Re: Book Review: Wilson's "Consilience"

David Campbell (
Thu, 18 Mar 1999 12:57:54 -0400

Although Ruse's review touches on philosophical aspects of the problem of
deriving moral standards from physical observation, there are additional
problems. Supposing that you start from the premise "Promoting one's
evolutionary fitness is good", you will not reach Wilson's conclusions.
Evolutionary fitness is the extent to which your genes are passed on to
future generations.

Firstly, the progressive view of evolution Wilson apparently endorses has
been generally rejected by evolutionary biologists. Biology cannot tell
whether the transition from primitive cells to humans has been an
improvement. We are better than bacteria at thinking, manipulating our
environment, and various other things, but much worse at dealing with
extreme environments (no oxygen, temperature extremes, etc.). Also, there
is no evidence that evolution is aiming for a goal. God uses it to achieve
His ends, but that is not inherent to evolution.

Secondly, how does evolution show us that we should promote the interests
of others, much less other species? We are dependent on some other
species, so it would be injudicious to exterminate them without developing
some substitutes. Apart from that, there is no particular self-interest in
helping others, and pure altruism (i.e., not kin selection or mutual
assistance) does not survive competition with selfishness if evolution is
all that determines the outcome. For example, the claim that lemmings deal
with overpopulation by deliberately drowning themselves has a basic
problem. Those that refuse to drown themselves will produce more
offspring, and if willingness to drown has a genetic component, the
suicidal genes will make themselves extinct. (Actually, overpopulation
leads to migration, and they do not check the size of a body of water
before attempting to cross it.) Co-operation is an evolutionary option,
but so is "do unto others before they can do to you". The demographics of
rape support an evolutionary explanation (rapists tend to be men with poor
prospects of attracting a mate; victims tend to be in prime childbearing
years), but I doubt anyone except possibly some defense attorneys would
claim that it is therefore justified.

Eugenics (including Nazism, social Darwinism, etc.) is here closer than
Wilson's idea to promoting one's evolutionary fitness, because it seeks to
promote one's own fitness instead of some common good. However, eugenics
typically includes a progressive idea of evolution, i.e. "promoting my
evolutionary fitness is good". "Promoting one's evolutionary fitness is
good" gives equal support to my getting ahead at my neighbor's expense
(especially if he does not look much like me) and my neighbor doing the
same to me. I am unlikely to accept the second part; hence the popularity
of identifying a goal to evolution that looks suspiciously like what you
see in the mirror.

Of course, "evolution is a means used by God in creation, and He has given
us moral standards" avoids these problems entirely. The premise
"evolutionary good=moral good" is where the problem comes in.

David C.