The Ethical Implications of Human Nature
The Ethical Implications of Human Nature
Scientific progress has never proceeded in a gradual, systematic fashion. Instead, it is marked by sporadic discoveries which advance knowledge in leaps rather than steps. And very rarely, a seminal idea completely revolutionises the fundamental principles underlying the scientific process. These paradigm shifts radically alter our conception of the world, and our place in it. Copernicus and Gallileo initiated one of the most significant, when they shattered the myth that the earth was the centre of the universe. However, the theory of natural selection put forward by Charles Darwin, stands out as the single most influential philosophical revolution in the history of science.
The proposition that man as the product of millions of years of evolution, is the end result of a sequence of chance occurrences, is considerably disconcerting. That human existence was only one out of many possible outcomes is an unsettling realisation. The essential problem is that there is no ultimate meaning to our existence. Hence, reconciling anthropocentric notions of uniqueness with man’s humble origins required an immense philosophical revolution. Ironically, it is the resultant evolutionary perspective which now presents even greater philosophical implications. The purpose of this essay is to illustrate some of the dilemmas facing ethical philosophy, which are the product of research into human nature from an evolutionary perspective.
Sociobiology as the method of research
If human beings evolved by natural selection, then man is not immune from the same biological principles which apply to other species. Thus, the study of human nature cannot be confined to the social sciences and humanities. An evolutionary perspective demands that human nature is studied in the natural sciences, as a prerequisite to any theory regarding human behaviour. The dictates of our genetic history cannot be voided by incognizance, any more than closing your eyes can make reality actually disappear. Sociobiology is the extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organisation, and forms the appropriate nexus between the natural and social sciences. The ethical issues to be discussed are largely based upon the research into human behaviour in sociobiology.
Before concentrating on specific conclusions from research in sociobiology, it is necessary to review the principle thesis of this discipline. The central premise of sociobiology is that human nature is the product of an evolutionary process which operates under the principles of natural selection. Therefore, the human mind is fundamentally a biological instrument which evolved because it promotes human survival. Therefore, a universal human nature exists, being defined as the set of innate behavioural predispositions which characterise the human species.
Nature vs Nurture
Human behaviour is extraordinarily diverse. Many behavioural scientists find this diversity overwhelming when compared with other species, and readily proclaim genetic evolution dead, thus elevating culture to the throne. In this view biological evolution is admitted only so far as it produced man. These ultra-environmentalists consider man’s capacity for culture and the evolution of a brain with almost unlimited learning potential, to mean that man is infinitely malleable. Like clay in the hands of a potter, culture (or environment) is assumed to be solely responsible for social behaviour. This represents a counter-revolution in thought, in that despite the acceptance of man’s evolutionary origins, culture has been turned into the 20th century replacement for God.
The sociobiological perspective is radically different. From an evolutionary perspective, man is the product of the interaction between genes and the environment. The error most environmentalists make is considering genes to have effect only on the human phenotype – that is physical characteristics. Human behaviour is ruled out of bounds. Nevertheless, the evidence for genetic influence on social behaviour is substantial, and the ethical implications are momentous.
Though not the focus of this essay, evidence for the genetic determinism of human social behaviour can quickly be summarised. There are two ways of evaluating the extent to which genes affect social behaviour – by comparing humans with other species; and by examining the genetic and behavioural variation between members of the human species. Firstly, in comparison with closely related species, namely the primates, humans share the same intimate social group sizes – between 10 and 100, never two or thousands. The male-female size gap in humans is related to the average number of females which consort with males, in the same way as it is in other primates. The biological rule followed is – the greater the competition among males for females, the greater the advantage of large size. Finally, two other distinguishing characteristics of anthropoid behaviour are – that the young are moulded by long periods of social training; and that social play is a strongly developed activity for role play, sex practice and exploration.
Investigation of members of the human species demonstrate the existence of universal behavioural characteristics in every known culture in history. These “universals” include age-grading, cooperative labor, dancing, decorative art, ethics, taboos and superstitions to name but a few. The list of common social characteristics is an extensive one, and cannot be feasibly attributed to intelligence or advanced social life. There are an almost infinite number of potential expressions of social behaviour, of which humans occupy only a small part of the spectrum. Despite the tendency to see differences more clearly than similarities, upon objective inspection, there is no question that social behaviour is humans is to some extent genetically constrained.
The Human Imperative
Once it is acknowledged that social behaviour is in part genetically determined, we can proceed to examine the ethical implications of the prevalent view that man can be made into anything by culture. We can start by pointing to the obvious link between ultra-environmentalism and ethics. If man is capable of any behaviour, then it is possible to prescribe any code of ethics or morality. In other words, dismissing the genetic constraints on behaviour allows any proposed ideology to free itself from considering the question of what is possible. More significantly, it also frees the exponents of ethical systems of the consideration of what may be necessary.
As enunciated in my research proposal, the only objective and rational basis for establishing an ethical system is through the recognition of the imperatives of human nature. If every man requires knowledge to survive, then knowledge is a value for every man. Objectivity means that something is the same for you, me and everyone else. Thus the only objective basis for ethics must be based on the biological imperatives of human nature. Deny the existence of human nature (common innate characteristics) and you deny the only objective basis for ethics. One is then free to advocate any system of ethics, as there are no necessary values.
Thus, the consequences of recognising that human beings have a specific nature, is that every ethical and moral system must be evaluated on the basis of whether its values are consonant with the necessary values required by human nature. A universal recognition of the imperatives of human nature, will inevitably lead to a universal recognition of a set of necessary values. These universal values will comprise the base of a universal system of ethics (or morality).
A Sociobiological Theory on Ethics
Recognition of the imperatives of human nature is one thing, but are ethics a choice or genetically determined? In one sense the answer is obvious. A simple examination of the variety of ethical systems on offer demonstrates that every person’s values can ostensibly be chosen. The real interest is in whether an ethical system which is contrary to genetic imperatives could ever prosper among a significant number of people. Accepting a set of values requires an emotional as well as intellectual response. In fact, emotional factors may well be primary, if some proponents of sociobiology such as Ed Wilson are to be believed.
Consistent with the thesis that the brain evolved because of the genetic imperative, Wilson argues that our ethical practices are largely based on emotional responses programmed by natural selection to favour values necessitated by human nature. From this perspective, ethics are not primarily a “free choice”, but a given, and are predisposed to favour our biological imperative – which essentially means to survive and prosper. However, there is a significant, inherent contradiction implicit within this theory.
In On Human Nature Wilson criticises philosophers for examining the “precepts of ethical systems with reference to their consequences and not their origins.”, and on this point he is absolutely correct. The majority of philosophers have divorced ethics from any objective facts, let alone human origins. Wilson goes on to mention two particular philosophers as examples – Robert Nozick and John Rawls, whose philosophies are almost diametric opposites. He points to the basis of their philosophical views as originating from “personal emotional responses to various alternatives.” The origin of these personal emotional responses is the “deep emotional centre of the brain, most probably within the limbic system. Human emotional responses and the more general ethical practices based on them have been programmed to a substantial degree by natural selection over thousands of generations.”
The fundamental contradiction posed by Wilson’s assertion, is that if our ethics are based on genetic programming, then how does one explain the completely opposite philosophies of Rawls and Nozick? Surely if our biological imperative towards human survival and multiplication was responsible for our ethics, then one would expect that our ethical systems would be very similar? Namely, in favour of the values which are necessary to, or promote human survival and multiplication. One cannot point to genetic differentiation within the human species as a solution, given that we are concerned with the guiding principle of evolution here – that being genetic fitness conducted through natural selection. Any genetic differentiation which may have existed which was contrary to human survival and multiplication would have been “selected” out.
Further, genetic evolution occurs over millions of years, and its impact on the period of civilisation is therefore minimal. Wilson notes this fact himself – “We can be fairly certain that most of the genetic evolution of human social behaviour occurred over the five million years prior to civilisation, when the species consisted of sparse, relatively immobile populations of hunter-gatherers. On the other hand, by far the greater part of cultural evolution has occurred since the origin of agriculture and cities approximately 10,000 years ago. Although genetic evolution of some kind continued during this latter, historical sprint, it cannot have fashioned more than a tiny fraction of the traits of human nature. Otherwise surviving hunter-gatherer people would differ genetically to a significant degree from people in advanced industrial nations, but this is demonstrably not the case.
It is my opinion that the underlying basis for this contradiction is the self-professed, materialist philosophy that Wilson brings to the study of human nature. Mechanistic explanations are characteristic of materialist philosophy, which operates under the central tenet of pure determinism. I will expound on the flaws in this position later in the essay, but it is suffice to understand that the contradiction in Wilson’s explanation for ethics is a result of the common inclination of materialist’s to deny the autonomy of the mind or intellect. In this particular case Wilson sees ethics as primarily the result of genetically determined emotions, when they are in fact, largely free to be influenced by the operations of intellect on the information provided by each individual’s unique cultural milieu.
Choosing our Ethics
Though one can justifiably expostulate against the idea that our “choice” of ethics is determined by a biological controller in the brain which governs emotions, if one accepts evolutionary theory, then one must be prepared to contemplate the proposition that our genetic heritage does play some part in our ethical choices. Values which are inimical to human survival are unlikely to be easily adopted by a mind which is the product of a distinctly genetic imperative.
It is unquestionably true that people do subscribe to religions and ideologies which are in some respects clearly contrary to human survival and welfare. Yet, this does not indicate anything in of itself. The question that must be asked is – What motivates people to accept some values and deny others, when these decisions are harmful to human welfare and survival? In every case, the ultimate motivation is self-interest. For any sane person to commit themselves to a decision which goes against the values necessitated by human nature, would require a superordinate value ranked higher than the ones being controverted.
A rational person who commits suicide, values their non-existence (death) above continued existence (life). It might sound like a contradiction in terms to consider someone who commits or contemplates suicide, rational. Yet, upon reflection, one immediately realises that life isn’t valued per se, but a certain type or standard of life. We can all envisage situations where we would rather be dead, than live like that. That every sane person is ultimately motivated by self-interest is only to suggest that a sane person acts on their values, and not someone else’s. Consider what is commonly thought of as the epitome of self-sacrifice – the person who dies for someone, or something else. No rational “martyr” ever died for a cause they didn’t value above their life. No saint has ever died for a God they hated. They simply place God above their life, in their value system. Thus, the perfect example of “self-sacrifice” or “unselfishness”, is in fact the archetype of self-interest, having acted upon their supreme value.
If I am correct in asserting that at the heart of every ethical system, is an appeal to self-interest, then there is a potential solution to the contradiction we encountered earlier. Wilson’s “genetically programmed” limbic system may not determine our ethical practices, but it may predispose human beings to adopt values on the intellectual level, which are ultimately based in self-interest. The point of stressing that ethical choices are primarily an intellectual activity, is because the functions involved in making ethical choices are functions of the intellect, such as reasoning, judging, and conceptual thought.
This explanation provides tenable solutions to the two problems we have encountered. Firstly, if ethics are primarily the product of an intellectual process, then what is really being said is that each individual takes information from his environment (including culture), and on the conceptual level identifies and integrates it, applies reason and judgement, and forms a value system. It is not difficult to see how a myriad of ethical and moral practices can arise, given this perspective. Certainly, suggesting that ethics is largely a choice rather than being determined by the neurological areas associated with emotions, fits far more comfortably with the facts and common sense.
However, in asserting that value systems are ultimately “free”, we cannot deny our biological imperative altogether. From an evolutionary perspective, it is entirely logical to assume that if our emotions are influenced by our biology, then to the extent they are involved in ethical choices, they will reflect at some level, our genetic imperatives. Hence, the attempt to demonstrate that every ethical system at its fundamental level, appeals to self-interest. This would strongly suggest that our genotype does have some influence. Wilson is therefore correct in asserting that our ethical choices are constrained. Within these constraints though, I believe ethical choices to be “free”.
Given we accept some genetic determinism is involved, a much debated question is whether this occurs through the emotions, or through the intellect. Many behavioural scientists subscribe to a belief that the mind is structured and organised in certain ways, such that it is predisposed to particular outcomes (eg Gestalt psychologists). Personally, I find the evidence supporting this thesis unconvincing with respect to perceptual or intellectual processes.
Emotions are far more likely to be responsible for any predisposition towards the values required by human nature. That a person who commits suicide is acting against his biological imperatives is unquestionable. However, in his mind the action he is taking is founded on the belief that it is in his own interest. Those who simply deny such a person is rational are missing the point. In a rational value system, the question of whether one wants to live must come before the values required if one chooses to live. The ultimate value alternative is existence or non-existence (life or death).
As to the situation where a person has decided in favour of life, but acts contrary to the values required to live, then this person is acting irrationally. If a person is unable to compare two values, ascertain which is more important, and act accordingly, then it is the person’s value judgements which are at fault. Thus, it is clear that the idea that ethical choices are primarily intellectual, explains the contradictions of pure determinism – ie. How people can act against the imperatives of human nature, when they are governed by the imperatives of human nature.
The question of Instinct
Before we can attempt to discuss the question, it requires a definition of the word “instinct”. In colloquial usage, it suggests an automatic response to a stimuli. Richard Leakey concurs, defining instinct as “an innately programmed response to a specific stimulus.” The critical element of the debate on instinct is contained within Leakey’s definition, namely the word – innate. An innate characteristic is one inherent in human nature from birth. The real dispute on instinct, is not whether any instincts exist. Some natural instincts can be demonstrated. Leakey for example points to the grasping reflex and sucking response of a baby. However, apart from a few innate reflexes, there is enormous contention over the existence of any significant, inherent, patterns of behaviour.
The controversy can be generalised in this instance. Most social scientists consider human beings to have no significant instincts, and that all behaviour is learnt. On the other hand, protagonists from the natural sciences tend towards the belief that behaviour is constrained by human nature, with some going as far as to suggest that certain behaviour is totally instinctual. I have already referred to the essential determinism of materialist and naturalist philosophy, and this obviously applies to the natural sciences, which operate with this premise. However, the social scientists who dogmatically assert that instincts simply end where the human mind begins, are also motivated by philosophy rather than facts.
There can be little question that human behaviour is not completely and automatically programmed. The extraordinary diversity of human behaviour belies that theory. Yet, one cannot simply assume as many social scientists have tended to do, that there is no influence whatsoever. As indicated earlier, one element of confusion is the failure to understand that genes interact with the environment. With respect to the human phenotype, the outcomes are generally predictable. Why? Simply because of the essential sameness of the environment involved in most characteristics. Eye colour for instance is the product of an interaction between genes and the physiological environment that brings final coloration to the irises.
With respect to behavioural characteristics, the environment (culture) is incredibly diverse. Hence, the interaction between genes and culture could easily result in a range of behaviours. When many social scientists compare the human species to other animals and consequently deny any similarity, they often tend to forget that any species of animal generally lives in a very homogenous environment. Genetic influence of behaviour can therefore not be denied on the basis of inconsistency with other species.
The purpose of this essay is not to detail research into human behaviour as I could by no means do justice to either side of the debate, let alone both. One example though, might be salutary. Tremendous advances in neurological science have occured, allowing connections between brain structure, function and chemistry, and human behaviour. One significant development has been the identification of anatomical differentiation with respect to brain function. Wilson states – “Behaviour which is both irrational and universal should also be more resistant to the distorting effects of cultural deprivation, than more intellectual, individualistic behaviour, and less likely to be influenced by the frontal lobes and the other higher centres of the brain that serve as the head-quarters of long-term rational thought.”
Richard Wills conducted such research into mentally retarded patients and identified two distinct types. “Cultural retardates” had well below normal intelligence, but their behaviour demonstrated many uniquely human attributes. The “non-cultural retardates” demonstrated little behaviour which could be considered uniquely human, such as communication. Wilson points out that the non-cultural retardates retained a large amount of “instinctual” behaviour which was complex and recognisably mammalian, including communicating by facial expressions, examining and manipulating objects, play, and defending themselves. This research would certainly appear to suggest that in the absence of a mental faculty capable of learning (and therefore devoid of culture), some behaviour still did exist, which was possibly unlearnt and therefore instinctual.
Naturally, this is only one study among hundreds, and many alternative hypotheses exist apart from the one given. The purpose of relating it was not to make any point other than that the topic does bear investigation, and cannot be dismissed. It is important that the social sciences are cognisant of research in the natural sciences, as the implications of evolutionary theory as applied to human nature are enormous. The significance for ethics is once again rooted in the question of choice. Human behaviour which is non-volitional cannot be subject to codes of morality, as explained in my proposal. Predispositions towards certain behaviour can be subject to ethical systems, but present significant dilemmas as suggested in the proposal.
The Dangers of Determinism
The principal flaw in materialism, naturalism and any determinist philosophy is the failure to recognise something which is as self-evident as existence. Consciousness, intellect, the rational faculty – exist, not as simple cogs in a larger mechanism, but as primary facts of reality. Just as idealists denied the world and affirmed the mind, materialists affirm the world and deny the mind. Of course the mind is admitted as part of the “world”, but as one undifferentiated element among many. Materialist’s don’t actually accept the “mind”, what they affirm is the brain. A biological element operating under the same causal principles which govern all entities.
Thus, “free will” or choice is denied. There is however, no contradiction in admitting choice or “free will”. Most certainly, an entity must act in accordance with its nature. What materialist’s fail to recognise is that “consciousness” is part of human nature. Freedom to choose is in accordance with the nature and identity of Consciousness. Wilson points out – “Reduction is the traditional instrument of scientific analysis, but it is feared and resented. If human behaviour can be reduced and determined to any considerable degree by the laws of biology, then mankind might appear to be less than unique and to that extent dehumanised.” He is correct in identifying reduction as the primary instrument of the scientific method, and this is the source of the failure to recognise Consciousness as a primary fact of reality. A self-evident axiom. An axiomatic concept is an irreducible fact of reality. There is no antecedent foundation. One simple cannot reduce Consciousness to neurological processes operating in a mechanistic fashion.
It is no coincidence that the “idealists” – the Platonist’s and Rationalist’s in philosophy, also failed to identify a primary, irreducible fact of reality – Existence, by attempting to “reduce” it out if existence. In the same way materialist’s reduced Consciousness to mechanistic, causal processes, the idealist’s reduced material existence to “attributes”. (refer to essay What Makes a Great Philosopher? for an explicit treatment – notably Magee’s dialogue with Ayer).
Materialism is therefore a flawed philosophy, but this should not be used to provide comfortable security for those social scientists who deny the relevance of the natural sciences in the domain of human behaviour. The challenge has already been mounted, and impressive gains have been made. The time to bring the two disciplines together has arrived. If dogmatism is abandoned, it is possible the errors on both sides may be eradicated through taking cognisance of one another. Now is as good a time as ever to be sanguine about future developments in the study of human nature.