The Moral Landscape is one of those books in which you find little gems of insight that are only tangentially related to the main subject. Here is one of them.
As with mathematics, science, art, and almost everything else that interests us, our modern concerns about meaning and morality have flown the perch built by evolution.
Is this true? Have we really flown the perch?
In context, Sam Harris was emphasizing that “the view of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ [he is] advocating … cannot be directly reduced to instinctual drives and evolutionary imperatives.” For example, “The temptation to start each day with several glazed donuts and end it with an extramarital affair might be difficult for some people to resist, for reasons that are easily understood in evolutionary terms, but there are surely better ways to maximize one’s long-term well-being.”
The mechanism of evolution is so simple as to be almost tautological: the fittest survive and reproduce. How could we possibly escape it? Are we not chained to our perch just as securely as Fabritius’s poor goldfinch?
Yes and no.
Evolution has bred many strong drives into us, and those aren’t going away. Harris mentions two: eating fats and sweets, and sexual desires that conflict with inbred sexual jealousies and taboos. Like it or not, most of us will be chained to perches like those for the foreseeable future.
Are we utterly stuck, then?
If we were the only ones evolving, we might be. Fortunately, we host a class of parasites that we have met before on this blog: the memes. You’ll recall that a meme is a unit of cultural evolution: a custom, an idea, etc. Like genes, memes are subject to mutation and recombination. The most successful memes drive their hosts to propagate them. An obvious example is a religion that includes a meme for evangelism.
Our bodies have evolved to the point where our privilege to reproduce (if we so wish) is more or less assured. Thanks our well-developed brains, we have pretty much figured out how to stay alive until the age of reproduction. Now, the evolution of the memes we host affects our lives more than any physical evolution we may be undergoing. Certainly our memes’ evolution is much, much more rapid than our continuing genetic evolution.
A clear example of how memetic evolution now overwhelms the physical is the fact that as women in a culture become more educated, their birth rate drops. (No disrespect to large families here. I have one myself!)
Also consider the rapidly expanding acceptance of homosexual and transgender behavior in the First World. If ever there was a meme that was overwhelming genetic evolution’s countermeasures, that is it!
Finally, consider that the warlike behavior that most people identify with “survival of the fittest” is steadily being replaced by cooperation. (Yes, it’s true.) The memes that produce peaceful behavior and human flourishing are winning. One might cite Vladimir Putin’s recent aggression in Ukraine as a counter-example, but the worldwide outrage over what would have been considered normal behavior 150 years ago only proves my point.
I think this is pretty cool. Evolution, mindless though it may be, has made us wings and cut us free.
Thanks for another great post, Beagle!
I find it strangely beautiful that memes and culture are still outgrowths of our physical genes and natures. Like a program on a computer is still determined (in some aspects) by the base hardware.
Also, its interesting to note Harris’ discussion of “flying the perch” of evolution is related to Utilitarianism, which is the least inexplicable moral system from a evolutionary perspective. “Happiness”, “utility”, “well being”, etc. are all pretty connected to evolutionary ideas of reproductive fitness and group fitness, especially when compared to other ethical systems. Rights, Duties, contracts, and “virtues” are all founding concepts for other moral systems, and they all seem much more tenuously connected to evolutionary fitness than utilitarian ideas.