Religion, ethics and evolutionary psychology

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Does evolutionary psychology (socio-biology) explain the basis of morality, or undermine it? This lecture considered altruism and the 'selfish gene', and looked at competing theories of natural selection and of 'directionality' in evolution.

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Religion, Ethics and Evolutionary Psychology


Professor Keith Ward


When Darwin wrote the ‘Origin of Species’, he had no idea of the part that genes play in heredity, or of the structure of DNA. Since the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA in 1961, and realisation of the possibility of identifying genes for pieces of human behaviour or at least for tendencies to behave in certain ways, Darwinian theory has been applied to human nature in an attempt to explain why humans are the way they are.

The general theory that genes mutate and are preferentially selected by the environment has been applied to human culture, art, morality and religion. It is postulated that there are genes for aggressiveness and co-operation, for sexual promiscuity and reserve. Some behavioural dispositions are more conducive to the survival of a species, and therefore to the propagation of the genes that cause them, than others. So if, for instance, there a gene or set of genes for aggression, aggressive animals are likely to eliminate competitors and procreate more effectively, so the genes for aggression that they carry will be propagated more widely. The species will accordingly get more aggressive. We will be able to explain why we, the descendents of early members of this species, are aggressive by pointing out that aggression was a good survival strategy millions of years ago, so we inherit genes for aggression now.

Many traits of modern humans can be explained as the results of successful evolutionary strategies early in human or pre-human development. The genes we inherit make us aggressive, and we have to do the best we can with that. We cannot ignore or eliminate aggression. It is part of our nature – not directly created by God, but developed by a combination of genetic variation and natural selection over millions of years.


For some years, those who held this theory were troubled by the fact that it did not seem to allow for altruism and self-sacrifice in human behaviour. And yet such dispositions exist. The introduction of game theory by George Williams and William Hamilton in the 1960s eased the difficulty. Game theory sets out to express in mathematical terms what the most favourable forms of interaction will be between basically self-interested individuals. It turns out that the best interaction, in general, is what Hamilton called the Retaliator strategy, and what is sometimes called ‘Tit-for-Tat’. Each player starts by being nice to the other, but if one defects and does something nasty, the other must respond in kind. No strategy is perfect, and this one can lead to terrible escalations of violence. Nevertheless, most players will agree at some point to start being nice to each other again, and so escape an unending series of escalations. A sort of equilibrium will be achieved. Over many generations, and with many players, this is much more likely to happen. So the most favourable strategy will involve co-operation, though of a tenuous and limited kind.

These are strategies adopted by rational and self-interested agents to maximise their goals, including that of survival. But game theory also shows what strategies will lead to the preferential survival of any entities, even when adopted unconsciously and by chance. In a highly competitive struggle for survival, a successful strategy will not be maximum selfishness on all occasions. Animals that co-operate in groups will succeed more often than animals that insist on rigorous self-interest.

Matt Ridley, in The Origins of Virtue, (London, Viking, 1996), gives the example of worker ants that are infertile and give their lives for the sake of the Queen and other ants in the nest. This is a successful strategy for the survival of the genes of their siblings (who inherit the genes of the Queen). So individual self-sacrifice is a successful strategy for the group. If you have a gene that switches on self-sacrifice for some individuals or at some times, that gene (possessed by all members of the family) is likely to be passed on very successfully and widely propagated by the rest of the group. Limited self-sacrifice and co-operation is a successful survival strategy, and so it is likely to be genetically programmed into future generations. In the evolutionary game, the winners may not be ruthless egoists. They could be initially kind, sometimes self-sacrificing and co-operative within family or kinship groups, but they will also be aggressive and greedy, especially to outsiders with whom they do not need to relate over long periods of time.

The evolutionary account gives a plausible explanation of how it is that humans are selfish and aggressive, altruistic and co-operative, at the same time. Humans were not created perfectly virtuous. Nor were they wholly selfish aggressive brutes; from the first, they bore within them the inherited traits of both aggression and co-operation, and these evolutionary imprints of their successful past formed the basis of their behaviour. It was on that ambiguous basis that morality, the conscious rational direction of action on principle, developed.


A moral choice exists when an agent is able to choose between two actions, knows what the actions are, and knows that one is better (produces more good) than the other. These are known as the McNaughton rules in England, and form the basis of ideas of criminal responsibility. They, or principles like them, form the basis of much criminal law throughout the world. Human agents are morally free when they have developed the ability consciously to evaluate possible actions, and when no power outside their own wills determines what action will be taken – though of course many factors, including inherited dispositions, will influence their decision, sometimes very strongly.

We can imagine early humans faced with a choice between aggressive and co-operative action – say with the question, ‘Should I overlook my opponent’s aggressive act on this occasion, or should I respond in kind?’ An early form of game theory could be played, weighing up various possible consequences. But in the end the agent must just decide what to do. There are inherited dispositions tending in both directions, but let us suppose the agent comes to believe that one option is the morally right one – and suppose this means the agent thinks that it will produce most good, regardless of any desire for revenge or personal welfare. Suppose in this case that forgiveness seems the right course, though it will be to the agent’s advantage to kill the opponent. Both acts will be motivated by deep inherited tendencies, and may lead to pretty evenly balanced outcomes, with regard to such things as the long-term survival of the tribe. So both acts will be more or less equally rational. Yet now the agent can choose between right and wrong, and nothing makes one of the choices inevitable.

The basic moral choice is between goodness for its own sake and personal advantage, led by desire. The course of evolution on earth has led up to making such a choice possible and intelligible. This is what makes humans distinctive amongst all other animals - they can choose to act out of a conception of the good, for love of the good alone.

It is because so many humans have so often chosen in favour of selfish desire rather than goodness that passion, greed and violence now seem to rule the human species, and goodness seems so difficult.

The present human condition is not the inevitable result of a ruthless and competitive process of evolution that has rendered humans helpless in the grip of primordial biological forces. It is the result of countless free and conscious choices of personal passion and advantage, reinforced by generations of cultural training so that destructive and egoistic choices have now come to seem natural or even inescapable for human beings. Humans, with their capacity freely to choose beauty, understanding, goodness and love, have instead released the negative possibilities of being – ugliness, ignorance, destructiveness and hatred. Humans still have these choices, but their freedom is impaired by the negative cultural inheritance that now makes genuine goodness rare and difficult, and often seems to enslave them to selfish desire.


Some popularisers of Darwinism tell a different story. For them, what Darwin’s theory shows is that ‘the human being [is] just another animal…the disposable plaything and tool of a committee of self-interested genes’ (Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue, p. 19). Impressed by the close genetic similarity between the great apes and humans, they overlook the vast difference between animals that can consciously envisage, discuss and jointly decide upon general principles for action, and animals that simply act on instinct, or genetically programmed routines and direct response to perceived sensory stimuli. Of course there will be intermediate cases in evolutionary development. But there is a difference in kind between a being that can act in order to realise a consciously envisaged goal, and that can reflect upon what course of action it ought to adopt, and a being that plays out an implanted programme of action.

Some evolutionary psychologists apparently deny this difference in kind. E. O. Wilson, the founder of socio-biology, now usually called evolutionary psychology, claims that ‘Ought is just shorthand for one kind of factual statement, a word that denotes what society first chose (or was coerced) to do, and then codified’ (Consilience, Little, Brown, 1998, p.280). Some principles of social action and organisation are genetically programmed (as are the roles of worker ants). They have been conducive to the survival of certain societies, and so they continue to exist in those societies. They, Wilson suggests in this extreme mood, just are our moral principles.

He confirms this extreme view when he says that ‘rational choice is the casting about among alternative mental scenarios to hit upon the ones which, in a given context, satisfy the strongest epigenetic rules’ (199). An epigenetic rule is a genetically coded rule, built up over millennia of selection for survival. It may seem that we, or our ancestors, rationally chose some principles of action. But the fact is simply that the strongest genetically coded rules came to dominate our lives, and now appear to us as principles that we ‘ought’ to follow.

Reason has no real part to play in the development of moral principles, since our moral principles are just what evolution has programmed into our genes, the real determinants of human acts. Any appeal to conscious rational choice is avoided, and individuals ‘do things that benefit their genes’ (Ridley, 17).

The incoherence of this extreme genetic determinism was forcefully pointed out by the philosopher G.E.Moore in his Principia Ethica. If we say that what we ‘ought’ to do is, by definition, what we are genetically programmed to do, then we cannot even raise the question of whether we ought to do what we are programmed to do. If we are truly programmed, we have no choice, and the question ‘ought’ does not arise. On the other hand, if we can meaningfully ask ‘Ought I to follow my programming?’ the question presupposes that we are not compelled to do so. In other words, ‘ought’ cannot be equated by definition with any purely descriptive property. It calls for a decision, and no scientific description can make that for us.

Wilson helpfully reminds us that we should not place our moral demands beyond the realms of possibility. He says, ‘It should be possible to adapt the ancient moral sentiments more wisely to the swiftly changing conditions of modern life’ (285). We must not ask of people what is impossible, and it is helpful to gain as much knowledge of our genetic predispositions as we can. But he has now drawn back from the belief that what we ought to do – how we ought to adapt our sentiments – is just what we are programmed to do anyway. We can, after all, adapt sentiments, whether we do so wisely or not. So he undermines his own extreme case, and replaces it with the more moderate and reasonable proposal that we should take genetic tendencies into account, and not be unrealistic in what we morally demand of people and hold them morally responsible for. It is also important, however, that we do not regard human persons as simply predetermined to do whatever, whether known to them or not, benefits their genes.


The extreme genetic determinist view is sometimes put in the form of a poetic myth, the myth of the ‘selfish gene’, ruthlessly seeking its own survival by any means, using humans for its own purposes and dispensing with them without pity. This is a myth, because nobody really believes that genes are selfish and have purposes. It is a picturesque way of making the point that there is no purpose or direction in evolution.

The myth is nevertheless highly ideological, insofar as it serves to undermine any sense of human distinctiveness, moral agency and purpose. Richard Dawkins, who invented the myth of the selfish gene, writes: ‘We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’ (Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, London, Granada, 1978, p. x). It is genes that pull the strings, and the human sense of purpose, intentional agency and moral freedom is illusory.

Anyone who believes in the primacy of consciousness is bound to take a different view. We know that we can envisage goals, make plans, carry them out or fail to do so. That is the foundation of our personal and social life as humans, of our legal systems, founded on belief in moral responsibility, and of our personal relationships, founded on feelings towards others of gratitude and resentment, which presuppose that others are responsible for their acts. It would take an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence to show that these beliefs are illusory. Such evidence does not exist, and I think any unbiased observer would have to say the available evidence could equally well point towards direction and purpose in the evolutionary process, as Simon Conway Morris and Arthur Peacocke claim.

Purpose and freedom in humans does not seem reducible to determinism by genes. As Richard Dawkins himself says, ‘Consciousness is the culmination of an evolutionary trend towards the emancipation of survival machines as executive decision-takers from their ultimate masters, the genes’ (The Selfish Gene, p. 63). It is astonishing to find the inventor of the selfish gene speaking of an ‘evolutionary trend’ (directionality). Of course, he wants directionality without a director, but that there is a director is a reasonable supposition, compatible with the evidence we have. It is equally astonishing to find that Dawkins is not a genetic determinist after all, since humans, however they evolved, have the capacity for rational decision-making. Human rationality and purpose is not an illusion. We can escape the ‘tyranny of the selfish genes’, those committees of blind midgets from whom it is, after all, possible to escape.


Not all atheistic biologists are so humane. ‘Our brain and sensory system evolved as a biological apparatus to preserve and multiply human genes’, writes Edward Wilson (Consilience, p. 55). And Matt Ridley says, ‘ Altruism is just genetic selfishness ‘ (The Origins of Virtue, p. 19). The danger is that this will be misunderstood as saying that we have to be selfish, that true self-sacrifice for the sake of the good is impossible, and that it is senseless to talk of human responsibility or morality. That, I think, is not what the writers have in mind, but their language is misleading.

On a strict neo-Darwinist account, the brain did not evolve in order to multiply genes. If there is no purpose in the process, the brain evolved as genes mutated, and the new organisms they built moved into available fitness landscapes. Of course those new genes survived as an unintended result. But far from particular genes trying to survive, they were constantly changing, producing new and different genes, building new organisms, some of which proved adaptive, and perishing after they had copied themselves or preserved other genes like, but different from, themselves. Is it really plausible to call this sort of activity ‘selfish’? Genes do not survive. They all die. But they copy themselves, they produce variants of themselves, and they build bodies and brains. They assemble into collectives (even bacteria are assemblies of about one thousand genes), and must co-operate in very exacting ways to succeed in building organisms. Genes are most like selfless recipes (it sounds odd, but surely a recipe can be selfless if a gene can be selfish) for developing organisms than they are like committees of self-interested egoists.

So it is not helpful to describe apparent altruism in organisms like ants as ‘pure unambiguous selfishness’ (Ridley, p. 18). Self-sacrifice by worker ants does help an ant colony to survive. So genes that encourage self-sacrifice are likely to be copied in ant genomes. This is neither real altruism nor real selfishness. It is just what happens, and is morally neutral. Where morality becomes relevant is where an animal species at last develops some ability for self-awareness and self-direction. Then, as heir to a long evolutionary process, it will probably find itself with genes for self-sacrifice as well as for aggression. It by no means follows that morally chosen altruism is ‘really’ genetic selfishness. Humans make a choice to follow some genetic tendencies rather than others, once such a choice has become possible, and they have escaped the tyranny of the genes. Or, as those who are not committed to atheism might say, when they have achieved that state of conscious self-knowledge towards which the pre-conscious processes of progressive genetic change and environmental adaptiveness have impelled some organisms. On this latter interpretation, the process looks well designed to produce moral agents progressively from the pre-conscious and simpler physical elements of which the universe is composed.


So we are led to see homo sapiens sapiens as a set of closely related organisms with a complex balance of dispositions, both to compete and destroy opponents, and also to co-operate and build communities. The first humans were neither perfectly wise and virtuous nor wholly destructive predators. Like us, their descendents, they were a blend of diverse tendencies, destined to ascend from ignorance and pre-linguistic consciousness towards greater knowledge and rationality.

That ascent has proceeded in the last five or six thousand years – a flicker in the history of the cosmos - with remarkable rapidity. Unfortunately, knowledge and rationality have been largely used in the service of selfish and destructive aims. It is from this position that we tend to look back on the process of evolution and see it in terms of warfare, struggle and pointless waste. But it could also be seen as a striving for higher life and forms of consciousness, for greater harmony, complexity, and adaptiveness to the cosmic environment, for more intense inwardness, for a conscious creation of new forms of goodness and beauty. With the advent of rational moral agents, in the form of human persons, on this planet, that process has been corrupted. In an evolutionary process like ours there would always be pain, frustration and death. But it is the human choice of hatred, greed and ignorance that has vastly increased the power and presence of those negative forces, that has cast its shadow over the cosmic striving for the good, and that has made even the love of the good and beautiful itself sometimes seem empty and pointless.

Nevertheless, the positive elements of creativity and environmental responsibility are also part of our genetically generated heritage, and it could yet be that we will, as Darwin hoped, if only at some far future time, yet become a society of beings of vast intelligence, compassion and creative co-operation. It that is so, the evolutionary process could be naturally seen as a purposive drive towards knowledge, compassion and bliss, towards the unfolding of a society of minds that will express in their own way the qualities of the primal mind that generated the physical cosmos. Evolution will then be seen to be, not a random shuffling of selfish genes, but a billion year striving to form a society of compassionate minds from the insensate energies of the physical cosmos.


© Keith Ward, February 2005


This event was on Wed, 16 Feb 2005

keith ward

Professor Keith Ward DD FBA

Professor of Divinity

Professor Keith Ward was the Gresham Professor of Divinity between 2004 and 2008.  He has a BA from the University of Wales, an MA from...

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