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Human Morality a Product of Evolution?

on May 22, 2010
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PhysOrg: “Professor Examines the Complex Evolution of Human MoralityIs human morality a product of evolution? It seems that priest-turned-evolutionary scientist Francisco Ayala presumes the answer is “yes.”

University of California–Irvine biologist Francisco Ayala is no stranger to the intersection of religion and evolution: he vocally opposes creation and defends Darwinian evolution, and he was also ordained as a Catholic priest. Additionally, Ayala won this year’s Templeton Prize, given to those who offer “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”

“Morality is a unique human trait."

In a new paper and book chapter, Ayala provides a new perspective on the evolution of morality that treads a middle ground between biological and cultural evolution—but that, nonetheless, considers morality an evolved trait. “I distinguish between the ‘capacity for ethics,’ which is biologically determined as a result of biological evolution; and the ‘moral codes’ or ethical norms, which are largely outcomes of cultural evolution, including religious beliefs,” Ayala told PhysOrg. He believes that moral behavior does not necessarily exist as a biological adaptation, but rather is an outgrowth of intellectual capabilities that, indeed, are biological adaptations.

In other words, evolution favored increased intelligence, but as humans gained that intelligence, we began to consider the consequences of our actions and were able to choose cooperative, moral living. Eventually, human societies created laws, moral codes, and religions, all of which were subject to “cultural evolution” that operates separately from biological evolution.

Nonetheless, Ayala agrees that “[m]orality is a unique human trait, one of the most important and most distinctive traits that characterize humanity,” and that separates us from animals. What Ayala leaves out is what no evolutionary theory of morality is able to provide: why humans chose to live cooperatively in the first place (i.e., being able to choose does not imply a rationale for choosing), why humans still choose to “follow the rules,” and why most evolutionists insist that humans ought to behave morally, when according to evolution we are the result of the “survival of the fittest” in a world where nature is not nice.


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