What do anti-vaxxers and anti-GMO campaigners have in common? Underpinning both “antis” is a shared belief that because vaccines and GMOs are “unnatural,” they’re bad, which for many people—whatever their feelings about vaccines and GMOs—segues into its inverse: What’s natural is good. Shades of Rousseau’s exaltation of the noble savage, within us and without.
It’s an easy conclusion, often appropriate. Given a choice, most people gravitate toward the natural over the artificial. After all, natural environments are preferable to garbage dumps, natural foods are nearly always healthier than stuff concocted in a chemistry lab. Yet it needs to be said loud and clear: Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s good. “Smallpox is natural,” Ogden Nash noted. “Vaccine ain’t.” Gangrene, acne, hurricanes, earthquakes, COVID-19—all bona fide natural.
Reading 19th-century critic and essayist John Ruskin, who wrote “There is no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather,” one cannot help conclude that Mr. Ruskin didn’t get out much. By the same token, “doing what comes naturally” can be very bad advice indeed.
“All nature is but art,” Alexander Pope wrote in An Essay on Man. “One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.” Pope’s conviction, embedded in social philosophy, remains ingrained in our culture today. I disagree, and so would most of my biologist colleagues, who, like me, have spent their careers admiring and seeking to understand the complexities and wonders of the epitome of the natural: evolution.
Evolution by natural selection is an endlessly fascinating phenomenon. Having produced all living things, it deserves our gratitude, while its power and subtle complexity repay scientific scrutiny. But we’d be well advised to not lose track of its dark side, and certainly not to mistake its naturalness for any sort of ethical bona fides.
Evolution is—in Pope’s sense—but that doesn’t make it right. Physicists have never proposed that the law of gravity, the increase in entropy, or the various electromagnetic “rules” that hold sway among subatomic particles should be consulted as a source of ethical good. Otherwise we ought to crawl on our bellies, hold fast to anything different from ourselves—as positive adheres to negative—and never clean our rooms. Natural selection, the driving force of evolution, is every bit as natural as Newton’s Laws, the second law of thermodynamics, or quantum mechanics, and every bit as devoid of moral direction. Like the laws of physics, the laws of biology simply describe what is, not what should be.
When it comes to humane values the evolutionary process is, if anything, not so much neutral as negative; it is likely to lead to results that most ethicists will and should reject. It is a wonderful thing to learn about, a terrible thing to learn from. Evolution is as natural as a vaccine-generated immune response or the array of genes that can be modified by human intervention—in a sense, more so, as it has produced both the immune system and the genes themselves. If it’s the artifice of artificial selection that is deplorable to some, just wait until we take a clear-headed look at natural selection in all its naturalness! A moral exemplar it isn’t.
Gangrene, acne, hurricanes, earthquakes, COVID-19—all bona fide natural.
Our current understanding of natural selection is that it operates as a ratio, with the numerator reflecting the success of genes in projecting copies of themselves into the future and the denominator, the success of alternative alleles. Since a gene (or an individual, a population, even—in theory—a species) maximizes its success by producing the largest such ratio, it can do so either by reducing the denominator or increasing the numerator. Most creatures, most of the time, find it easier to do the latter than the former, which is why living things generally are more concerned with feathering their nests than de-feathering those of others.
Taken by itself, such self-advancement isn’t the stuff to make an ethicist’s heart go pitter-pat. But to make matters worse, animal studies in recent decades have revealed a panoply of behavior whereby living things have no hesitation in minimizing the denominator, trampling over others in pursuit of their own biological benefit. We have long known that the natural world is replete with grisly cases of predation, parasitism, a universe of ghastly horrors all generated by natural selection and unleavened by the slightest ethical qualms on the part of perpetrators.
In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard described her horror at watching a frog whose innards were liquefied and then sucked dry by a giant water bug. Dillard also shared her puzzled outrage at the phenomenal wastefulness of an evolutionary process that generates hundreds, often thousands of tiny but perfect lives, only to snuff most of them out, relentlessly and heartlessly.
Worse yet, perhaps, are the cases of vicious genetic self-promotion at the expense of others—not content with enhancing the numerator, but actively diminishing the denominator.
Biologists have documented infanticide in numerous species, including lions and many nonhuman primates such as langur monkeys and chimpanzees. The basic pattern is that when a dominant male dies or is overthrown, his replacement often systematically kills the nursing infants (those unrelated to himself). The process is typically a bloody, grisly affair, frequently playing out over several hours or even days. But it is clearly adaptive for the murderous, newly ascendant male, because he has no evolutionary interest in the fate of these unrelated youngsters, and, moreover, their mothers stop lactating and are available to mate with their babies’ murderer. When first described by primatologist Sara Hrdy, even hard-eyed biologists had a difficult time accepting the ubiquity of male-takeover infanticide, and even—until recently—its “naturalness.” Perhaps, they suggested, it was induced by unnatural protein deficiency, or by equally unnatural crowding. But natural it is, and a readily understood consequence of natural selection as a mindless, automatic, and value-free process. Infanticide is immoral by any reasonable human standard, but its driving principle is the blindly amoral process of natural selection, which maximizes evolutionary fitness, not matter how fiendish it appears to the horrified human observer.
Even the evolutionary master himself was appalled on occasion. Writing to his friend, botanist Asa Gray, Darwin was less than delighted with the fact that certain wasps lay their eggs so that the developing larvae feed “within the living bodies of Caterpillars.” A few years earlier, he had complained to Joseph Hooker, “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.”
Evolution is a wonderful thing to learn about, a terrible thing to learn from.
Add cases of animal rape, deception, nepotism, siblicide, matricide, and cannibalism, and it should be clear that natural selection has blindly, mechanically, yet effectively favored self-betterment and self-promotion, unmitigated by any ethical considerations. I say this fully aware of an important trend in animal behavior research: the demonstration that animals often reconcile, make peace, and cooperate; no less than the morally repulsive examples just cited, these behaviors also reflect the profound self-centeredness of the evolutionary process. If the outcome in certain cases is less reprehensible than outright slaughter, it is only because natural selection only sometimes works to reduce the denominator of the “fitness ratio.” Most of the time, it increases the numerator. But all the time, the only outcome assessed by natural selection is whether a given tactic works—whether it enhances fitness—not whether it is good, right, just, admirable, or worthy of rainbows and sparkly unicorns.
There exists, nonetheless, a social and philosophical tradition—social Darwinism, championed by the 19th-century sociologist Herbert Spencer (who also coined the term, natural selection)—that sought to derive ethics from evolution. Not surprisingly, it was appealing to the early robber barons (aka “captains of industry”) to think that their success, often achieved by the immiseration of others, was organically preordained. John D. Rockefeller argued that “the growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest and … the working out of a law of nature.” The doctrine of evolutionary ethics is now blessedly in decline, mostly because of a widespread feeling that science and morality represent, as Stephen Jay Gould argued, different and non-overlapping magisteria.
In view of evolution’s dark side, it would seem reasonable to go further. Insofar as evolution has engendered behavioral tendencies within ourselves, no less than within other animals, that are callously indifferent to anything but self- (and gene-) betterment, and armed as we now are with insight into the origin of such tendencies, wouldn’t sound moral guidance suggest not only that we refuse to fashion our behavior after natural selection’s prodding, but that we intentionally act contrary to them?
In the movie The African Queen (based on an even better book by E.M. Forster), Katherine Hepburn stiffly observes to Humphrey Bogart: “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put on Earth to rise above.” Let’s stipulate that we were not put on Earth to do anything other than to maximize the representation of our genes in future generations. But if we want to be ethical—rather than simply “successful”—rising above our human nature may be just what is needed.
By the end of the 19th century, Thomas Huxley was perhaps the most famous living biologist, renowned in the English-speaking world as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his fierce and determined defense of natural selection. But he defended evolution as a scientific explanation, not as a moral touchstone. In 1893, Huxley made this especially clear in a lecture titled “Evolution and Ethics” delivered to a packed house at Oxford University. “The practice of that which is ethically best,” he stated, “what we call goodness or virtue, involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows; its influence is directed, not so much to the survival of the fittest, as to the fitting of as many as possible to survive.”
“The ethical progress of society depends,” Huxley continued, “not on imitating the cosmic process, [that is, evolution by natural selection] still less in running away from it, but in combating it.”
It is well within our capacity to say “No” to our evolutionary bequeathal.
It may seem impossible for human beings to “combat” evolution, since Homo sapiens—no less than every other species—is one of its products. And yet Huxley’s exhortation is not unrealistic. It seems likely that to some extent each of us undergoes a trajectory of decreasing selfishness and increasing altruism as we grow up, beginning with the infantile conviction that the world exists solely for our personal gratification and then, over time, experiencing the mellowing of increased wisdom and perspective as we become aware of the other lives around us, which are not all oriented toward ourselves. In Middlemarch, George Eliot noted that “we are all born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder with which to feed ourselves.” Over time, this “moral stupidity” is replaced in varying degrees with ethical acuity, the sharpness of which can largely be judged by the amount of unselfish altruism that is generated.
Richard Dawkins’ influential book, The Selfish Gene, could reasonably have been titled The Altruistic Gene, because evolutionary success is typically achieved by improving the prospects of identical copies of one’s genes contained in other bodies, be they offspring or other genetic relatives. But altruism at the level of bodies is really an evolutionary means of achieving selfish ends for the relevant genes. Even in the unlikely event that altruism is promoted by some benefit experienced by a larger group that encompasses the bodies and genes thereby aided, the process itself would nonetheless be fundamentally selfish, and thus unappealing to most ethicists this side of Ayn Rand.
Many scientists and humanists misunderstand the connection between evolution and morality, grimly determined that evolutionary facts are dangerous because they justify human misbehavior. Developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan exemplified this blind spot when he wrote, “Evolutionary arguments are used to cleanse greed, promiscuity, and the abuse of stepchildren of moral taint.” Similar arguments were in fact used this way in the unlamented days of Social Darwinism.
In fact, evolutionary thinking helps us to understand greed, promiscuity and the abuse of stepchildren, also shedding light on parenting, nepotism, reciprocity, communication, friendship, parent-offspring conflict, courtship, violence, love, adultery, altruism, and bigotry.
Human beings, more than any other living things, are characterized by an almost unlimited repertoire, a behavioral range that exceeds that of any other living creature. It is well within our capacity to say “No” to our evolutionary bequeathal, especially once we recognize its unethical underpinnings. After all, we engage in all sorts of activities that are unnatural but good. Some of them require going against certain human inclinations, and, although not easy to achieve, are readily within the human repertoire once the social and personal benefits are made clear, and compliance demanded. Others, like playing the violin, learning a second language, composing a novel, even writing an article for Nautilus, require effort and dedication. In this sense, once again, they’re not “natural” like sleeping when tired or eating when hungry. But they’re not only achievable, they can be some of humankind’s greatest accomplishments, natural or not.
A case can be made that those human accomplishments that are greatest, most noteworthy, most lasting and sublime, are those that are achieved when people act contrary to their “natural” inclinations. “Drink when you are not thirsty,” we are advised in Mozart’s opera, The Marriage of Figaro. “Make love when you don’t want to—this is what distinguishes us from the beasts.” Whatever the wisdom of drinking or making love when disinclined, it’s hard to argue that writing an opera—unnatural as it may be—isn’t nonetheless good.
The point is this: Whatever our biological tendencies for selfish, unethical, altogether “natural” behavior, there is reason for optimism about our capacity to rise above such inclinations, especially if we recognize the wisdom of doing so. Not everyone is cut out to compose great opera, but the good news is that every human being—simply by being human—can rise above some of evolution’s more unpleasant bequeathals. “We Shall Overcome.” Indeed, the capacity to overcome is what it means to be human.
David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book is Threats: Intimidation and its Discontents. Parts of this article are drawn from his 2007 book, Natural Selections.
Lead image: Jeeranan Thongpan / Shutterstock