Love or Cruelty: If Evolution Is True, What’s the Moral Difference?
by Tom Gilson
Why does love exist? Why is there suffering?
Why is anything the way it is in the natural world? Because of evolution. That, at any rate, is the answer provided by those who believe in naturalistic evolution. Naturalistic evolution (NE) is the theory that every feature of life, including physical structures, physical functions, and also behaviors, has come about by the process of natural selection (NS) acting upon random variation (RV). Along with NS and RV there may be some other forces operating such as genetic drift or punctuated equilibrium, but actually “force” is a misnomer for such things; they are statistical effects, the result of chance survivals and deaths, so I’ll use the shorthand CSD for the lot of them. NS and RV are the big players in the game.
And there is only one game. To the question, why is anything the way it is in nature, there is exactly one answer: evolution. On the proper and appropriate level of analysis, there is no other answer; evolution has been the cause of everything. What caused feature x? Evolution. What caused behavior y? Evolution. It’s comprehensive. It explains all.
I don’t mean to over-simplify the study of how evolution does all that. There have been thousands of papers published on that question. They do seem to come down, however, to just three things: RV, NS, and CSD. Note that two of those are essentially matters of chance, however, so we could simplify our answer to why is anything the way it is in nature? to, (1) it just happened to be that way, and (2) natural selection. Those two mechanisms, the first of which I’ll shorten to Chance, explain everything.
This, I take it, is in accord with standard naturalistic evolutionary thinking. Proponents of NE ought not to find much in it to disagree with. It has the virtue of simplicity. For all the grand and complicated questions of life, there is one all-sufficient and comprehensive answer: Chance and NS.
And that’s all. It’s all the explanation NE requires, and it’s all that it allows for.
So we have answered a complicated question with a simple answer (conceptually simple, that is; I’m still not trying to downplay the details). Now let’s ask another seemingly complicated question. We’ll find out that it, too, has a simple answer. That question is, how does evolution make anything happen in nature?
It’s an important question, for if NE is responsible for everything that exists in the biological world, then how does it do that job? We already know that it’s by Chance and NS. We can set aside Chance as being little more than a statistical term for whatever happens with no systematic cause. What’s really of interest is, how does NS make anything happen in nature?
As it turns out—and again, I’m quite sure I’m fully in line with standard NE theory with this—NS can do one thing. It has exactly one competency. This, too, is quite satisfyingly simple. NS can take the raw materials handed to it by Chance (which in this case includes RV along with environmental factors), and it can cause that which is more reproductively successful to survive and to propagate.
That’s all NS knows; it is all that it can do. It can cause reproductively successful populations to endure, and less successful ones to fall away. NS has exactly one skill, in other words: seeing to it that reproductive success gets conserved to future generations.
Now, that gives us an interesting term to substitute back into the answer to the question we started with. Why is anything the way it is in the natural world? Our answer: Because of chance, and because it has served the purpose of some population(s)’ reproductive success.
This, too, is perfectly in line with standard NE, as I understand it.
At this point, though, I have to wonder how carefully NE’s proponents have thought through the implications of this simple answer…
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