Evolution, Social Behavior, and Ethics

  • Richard D. Alexander
Part of the The Hastings Center Series in Ethics book series (HCSE)


Nothing seems likely to influence analyses of the relationship between science and ethics as much as would a significant revision of our view of either science or ethics. Yet refinements of evolutionary theory within biology during the past twenty years seem to me to have provided a compelling new model of culture and human sociality which dramatically alters our interpretations of all human activities, including both science and ethics. This model has been developed elsewhere and the findings responsible for it described;1 here I shall only summarize the attributes of the model, and the way in which it departs from earlier views, before discussing its apparent meaning for the current confrontation, or interaction, between science and ethics.


Natural Selection Social Behavior Group Function Ethical Question Inclusive Fitness 
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  1. 1.
    See R. D. Alexander, “Natural Selection and the Analysis of Human Sociality,” in The Changing Scenes in the Natural Sciences, 1776–1976, ed. C. E. Goulden, Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences Special Publication 12 (1977):283–337. In this paper I made a special effort to trace the sequence of changes in thinking responsible for the current model, because it seemed to me that much of the existing confusion about “sociobiology” stems from a failure by the authors of books in this area to identify and trace what has actually happened since 1957.Google Scholar
  2. 1a.
    For example, E. O. Wilson, in his massive and influential 1975 volume, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975) defines sociobiology as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior.” But this is not a new kind of study in biology. Moreover, the adjective “biological” when applied to behavior by social scientists all too often means “genetic,” and it often is used explicitly to mean “other than social” in efforts to account for the ontogeny of behavior. Further, although Wilson says that “the organism is only DNA’s way of making more DNA” and gives credit to W. D. Hamilton’s (1964) theory of inclusive-fitness-maximizing (kin selection) (i.e., that genetic reproduction can be enhanced by helping nondescendant as well as descendant relatives) in explaining altruism, in my opinion he muddles the question of group selection which is crucial to understanding altruism.Google Scholar
  3. 1b.
    To make matters worse he refers to the seminal arguments of George C. Williams in Adaptation and Natural Selection (Princeton, N.J.:̇ Princeton University Press, 1966) that selection is highly unlikely to be effective above the level of the parent and its offspring (regarded by many as responsible for the entire revolution) as Williams’ “fallacy”! In effect, Wilson reintroduced genes into the formula, Genes plus Environment Yield Phenotype (including behavior), without clearly telling the reader why this can now be done satisfactorily; he persists in using the phrase “genetically determined” when referring to human behavior (even, sometimes, without specifying that he is referring to differences in behavior); and he gives the impression that the main change is simply a massive accumulation of very relevant data from field studies (later, in “Animal and Human Sociobiology,” in The Changing Scenes in the Natural Sciences 1776–1976, pp. 273–81, he actually says this). But it is not true: A massive refinement of theory reoriented the study of behavior. It may be difficult for outsiders to understand from accounts like Wilson’s what is really new in evolutionary biology, and why it is important. The revolution was caused by the arguments of Williams and Hamilton, italicized above.Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    Gunther Stent, in a critical review of Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976) recently published in the Hastings Center Report, has missed the point, in his distinction between deliberate and nondeliberate altruism, that “intent” is a proximate mechanism; a paradoxical aspect of its molding to contribute to ultimate function is that not all goals are conscious. This is not to suggest that “intent” is a trivial aspect of behavior or that it is not important to distinguish intentional and unintentional altruism and selfishness or kindness and cruelty. After all, intent is a central aspect of the definition of such terms, demonstrating its importance. It is crucial to ask why intent is so important to us, when it would seem that consequences are what count. The reason, I believe, is that intent has consequences outside the immediate circumstances. I think we use intent to enable us to predict about events additional to the ones in which we are immediately involved, just as we use information about whether associates follow the rules or play fair in trivial circumstances, or in games, to determine whether we should interact with them in more serious matters. We actually believe that he who is cruel or kind to others—or to animals, children, and other vulnerable beings—is likely to be cruel or kind to us as well. We are positive toward someone who intends to be altruistic for the same reason that we are negative toward someone who intends to be cruel: He may do it to us. Stent also fails to grasp the all-important distinction, in evolutionary arguments, between incidental effects and evolved functions (well explained by Williams in Adaptation and Natural Selection). Stent’s contention that evolutionary theory is not predictive is serious, not because it is true, but because he echoes a misconception prevalent among those accustomed to determining the nature of scientific predictiveness from theories dealing with nonliving phenomena. Stent, like some others, regards “the concept of ‘fitness’ [as] the Achilles’ heel of Darwinism, for which a substitute has to be found if natural selection is to be upgraded from the status of a retrodictive historical theory to that of a predictive scientific theory.” He acknowledges that “fully predictive evolutionary analyses are available” for “bounded situations in which the context can be completely specified,” such as “the development of a drug-resistant bacterial strain from a drug-sensitive strain in a culture medium containing that drug.” But he does not regard such predictions as adequate to give evolution “full standing as a theory in the natural sciences.” He believes that what is needed is “some concept formally equivalent to fitness, but descriptive of an intrinsic quality.” He remarks that “Dawkins evidently hit upon selfishness as a substitute for fitness.” Maybe he did. But I would recommend to anyone interested in these questions (including both Dawkins and Stent) that they begin with Darwin, not Dawkins.Google Scholar
  5. 2a.
    The following is only one of his several grand challenges to falsification (C. Darwin, On the Origin of Species. A Fascimile of the First Edition with an Introduction by Ernst Mayr. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), p. 201, 1st ed., 1859. If it could be proved that any part of the structure of any one species has been formed for the exclusive good of another species, it would annihilate my theory, for such could not have been produced through natural selection. Fitness is a relative concept, and it has no significance except in the environment of the organism. There is no such thing as absolute fitness, except in some trivial formulations of population genetics. Unlike nonliving materials, living organisms actively compete, and their phe-notypes, by definition, represent evolved capabilities to adjust in the face of particular kinds of competition. This does not mean that some kind of conceptual barrier to predictiveness is inherent in either an evolutionary theory based on fitness or the nature of living organisms. It only means that predictions about the evolution of life will be more difficult than predictions about nonliving phenomena, and that Stent’s notion of an intrinsic quality equivalent to fitness and independent of immediate circumstances is irrelevant. There are no surprises in this for anyone who has truly considered the relative complexities of the aspects of the living and nonliving universe so far available to us. One invariably predicts in what Stent calls “bounded situations.” There are no theories which predict in the absence of assumptions. The only question is whether or not the predictions are useful in analyzing the phenomena under study. Stent may have developed his notion that evolution is not predictive partly from remarks by prominent evolutionists like Ernst Mayr and George G. Simpson to that effect; I have heard their statements cited to support such arguments. But Mayr and Simpson meant to refer to macroevolution, or the long-term patterning of life forms across geological time, which is essentially nonpredictive because we cannot reconstruct extinct enviroments in sufficient detail to understand the precise nature of adaptive change by natural selection that occurred prehistorically. This does not mean, however, that we cannot predict very extensively and with great accuracy about life from the assumption that the traits of extant organisms are the cumulative results of the microevolutionary process, guided chiefly by natural selection. The philosopher who wishes to understand how this is done ought to go to the current literature of evolutionary biology and not run the risk of generalizing from what he gratuitously refers to as a ‘‘vulgar popularization” by a mere “thirty-six-year-old student of animal behavior, [who] teaches at Oxford, and... seems to have published only one sociobiological paper...”Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    R. C. Lewontin, “The Units of Selection,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 1 (1970): 1–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 4a.
    G. C. Williams, Adaptation and Natural Selection Google Scholar
  8. 4b.
    E. C. Leigh, “How Does Selection Reconcile Individual Advantage with the Good of The Group?” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 74 (1977): 4542–546CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 4c.
    R. D. Alexander and G. Borgia, “Group Selection, Altruism, and the Hierarchical Organization of Life,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 9 (1978): 449–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 5.
    There appears to be a feeling in some circles that a failure exists to define gene adequately for its use in discussions of behavioral evolution. The impression one gets is that if definitions were sharpened then implications of unacceptable determinism would disappear (or, alternatively, that evolutionary analyses of behavior would be shown to be inappropriate). Partly this feeling seems to derive from the error of supposing that such definition-sharpening would principally involve precision in describing gene function in terms of physiology or ontogeny— of generalizing about the connections between gene effects and behavior. But the generalization for this direction of definition, adequate for use of the concept of gene or genetic unit in evolutionary analyses, even of behavior, already exists: It is that genes always realize their effects in environments, and their effects change in different environments. I do not imply that all self-proclaimed evolutionists so use it, or use it appropriately or properly. Because the use of gene by evolutionary biologists actually refers principally to heritable or recombining units— or alternatives (and assumes the above physiological-ontogenetic-func-tional generalization or definition)—to refine the evolutionists’ definitions (usages) would chiefly be a matter of describing the sizes and divisibility of genetic units; this activity would not bear on the question of genetic determinism, as may be supposed. Genetic determinism, in its unacceptable forms, implies that only some behaviors are ‘‘genetically determined” (E. O. Wilson, “Human Decency is Animal,” New York Times Magazine, October 12, 1975, pp. 38–50);Google Scholar
  11. 5a.
    that there are reasons for believing that some human social behavior is not learned (E. O. Wilson, “The Social Instinct,” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 30 (1976): 11–25); or that human behavioral variations like homosexual tendencies depend upon genetic variations which exist because of their contribution to homosexual behavior (thus, that the “capacity” for homosexuality exists only in “moderate frequencies” in the human population—E. O. Wilson, “Animal and Human Sociobiol-ogy”). In fact, either all human behavior is “genetically determined” or none of it is; unless learning is defined in a fashion dramatically more restrictive than its current usage in the social sciences there is no reasonable alternative to the hypothesis that all human social behaviors are learned; and even if some human behavioral variations are genetically determined (i.e., environmental variations are not involved in their expressions), there is, for example, no evidence that the capacity to behave either homosexually or heterosexually, even in rather ordinary environments, is absent in any human. Biologists who develop general theories about behavior seem vulnerable to becoming the caricatures their adversaries initially make of them. Thus, many ethologists, originally interested in distinguishing behaviors with cryptic ontogenies from behaviors dependent upon obvious learning contingencies also were led eventually to defend them (as “innate” and “instinctive”) as if they had virtually no ontogenies at all. The same thing need not have happened in the current circumstance, and this explains why some of us resent being called sociobiologists as long as to most nonbiologists the term expressly means acceptance of particular views about the ontogeny of behavior (see Addendum 1, pp. 150–52). It is surprising to me that Wilson, who has spent his life working on the social insects, in which the strikingly different castes are almost invariably determined by environmental variations, should seem so determined that such a vaguely defined behavioral variation as homosexuality in humans must depend upon a genetic polymorphism. Such causes were postulated for social insect castes, but they turned out to be wrong, at least in nearly every case.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 7.
    G. C. Williams, “Pleiotropy, Natural Selection, and the Evolution of Senescence,” Evolution 11 (1957): 398–411;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 7a.
    W. D. Hamilton, “The Moulding of Senescence by Natural Selection,” Journal of Theoretical Biology, 12 (1966): 12–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 8.
    E. Walster and G. W. Walster, “Equity and Social Justice,” Journal of Social Issues 31 (1975): 21–43.Google Scholar
  15. 9.
    A particularly good example is Jeremy Boissevain’s approach in Friends of Friends (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974).Google Scholar
  16. 9a.
    Another is B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), in which the author discusses positive and negative reinforcement in terms of individuals but skips to the group or species level to discuss cultural change (even though, curiously, moving back to the individual level to discuss objections to deliberate designing of culture through conscious control of behavior). Never does Skinner hit upon the obvious: that individuals are evolved to reproduce: and this flaw, it seems to me, causes his entire theme (of behavioral control, design of culture, or search for “an optimal state of equilibrium in which everyone is maximally reinforced”) to collapse.Google Scholar
  17. 10.
    For discussion of how the consideration of nepotism alters analyses of networks and systems of social exchange, see R. D. Alexander, “Natural Selection and Social Exchange,” in Social Exchange in Developing Relationships., ed. R. L. Burgess and T. L. Huston (New York: Academic Press, in press);Google Scholar
  18. 10a.
    R. D. Alexander, “The Search for a General Theory of Behavior,” Behavioral Science 20 (1975): 77–100; “Natural Selection and the Analysis of Human Sociality.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 11.
    W. D. Hamilton, “The genetical evolution of social behaviour, I, II,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 7 (1964): 1–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 14.
    R. D. Alexander, “Natural Selection and Societal Laws,” in The Foundations of Ethics and Its Relationship to Science vol. 3: Morals, Science and Sociality ed. H. Tristram Engelhardt and Daniel Callahan (Hastings-on-Hudson, New York: The Hastings Center, 1978).Google Scholar
  21. 15.
    For a discussion of the reasons why cultural evolution continues to accelerate in relation to organic evolution, and for other references, see R. D. Alexander, “Evolution and Culture,” in Evolutionary Biology and Human Social Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective, ed. N. A. Chagnon and W. G. Irons (North Scituate, Mass: Duxbury Press 1979).Google Scholar
  22. 17.
    See note 15 and references therein; also see R. D. Alexander, “Evolution, Human Behavior, and Determinism,” Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 2 (1976): 3–21;Google Scholar
  23. 17a.
    R. D. Alexander and G. Borgia, “Group selection, Altruism, and Levels of Organization of Life.” Annual Review of Ecology and Sys-tematics 9 (1978):449–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 18.
    See R. D. Alexander, ‘The Search for a General Theory of Behavior,” Behavioral Science 20 (1975):77–100; R. D. Alexander, “Evolution Human Behavior and Determinism,”; also R. D. Alexander and K. M. Noonan, “Concealed Ovulation and the Evolution of Human Sociality,” In: Evolutionary Biology and Human Social behavior. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 19.
    See R. D. Alexander, Darwinism and Human Affairs (Seattle; University of Washington Press [in press]).Google Scholar
  26. 22.
    Neither is it new. P. W. Bridgman, for example, expressed essentially this idea in Reflections of a Physicist (New York: Philosophical Library, p. 227), in these words: “... in scientific activity the necessity for continual checking against the inexorable facts of experience is so insistent, and the penalties for allowing the slightest element of rationalizing to creep in are so immediate, that it is obvious to the dullest that a high degree of intellectual honesty is the price of even a mediocre degree of success.”Google Scholar
  27. 23.
    G. C. Williams, “Pleiotropy, Natural Selection, and the Evolution of Senescence: Evolution 11 (1957): 398–411CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 23.
    W. D. Hamilton, “The Moulding of Senescence by Natural Selection,” Journal of Theoretical Biology, 12 (1966), 12–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 24.
    R. D. Alexander, Darwinism and Human Affairs. Google Scholar
  30. 25.
    R. D. Alexander, Darwinism and Human Affairs. Google Scholar
  31. 28.
    Albert Rosenfeld, Saturday Review, December 10, 1977, pp. 19–20.Google Scholar
  32. 30.
    John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 548–49.Google Scholar
  33. 31.
    R. D. Alexander, “Natural Selection and Societal Laws.”Google Scholar
  34. 33.
    I allow for the essential certainty that in some circumstances, and perhaps for certain offspring more than others, parents actually manipulate offspring to maximize the parent’s inclusive fitness rather than the offspring’s own (See R. D. Alexander, “Evolution of Social Behavior,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 5 (1974):325–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 33a.
    J. E. Blick, “Selection for Traits which Lower Individual Reproduction,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 67 (1977):597–601, has noted that one part of my 1974 argument was wrong; this does not detract from the general asymmetry of the parent-offspring interaction, resulting from the phenotypic power difference and the facts that offspring depend on parents and parental care evolves to maximize the parent’s reproductive success.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 35.
    See also R. D. Alexander, “Natural Selection and Societal Laws.”Google Scholar
  37. 36.
    W. Friedmann, Legal Theory, 5th Edition, (London: Stevens and Sons, 1967), p. 47.Google Scholar
  38. 37.
    Michael Landman, Philosophical Anthropology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press 1974), p. 22.Google Scholar

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© The Hastings Center 1981

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  • Richard D. Alexander

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