Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Survival of the Nicest

I read an Atlas Society interview with Michael Shermer, the author of The Science of Good and Evil. Dr. Shermer made some comments that really clarified for me my own beliefs in rational ethics. I believe that ethics and morality can be explained through the basic mechanics of evolution.

For example, let’s postulate a lone hunter-gatherer – a caveman. (Creationists, you can play along, too – I don’t see a lot of difference between the lifestyle of my lone caveman and that of Adam’s son Abel. Or assume a less-famous person from 100 years after Abel’s death, if you prefer.) This one person is solely responsible for feeding himself. He has no one else to take care of, and is free to consider anyone else he meets as a victim to be robbed, or even as prey to kill. Survival of the fittest, right?

Wrong. Let’s further assume that his two nearest neighbors have banded together. If they’re hunting, they can watch one another’s back, or one can flush game while the other lies in wait. They can guard each other while sleeping. Most especially, they can come at our lone hunter from two directions if combat becomes necessary. A pair of partners is “more fit” for that environment, and is more likely to survive.

The same logic applies to larger groups – a small band can hunt larger animals, more easily defend against other individuals or groups, and may even be able to produce enough excess food to support a non-productive person. That person may be the old chief, too old to hunt, but still able to pass on his years of experience. Or a dreamer – who, in his spare time, comes up with fire, or the wheel, or the bow. The band can even continue to support the children of a hunter who dies…which means that his DNA lives on. Again, this more cooperative hunter is more fit to survive and reproduce.

And so on up to villages, cities, nations. A person who can function in and provide benefit to a society is more fit to survive and to pass his genes on to the next generation. Functioning within a society requires the ability to get along with people, and to obey the laws of that society – and in general, those laws are rooted in ethical and moral behavior.

This sort of reasoning applies to more than just grouping people, of course. A society that is rooted in ethical behavior provides more benefits to itself and to the individuals within it – making it superior in any competition between societies. A slave society cannot compete with a free society, because slaves are not as productive as freemen – and yet they still have to be fed and cared for. Admittedly, the slaves don’t cost as much to feed or maintain as their masters, but the extra cost of guarding them, chasing down or killing runaways or rebellious slaves, and so on, eats up extra resources – enough extra to make a free society more productive on a per capita basis. In other words, behavior that benefits a subgroup, but hurts the society as a whole, is NOT as competitive.

Communism would seem to be the endpoint of such societal evolution – after all, “to each according to need, from each according to ability” would be the ultimate in cooperative society. However, unlike the other advances I mentioned, Communism provides benefits to the society ONLY – it does not directly provide benefits to the individuals that comprise it. That “need and ability” equation means the individual gets the same reward for working hard or slacking off, for inventiveness and creativity or for mindless drudgery – and of course, working hard or creatively is tougher. To generalize again, behavior that benefits society, but hurts the individual, is also not as competitive. This is why the Soviet Union fell apart, and why China is still second in the world for Gross Domestic Product, despite having four and a half times the population of the U.S.

So once again, ethics and morality in general make just as much sense to a rational atheist as they do to a theist – albeit with some disagreement on what issues should be included. It isn’t much…but for the good of our society and ourselves, maybe that could provide some common ground.

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