example, take dogs and wolves. By any objective, context free analysis, wolves are more fit than dogs: they are, on average, larger, faster, tougher, and smarter.
Absolute crap! In determining ‘survival of the fittest’, one cannot take out the context! That would be like saying, if Jews, Negros, communists, the disabled, the diseased, and the generally weak had never existed, Nazism would be considered a great philosophy by the rest of the world. When the fact is, if these groups never existed, neither would have Nazism, ie Nazism cannot exist without its context.
Yet dogs greatly outnumber wolves, due in no small part to forming a semi-symbiotic relationship with the most dangerous species on the planet: us.
Which is exactly why ‘survival of the fittest’ applies to evolution – it is why for example, kangaroos survive in the Asia Pacific, and polar bears in the Artic

Once evolution is understood in this context, it becomes clearer why promoting "beneficial traits" isn't going to mean in evolutionary terms what we mean when we normally use those terms.
Again you are missing the evolutionary point of ‘survival of the fittest’; one cannot promote beneficial traits because one cannot know what they are! That is, until after the survival has taken place, we do not know which contemporary traits will enable us to survive into the future, for example if a large meteor hits the planet and we are plunged into a perpetual winter, perhaps fat pigheaded physically robust people or Eskimos who are used to cold living conditions, might survive (if they move to California) and begin to dominate the remaining humanoid populous, while the clich├ęd smart western city dweller might become endangered or extinct. – You see, using the context and hindsight, is the only way to determine who are the fittest (what the fittest traits are) on an evolutionary time scale.
Nature, not our values, determines fitness, and nature changes all the time. There is also a more generic argument against social Darwinism. If we were able to successfully breed ourselves into some sort of supermen, we would reduce the genetic variation of the species. This would greatly increase our exposure to catastrophic events, such as disease. If there is any normative value from evolutionary theory, it is that heterogeneity is good.
You are on very shaky ground here; are you saying selection diminishes the genetic pool – and if so is that evolution?

It should also be emphasized that evolution is stupid. It only moves incrementally from where it is. It is incapable of looking ahead. Were it a mountain climber, it would climb, always upward, but in otherwise random directions and distances, until it came to a point with no possible upward step.
No No No, when mountain climbers go up they come down again or they die! They learn from there trip up and are better able to do it next time; moving to a bigger mountain and into harsher conditions: analogous with genetic material changing and increasing over time. How do you think from a genetic point of view, monkeys left the trees millions of years ago to become humans today?! Genetically they learnt to mountain climb!
It's odds of getting to Everest are remote. Likewise, it simply produces more of whatever survived more and reproduced more. Crap, see above! It can't look ahead to potentially filling up the planet, or exceeding available food stores, or running out of oil, or the many other problems facing humanity. There is a good reason 99% of all species who ever existed are now extinct. (which is simply because they were only ‘ fit’ within a certain context at a certain point of time!) If we simply let evolution guide our decision making, we can expect the same fate.
How can we not? Evolution by definition is a continuous process; are you postulating that humans will no longer evolve, that we have reached Everest? Rubbish, I feel confident that in a couple of million years, depending on the context, we will be almost unrecognisable to modern Humans today! In other words, for all intents and purposes, we will be extinct just like Neanderthal et al.

In the end, even if we could objectively and absolutely identify a way to improve our species and its survivability through selective breeding, Hume can still ask "So what? It does not logically follow that because you can do these things you should do these things", and indeed he would be correct.
So we move from science to philosophy to justify science but it’s still crap – show me the species that didn’t do everything it could to survive! If humans can find a better way to survive they’ll take it. Because if we could objectively and absolutely identify a way to improve our species and its survivability through selective breeding, it would naturally have to include a way to incorporate into that breeding the biggest possible gene pool! – anything else would be smoke and mirrors that no credible scientist would support!
Evolution is a scientific theory. It explains why many facts are what they are. It can never tell us what we should do about it.

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Anonymous said...

I'm a Social Darwinist.

I disagree with you. I've been searching and have found nothing that has convinced me that what I hold is wrong.

"Science is about what is." Science isn't just about what is but using that "what is" to better society or individuals, etc. Flying to the moon is an example.

"Social Darwinism can explain fairly well how things are the way they are and also apply it to society.

It is simplistic and misleading to talk of "fittest", because it implies that "fittest" is an absolute objective trait of a being that we can measure and use to predict survival. Fitness is completely dependent on the environment."

Actually fittest can be objectively studied and those who are more fit (I'm assuming your talking about physically) do increase their chances of survival. http://www.naturalnews.com/026596_disease_heart_disease_angioplasty.html

"For example, take dogs and wolves. By any objective, contextfree analysis, wolves are more fit than dogs: they are, on average, larger, faster, tougher, and smarter. Yet dogs greatly outnumber wolves, due in no small part to forming a semi-symbiotic relationship with the most dangerous species on the planet: us."

Anonymous said...

Evolution isn't exactly random there are reasons and pressures that happen to cause evolution...

"Likewise, it simply produces more of whatever survived more and reproduced more. It can't look ahead to potentially filling up the planet, or exceeding available food stores, or running out of oil, or the many other problems facing humanity. There is a good reason 99% of all species who ever existed are now extinct. If we simply let evolution guide our decisionmaking, we can expect the same fate."

This makes not sense. Like us, many animals can perceive into the future to prevent their own demise.

"In the end, even if we could objectively and absolutely identify a way to improve our species and its survivability through selective breeding, Hume can still ask "So what? It does not logically follow that because you can do these things you should do these things", and indeed he would be correct. Evolution is a scientific theory. It explains why many facts are what they are. It can never tell us what we should do about it."

Oh yeah? Say that to the guy who makes vaccines.