Evolution of Moral Law

We have already discussed very, very briefly the evolution of conscience and the light of Christ, but now we will, again very, very briefly, explore the evolution of moral laws. We should note that last time we noticed that the commandments are not really laws in the same sense as physical laws at all. We also explored the "law" that doesn't bless you for disobedience and saw that this is probably more along the lines of social laws as well. It is with this in mind that we read Elder Packer saying:
I shall state a simple moral law from the Book of Mormon by way of example. "Wickedness never was happiness" (Alma 41:10). That is as demonstrable as a physical law but by methods different from those used to study the physical universe.
However different the method, the effects are no less certain...
If conscience is the only thing which sets us apart from animals, it sets us a very long way apart indeed.
The many similarities between the human body and the physical bodies of animals do not, in my mind, confirm a common ancestor. Not at all! It confirms the sovereignty of physical laws. If a hip joint in a human body is of the same design as that in animals, it simply means that the ball and socket conforms to physical laws which govern space, stress, strength, motion, and articulation...
All laws, even those devised by man, are established under the assumption that violation carries penalties. If man is no more than a highly specialized animal, there are substantial questions as to whether moral laws can apply to him.
If there is no moral law, there is no sin...
Moral law assumes accountability; no accountability, no penalties! Moral law will self-destruct if enforced against those not accountable. It is not moral to do so...
Animals cannot be responsible for breaking moral laws. If man is but an animal, he cannot morally be made accountable for restraints governing reproduction, social relationships, power, wealth, life, and death. The laws of morality themselves tell us that...
Now, how could a man repent except he should sin? How could he sin if there was no law? How could there be a law save there was a punishment? Now there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man. (Alma 42:17-18)
There is that word conscience again, that obvious part of human nature not found in animals. Moral law regulates the behavior of human beings and sets man apart from, and above, the animal kingdom.
If moral law is not an issue, then organic evolution is no problem. If moral law is an issue, then organic evolution, as the explanation for the origin of man, is the problem.

First of all he attempts to give an example of an apparently self-existent law: Wickedness never was happiness. This might actually qualify as a law on par with physical law for he says that the effects are certain. Before we can really make any use of this law, however, we must defined two words: wickedness and happiness. It has been noted that while wickedness definitely has a relation to the commandments, wickedness and righteousness are not qualities which God gets to assign arbitrarily, He too must bow before the laws of righteousness and wickedness. Also the term happiness is very slippery, similar to the word 'joy' in 2 Nephi 2:25. We are not talking about just feeling good in any kind of hedonistic way. What the authors likely meant by joy and happiness was probably closer to 'fulfillment.'

Be that as it may, it seems that he brings this verse up to demonstrate a difference between animals and us. We can be wicked or righteous, animals merely are. Thus we should talk about the evolution of morality and ethics. This will, in turn, lead us into a discussion of the evolution of free will in the next post.

But before we do that, I simply must address Elder Packer's discussion of biological homologies. He simply dismisses them as evidence mostly due to his selection in examples. A human hip joint looks like the hip joint of another animal because both joints are for hips. How could it be any other way? But what about the inverted hips in birds? Well we can imagine him thinking that they had to be that way according to natural law as well. But if we continue down this path we are merely emphasizing the similarities between Mormonism and science. Evolutionists also believe that hip bones are the way they are due to natural law and adaption.

There are better examples we can draw upon however. Why do man, whales and dogs all have five "fingers" in their "arms" complete with a humerus, a radius, an ulna, carpals, metacarpals and phalanges? Even birds have all of this, only they have three fingers. There is certainly no physical necessity in all of this. Why to most large animals have four appendages instead of six like insects? We can give two answers: "That just the way God wants it" or "mammals like dogs, men and whales come from a common ancestor which originated in the water where four addendages are necesssary for navigation similar to an airplane. The five 'fingers' are demonstrations of historical contingency in evolution. We all have five fingers because, even though whales and dogs do not really need them now, we all share a common ancestor which did need them."

Packer's dismissal of homologies is trivial at best. "Dogs have legs, legs need hips, hips mean hips joints, end of discussion." But why are there dogs? Would it be a dog if it didn't have legs? What if there were dogs without hip joints, they would have all died before reproducing. This is why things seem to be optimally designed in nature: if they were not optimally designed, they would have died off, thus destroying any counter examples to the creationists claim. One perspective is scientific, the other is pretty much story telling.

Now back to the evolutin of morality. Elder Packer claims that "If conscience is the only thing which sets us apart from animals, it sets us a very long way apart indeed." Try to find a Darwinian that won't agree to a very large extent. They don't claim that we are just like other animals, they merely claim that there is no reason to not call us another kind of animal as well. They don't claim that men are not distinct from chimpanzee anymore than they claim that dogs are distinct from cats. All species are distinct from each other and our 'conscience', consciousness and language are things which separate us from our nearest ancestors by quite a bit, and this is all in accordance with Darwinism.

Perhaps with biggest issue to be raised in discussing an evolutionary ethics must do with the ultimate source of morality. In evolution, ethics are naturalized, in that they don't come as a gift from God, but are instead products which emerge with humans in the past. Darwinian ethics (which should never be confused with social Darwinism) come in the form of what E. O. Wilson calls 'epigenetic rules' (combining epistemology and genetics). We have already discussed the evolution of a conscience of sorts both lets push a little further. How did ethical behavior and thought arise before Plato's Republic and Moses' five book had been written?

We mentioned the evolution of kin selection which is by no means limited to the human race or even our close ancestors. We then discussed how this can easily flow into "reciprocal altruism" in some species wherein the philospher's Prisoner's Dilemna can be overcome. In kin selection the pay-back comes to one's genes which one is helping. In reciprocal altruism, the pay-back comes from those around you when you need help. Reciprocal altruism is quite literally a primitive issurance policy. It too has evolved other species, but it has evolved our species to a far greater extent than any other.

At this point I would like to introduce a term which is sure to make Clark cringe, the meme. A meme is basically anything that can be imitated, usually only by humans since we are far better imitator than any other species. Now one should be very careful with the use of the concept of memes. They are not the best method we have for talking about cultural evolution, but they are a good concept when discussing them as a replicator. Biological evolution is based on the idea that species will do whatever they do, not to help themselves, but to help their genes. This is the source of kin selection.

Once we have another replicator in the picture, however, (even thought this replicator may or may not have a 'genotype', be Lamarckian, and have no fidelity in reproduction) they too will be looking out for their own well being, so to speak. Ideas, which are a form of memes, or not really looking out for themselves, just as animals are not really trying to adapt. It is just a useful model from which to view things.

It is through memes that kin selection can spread from kin selection to reciprocal altruism and even beyond reciprocal altruism to just plain ol' altruism. While there is still a lot of biological adaption which must occur in the first transition, it is extremely doubtful that biological adaption can account for the latter. Now I don't want to make too much use of the meme-meme for much work still needs to be done in that area. What I'm basically trying to show is that with the introduction of language, imitation and culture, qualities which have definitely evolved and are quite unique to humans, morality can be created.

But what kind of morality? We have already hinted at the sharing and mutual helping. Let's briefly consider how evolution could bring about ethical behavior according to both utilitarianism and Kantian ethics. Utilitarianism is based on promoting happiness and pleasure. What gives us pleasure? Sweet things which give us lots of sugar. Sex which leads to reproduction. Seeing ones children and family members do well. What gives us pain? Getting sick, being cut, being hungry, being betrayed and so forth. It is not very hard to see how these things could have evolved originally in us. We like sweets because they supplied much needed sugar to our bodies before the domestication of plants. Why do we like sex? To continue our species. Why do we love and appreciate our offspring? Because they are the hosts of our genes which will continue into the future. Those people which did not like sex, sweets and children didn't last for many generations. Those you did like being cut, bestrayed and starved didn't last long either. The epigenetic rules of kin selection and reciprocal altruism only facilitate a greater production of pleasure for each individual, thus leading to a form of ethics we call utilitarianism with a few obvious qualifications.

It is also fairly easy to see how reciprocal altruism can lead to the agreement to not treat other people as mere means, but instead as ends in themselves. E. O. Wilson said in relation to 'hard-core altruism' (kin selection) and 'soft-core altruism' (reciprocal altruism):
In human beings soft-core altruism has been carried to elaborate extremes. [Dennett suggests through memes.] Reciprocation among distantly related or unrelated individuals is the key to human society. The perfection of the social contract has broken the ancient vertebrate constraints imposed by rigid kin selection.
Human beings appear to be sufficiently selfish and calculating to be capable of indefintely great harmony and social homeostasis. This statement is not self-contradictory. True selfishness, if obedient to the other constraints of mammalian biology, is the key to a more nearly perfect social contract.

I'm sure nobody who have ever read anything on ethical theory could have missed the mention of the social contract. Indeed, John Rawls found a very welcoming home in evolution for his Kantian Social Contract theory. Michael Ruse suggests that evolutioin gives us the perfect place for when we signed our 'contracts':
Darwinism gives us the answer. The contract was not made consciously. But it is simulated by natural selection - burned into our souls - because that is the way to maximize an individual's interests, in a group where everyone is trying to do the same. And we cannot (readily) drop out, because acceptance of the contract is part of our biological nature.

Ruse claims that naturalistically speaking this reduces morality to being somewhat subjective, but Dennett's invoking the use of memes transforms morality into what Ruse really wants, "something objective, in the sense of having an authority and existence of it own, independent of human beings."

How does this compare with Mormon ethics? This is a difficult question for rigorous accounts of Mormon ethics are not very well known. What about ethics being independent of God? This fits quite nicely in a Mormon context since God did not invent morality, but is actually subjected to ethical rules Himself. If He lies, He ceases to be God. What about promoting pleasure? Mormons speak of joy and happiness as being the reason for our very existence. We are to promote joy and happiness in ourselves, in others (especially those of familial relation) and in God. While earlier we mentioned sex and sweets we should mention that these tendencies and natural preferences are 1) leftovers from past evolution and 2) were 'intended' for creating families and survival. As to the Kantian Social Contract I think a parellel which actually reenforces our 'signing the contract' in the notion of a pre-mortal council.

My favorite part about this part of Elder Packer's talk is when he admits that "If moral law is not an issue, then organic evolution is no problem." As I briefly mentioned, evolutionary ethics does not imply the morally repugnant social Darwinism. Survival of the fittest is not the natural ethical theory for a Darwinist, it stands, in fact, in direct opposite to what we naturally feel due to our epigenetic adaptions. Even though our sense of morality derives at least partially from our 'less-human/more-animal' past, we clearly have a sense of morality which far exceeds that seen in any other species on earth.

Summary: Elder Packer maintains that our conscience and sense of morality in what separates us from other animals. The Darwinist couldn't agree more. While our moral intuitions clearly derive, at least partially from our evolutionary past, our sense of morality has no rival in any other species.


Man, you are on a roll.

if they were not optimally designed, they would have died off 

I think this is too strong. Some things are optimally designed, others are sufficiently designed. (I'm sure you understand this, but I'm clarifying for others.) Sexual selection, for example, is more about reproduction than survival and can result in the runaway development of seemingly superfluous traits. They are only advantageous in that, for whatever reason, individuals with those traits are more likely to mate.

The argument of similar design seems like a reasonable argument, but digging deeper reveals problems. Further, the most convincing evidence to me that our similarities to other animals is not just an issue of design, comes from molecular genetics. Our genomes are riddled with remnents of viruses and other selfish DNA elements. The pattern of distribution of them among species, as well as location in the genome, are consistent with common descent. They become difficult to explain by special creation. I may expand on this later, but a good introduction is here . 

Posted by Jared

5/13/2005 07:23:00 AM  

Good comments. I should have said, "if they were not designed at least well enough to compete, they would have died off." A good example of run away sexual selection would be the peacock's tail. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

5/13/2005 10:23:00 AM  

By the way, where is everybody? Greg, Christian, Gary, Carl and Steve have all but disappeared. Did I scare them off with the Adam/God stuff? Do they consider our attempt at reconciliation failed or complete? I'm dealing with some pretty controversial stuff and the only one willing to call me out on some things seems to be John C. (welcome by the way) and Clark. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

5/13/2005 10:47:00 AM  

Speaking for myself, you've put out a lot to think about. Think of it as a quiet moment in testimony meeting. 

Posted by Jared

5/13/2005 11:13:00 AM  

Jeffrey, we're not scared off (at least I'm not), it's just that you're posting faster than most of us are taking the time to keep up with.  

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

5/16/2005 12:58:00 PM  

Elder Packer maintains that our conscience and sense of morality in what separates us from other animals. The Darwinist couldn't agree more. 

You cover material in this fine post that makes this summary statement sound like it's papering over a significant difference too easily. Elder Packer is making an argument about a difference in kind, in order to motivate man as special and separate creation. I think he would say our conscience derives from our divine spirit parentage. I think to say that morality has evolutionary origins (a stance I agree with), and that we differ in morality from higher primates only in degree would be, to him, a sign of "evolution being the problem." 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

5/16/2005 01:08:00 PM  

Sorry. I could slow down a bit if you want. I have a couple of posts ready, but maybe I'll slow down to one a day or something. My wife has been out of town for the past two weeks which has left me with lots of spare time. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

5/16/2005 01:08:00 PM  

I appreciate the feed back. You are probably right in your evalutation of his position.

What I was trying to say is that our sense of morality and conscience simply cannot be separated completely from our biological natures. It is fully acceptable that our spiritual natures play a significant role in this matter especially if we reject the all-or-nothingness of a literal spirit birth.

We should mention, however, that our sense of morality is also subject to a kind of survival of the fittest. If our conscience doesn't help us survive, as long as we follow it, we won't survive. This stands reason and should be accounted for in our evolutionary origins. It was, in fact, with this in mind that I automatically switched over to the evolution of conscience as suggested by Dennett and Ruse. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

5/16/2005 01:23:00 PM  



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