Natural Right and Natural Selection


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Natural Right and Natural Selection

Darwinism is uniquely controversial among the sciences. It is not difficult to see how
and why this should be so.
Origin of the Species

arrives just as a revolution is occurring in
the modern West. Biblical religion

which had once been able to lay down the law in matters
moral, political, and intellectual, saw its jurisdiction sharply curtailed over the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuri
es. By Darwin’s time it
clear that modern culture

be primarily

and religious

only secondarily, if that.
Darwin’s theory was in no way responsible for
this change. It was at most a symptom of it. But Darwinism became permanently assoc
with the diminishment of religion because the one appears just as educated people are becoming
aware of the other.

Moreover, Darwinism threatened what one might call the Olympian defense against
skepticism. When someone asks where your gods are, a
nswer by naming a place that is

or very deep, or otherwise beyond anyone’s power to go there and look for them. Prior to
The Origin
, the
creation of the various species

and especially of the human species seemed to lie
on the far side of an exp
lanatory veil.
Modern churches have

been content to allow
science to explore
and explain
the entire visible universe, so long as there was somewhere that
the sacred stories could find breathing room.
When Darwin proposed a scientific explanation
the origin of the human form, the more traditionally minded believers saw it as a treaty violation.
To this day, many Christians, and increasingly many Muslims, see Darwinism as a deliberate
strategy to undermine their faith.


It should be noted that

it is not only the religiously minded who are offended by
Darwinian explanations, nor are all the offended on the political right.
Stephen Jay Gould

Niles Eldredge

famously fought a war against such “ultra

Richard Dawkins,
Daniel Den
, and Edward O. Wilson
The former seemed to think that Darwinian
explanations of human behaviors threaten our appreciation of beauty in music or art, or
authentic human action in the moral and political realms. Like Larry Arnhart, Gould and
dge make a lot of
the concept of emergence, but whereas

deploys it to show how
Darwinian explanations are non
reductionist, the latter rely on it to keep the “ultra
from coming into the parlor and ruining the carpet.

In a similar cont
roversy, Lawrence Summers learned to his dismay that respecting the
explanatory veil between biology and gender distribution among the sciences is
a requirement

Harvard Presidents.
What would it mean if the disproportionate number of males in fields su
as mathematics and physics were in part due to biological factors? It might undermine the moral
indignation that motivates change, or even convince people that the cause is hopeless.

Whether on the left or the right, Darwinism is controversial because of the view that it
undermines something more or less sacred, something that is most important in life. This
volume presents Larry Arnhart’s
Darwinian Conservatism
, along with a number o
f critical
comments and Professor Arnhart’s response. These criticisms are learned and thoughtful, and as
the editor,
I am grateful for all of them. None of the arguments presented here involve a
rejection of science. Such a rejection is quite possible,

as among religious fundamentalists who
believe that the earth is really only six thousand years old, or among literary fundamentalists who
claim to
believe that
scientific theories are merely narratives, no more and perhaps even less true


Stephen Jay Gould, “Darwinian Fundamentalism,”
New York Review of Books

44 (June 12, 1997).


Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould,
"Biology Rules,"

5 (Oct/Nov

): 86


than wisdom stor
ies involving giant bears and talking foxes. You will not find any such


But you will see,


of the criticisms,
traces of
a certain view of science. According
to this view, science is the study of dead things. It is properly conce
rned with matter in motion,
and rigidly
obeying mechanical laws. There may be elegance and even grandeur in the
study of such th
ings, but they are still dead.

In so far as

tries to

extend the authority
of science
over the entire human b
eing, including all that we mean by the word “soul,” it
represents the ultimate triumph of death over life. I am not arguing that any or all of the
contributors would explicitly say what I just said. I do believe that this
articulates the

behind most criticisms of Darwinism, including the ones presented here.
I also believe
that this view of science as presiding only over the realm of death is dead wrong.

Or more precisely, half wrong.
The concern here is with reductionism, which means

either the elimination of one among a list of causal factors, or the explanation of something large
and comprehensive, by reference to its simpler constituents, or both. So when modern biology
the concept

of the soul as a separate, vaporous subs
tance, or vital fluid, and set about to
explain living organisms only in terms of the natural elements
and dynamic processes already
familiar to chemistry and physics, that was certainly an example of reductionism.

Such reductionism

arouses the worry tha
t, in explaining life, one has explained it away;
that once we understand how the constituent parts of organisms produce organic motions, we
will discover that, like some automaton imagined by Thomas Hobbes, living creatures are only
pretending to be alive
And once Darwin explains how the same natural processes that account
for the organism’s motion can also account for its design,
even the pretense of life becomes

empty of meaning.
The living world

becomes a puppet show performed before puppets, wi
neither a genuine audience nor a puppeteer

to be found

But this view of organisms

is obvious nonsense;

neither modern biology in general nor
Darwinism in particular point toward it.
While vitalism and substance dualism were indeed put

by moder
n science
life has

proved to be stubbornly resistant to
further reduction
For i
Darwinism means that the human

is less magical, more
susceptible to analysis

in terms of
natural processes than the
dualist imagine

it to be, it also means that
“mere matter” is

dead as it once looked. Rather, the material world contains withi
n it the seeds of life and
, appetite, passion, and thought
. T

is a way of looking at creation

I suggest,

nothing to
insult the Creator. In the words of Hans Jonas, “the triumph which materialism
achieved in Darwinism contains the germ of its own overcoming.”

To see this it is useful, and
may even

necessary, to look at Darwinian biology
Jonas did:
from the p
oint of view of Aristotle. This may seem surprising, as Aristotelian thought
would seem to have been long superseded by modern science. In fact,
Aristotle’s reputation has
been largely rehabilitated in the con
temporary philosophy of biology.
Ernst Mayr
him as “unquestionably the father of scie
ntific methodology,” and he is generally regarded as the
father of biology in particular.

So a serious

comparison of Aristotelian biology with Darwinian biology is
possible. It is
useful in this conte
xt because
, in the history of philosophy,

there may never have been a more
dedicated opponent of
reductionism than Aristotle.
Aristotle believed that all observable
generation and change could be accounted for with

more nor less than a hand
ful of


Hans Jonas,
The Phenomenon of Life

(New York: Dell, 1966), 53.


Ernst Mayr,
The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance

(Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press, 1982), 25; and

Toward a New Philosophy of Biology: Observations of an Evolutionist

(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988), 55


principles, and he stoutly resisted reducing those principles either downward,
as Empedocles
tried to do, to

matter and chance

, or upward in the direction of Platonic archetypes.

If, then,
Darwinian biology is metaphysically compatible with
Aristotle’s philosophy, this
may be enough to show that Darwinism is anti
reductionist in its principles, and formalist rather
than materialist in its approach.
If it can be shown that Darwinism is compatible with
Aristotelian moral thought, then I
there is a sound basis for the Darwinian conservatism
defended by Arnhart in this volume.

To begin,
I would note that,
in fact
Darwinian biology is less reductionist than
Aristotelian biology
. This may seem surprising, but it is evident fr
om two facts:

one is that
Aristotle believed in the spontaneous generation of living organisms from dead matter,

something he shares with most if not all Darwinians; and the other, that whereas Aristotle


an ordinary and
observable event in n
ature, Darwinians suppose it to
have happened only under very extraordinary circumstances at the beginning of the history of
life on earth. That Aristotle could believe in spontaneous generation at all indicates that he did
not regard it as inconsistent w
ith his anti
reductionist agenda.
The fact that a living organism
could come to be from non
living matter, without the intercession of either a pre
organism or the


action of some god, does not mean that the organism is ontologically
inct from dead matter. Aristotle certainly thought that the living organism was
fundamentally different from anything that did not possess what he called

even if it
emerged out of such things

To believe that spontaneous generation was an ongoing

process is

concession to
materialism. It means that the ontological gap between dead matter and living organism is
relatively narrow. It is only a small concession

, because even here it is not so much the


Generation of Animals
, 715a24


matter itself as the formal conditions

(heat, moisture, etc.) that in his view triggers
But it was more of a concession than modern biology is prepared to make.
Aristotle’s theory of spontaneous generation was a forgivable mistake. He saw organisms come
to be where
there was no visible evidence of a


predecessor. According to modern

observable organisms are the offspring of
existing organisms. What Aristotle
assumed to be true for most organisms, modern biologists assumes to be true fo
r all of them
(except some U
creatures living very long ago):

ou have to have a living bei
ng to get a new
one. This fact

means that form trumps matter
modern and Aristotelian

A materialist biology is impossible. This fact would be mo
re evident were the word
“materialism” used less promiscuously. A true materialist explanation, like those of Anaxagoras,
will trace back any characteristic of something to the presence of a certain kind of matter. If
something is white, it is because it

has white stuff in it. If he is an atomist as well, he will say it
is hot because it has hot particles in it, and alive because it has soul particles in it. Thus the
caloric theory of heat in physics, and vitalism in biology, are examples of
authentic m

For an Aristotelian or Darwinian biologist, a thing is alive because of the form (or
information) embodied in certain special materials. They are materialists only in the sense that
the information must be so embodied for an organism to exis
t. But if that is all that materialism

that a thing made must be made
out of something

then everyone except the most extreme
idealist is a materialist.
It is

a promiscuous use of the term

to call anyone a materialist who
believes in the existence

of the

. Like Aristotelian biology, Darwinism is not
materialist in any important sense.

Likewise, n
the one nor the other is
Aristotle’s most important target
in the Physics (well, second after Plato), was Empedocles. The latter, Aristotle tells us,

explained the curvature of the spine as the result of the fetus being bent under pressure in the
womb. That is the kind of thing
you have to say if you want to reduce explanatory factors to
matter and chance.

That may work fine in the case of a sand dune, but it cannot account for the
existence or action of the creatures living on and in the dunes. Nothing in biology can contradi
anything in physics; but biology has principles that could never be anticipated from the
principles of physics.

According to Aristotle you need precisely four principles or “causes” to explain the
generation of, say, a human infant.

One of this is i
ndeed the
. This organism
came to be because this material came to be it. Without
bronze, you get no statue; without

, you get
no infant.
But if the infant is made out of something, it is also made into
something. Creat
ures are sorted more or less according to kind, so that you not only have to
have a pre
existing organism, but a particular kind of organism

to get
this here animal
This is
referred to in the scholarship as
formal causation

Now Aristotle has been subject to a great deal of underserved abuse concerning his
theory of forms. He was mostly inclined to the view that the
species forms

of organisms do not
change, something that obviously sets him apart from Darwin. On the other ha

consider on at least one occasion that a species might have changed over its history. Moreover,

recognized that different objects of inquiry are susceptible to different degrees of precision.
In the case of many animals, lines betwee
n species are drawn pretty clearly; in other cases, the
lines are a mess. In any case, modern biology is not in much of a position to criticize Aristotle as
it has yet to arrive at a universally acknowledged definition of a species.
Is it a set of organi
with common morphological characteristics? A reproductively isolated population?
A large


Parts of Animals






individual organism in the way that a beehive is an individual organism?
The unit upon which
natural selection operates?

It was enough for Aristotle’s purpos

that kittens are birthed only by cats and never by
catfish. Formal causation indicates the necessary connection between the species form of the
parent and offspring.
But these two types of causation alone are not enough to explain life. In

form is more than shape and structure: it also involves a kind of motion

that is not
present in anything that isn’t alive. Aristotle understood that for sexual reproduction to work, the
species form of the animal must be available in two very different v
ersions: the expressed
phenotype of the parent

and in germ form in the semen. He believed, erroneously, that the
father provided the species form and the mother provided the matter. But apart from that he was
very close to the truth, and perhaps deserve
s to be recognized as the father of genetics

as well as

Once the form is introduced into the right kind of matter, that material is pushed out of its
original state. This is what is referred to as
efficient causation
henever some new element
enters a system defined as stable according to some criteria and destabilizes

it, that element is the
efficient cause of the change
. A heavy rain destabilizes a hillside, and so becomes the efficient
cause of a disaster in the village below. Semen destab
ilizes a previous non
pregnant female. If I
am right that this is what Aristotle had in mind by this kind of causation, he had uncovered
something very important about organisms: they are self
destabilizing systems, constantly
resisting the trajectory of
physical forces within and without the organism’s body.
The organism
is constant restoring, refueling, and rebuilding itself.


John Dupre, “Species: Theoretical Contexts,” in Evelyn Fox Keller and Elisabeth A. Lloyd, eds.,
Keywords in
Evolutionary Biology

(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992), 312


Generation of Animals



As it does so, it is constantly adjusting its states and motions in a certain direction, toward
certain ends. Individual ontog
eny is
an example of
what Ernst Mayr calls a “tel

This is a process that is “goal
directed,” and which “owes its goal
directedness to the
operation of a program.” The maturing of a flower or a fox, the pursuit of prey or the avoidance
f predators by the latter, these are all teleonomic processes.
An internal program adjusts the
changes and motions within the organism, largely in response to information from outside.
Aristotle refers to the goal of such a process as “that for the sake
of which” the change or
production takes place. The scholarship denotes this as
final causation

Aristotle’s teleology has been almost completely vindicated by modern biology. In
addition to the teleonomic processes mentioned above, he also included the
relationship between
organic structure and function. Claws are

grasping; teeth are

chewing. That, of course, is
what Darwinist call adaptation.
Aristotle and the Darwinians are in complete agreement about
this: in order to understand what an eye
ball or an elbow really is, you have to recognize
function of each

But here is where Aristotle came up empty, and where
in fact

Darwin completes
Aristotle’s account
Aristotle knew that a given trait existed

it was good for something,
but h
e couldn’t say how the fact that it was good could account for its presence.
Why do


forms exist in the first place and what sustains them? Aristotle’s stock answer to such questions
was to
point out

that there are in fact such things. The point i
s to
figure out

how they work.
Aristotle understood that the form of the organism was responsible for functional traits, but he
had to accept the form as simply given.
Darwin shows that the function of the traits is also
responsible for the form. With t
he addition of this concept, Aristotelian causation becomes
dynamic. “
The three formal causes often amount to the same thing.
What a thing is, and what it


Mayr (1988): 45.


is for,

are one [and the same thing]



from which

the motion
is often the same
n form as these.”

What someone is, his species
form, is both the driving force that created him
and the goal toward which that force drives. Darwinian theory shows how, in the long history of
the interplay between genotype, phenotype, and environment, the species forms cre

There is nothing magical about any of this. Nothing that the living organism does

or is
can violate the natural

laws of physics, che
mistry, etc., for organisms come to be out of things
which rigidly obey those laws. A human being consi
sts of organs and organs of cells; but below
that level one comes to things such as large molecular structures, molecules, atoms, etc. The
latter are not in any sense alive.

if living organisms cannot violate the laws of physics, neither

can they


reduced to
those laws.
One could no more explain the principles of the ontogeny and behavior of animals
using reductionist language alone than one could interpret Shakespeare using only the
English Dictionary
. This is what it means to say that or
ganic properties are emergent properties.
Nothing in physics could lead one expect the existence of living things.
Nothing like the organic
formalism described above occurs apart from living things. Indeed, Ernst Mayr criticizes
Aristotle for illegitima
tely extending teleological explanations beyond biology.

and describing
things which are
not in any way the product of living organisms, teleology is
inappropriate; in explaining organisms, teleology is indispensible.
Accordingly, one must

conclude that b
iology has more principles than physics because life is ontologically distinct from


Aristotle the
, 198a24


Mayr (1988): 56.


What is true of Aristotle’s four causes is equally true of his model of the soul: it is both
reductionist, and quite compatible with modern biolo
gy. The modern philosophy of mind
has long been retarded, in my view, by the substitution of the word “mind” for the word “soul.”
There were good reasons

for substitution, but it severed the connection between consciousness
and organic life. The Greek w
, like the Latin

or the English word
, all
indicate that l
ife and inner experience have the same principle. According to Aristotle, one could
explain the first without the second, but not vice versa. Failure to observe this rule may e
the long flirtation of Western philosophy with varieties of dualism

Aristotle begins his tripartite model of soul by distinguishing plants from animals.
Lacking any access to a cellular biology

(let alone Hox clusters)
, he identifies plants as tho
organisms that possess only
nutritive soul
. This involves the capacity for nourishment and the
production of waste, and it involves a very simple existential dimension: plants are subject to
flourishing and decay. This means that a plant can succeed
survive and propagate)
or fail in a
meaningful way, even if the organism itself is never aware of it. All organisms have nutritive
soul. It is, one might say, the entry level requirement for life. But
one can observe in animals at
least two powers in ad
dition to the nutritive power: a range of faculties of sensation and the
power to move about. Thus animal soul is constructed not from scratch, but by laying rarer
layers of organic func
tion over the most common one.

Likewise, the distinct human soul, ac
cording to Aristotle,
consists of

animal soul plus the
ability to distinguish what is good and bad, just and unjust.
This is to say that
an animal knows
what he likes and doesn’t like (and can often express this by growls, tail wagging, etc.),
but this

as far as its mental nature extends; however,
a human being can distinguish was she likes from
what is good for her, what he doesn’t like but

for his own good

ought to submit to. Aristotle’s


On the Soul



distinction between human and animal soul would likely be reg
arded by most biologists as
suspiciously anthropomorphic
. His specific taxonomy has long been superseded. But his
general approach here is not only compatible with modern evolutionary biology, it is confirmed
by it.
Daniel Dennett explains:

You yourself, like all other animals, have [what Aristotle called] a nutritive soul

quite distinct
from, and more ancient than, your nervous system: it consists of your metabolic system, your
immune system, and the other staggeringly complex systems of sel
repair and health
maintenance in your body.
The lines of communication used by these early systems were not
nerves but blood vessels. Long before there were telephones and radios, there was the postal
service, reliably if rather slowly transporting phy
sical packages of valuable information around
the world. And long before there were nervous systems in organisms, bodies relied on a low
postal system of sorts

the circulation of fluids within the body, reliably if rather slowly
transporting valuable

packages of information to where they are needed for control and self

What Dennett argues here, correctly in my view, is that Darwinian biology doesn’t correct
so much as
flesh it out and, very importantly,
add an hist
orical dimension. In
the Darwinian account the
various levels of soul do not appear all at once, but

more complex
s get

laid down over

existing ones as time goes on.

In this way, Darwinian biology confirms a non
reductionist model o
f soul. Evolution did
not spread the species out in a continuum. Animals really are more than plants. It seems
unlikely that plants possess anything like consciousness, and so have no existential stake in life.
Animals clearly do, which is the reason w
hy we are much for willing to afford them some moral

It is likely that there is a similar, if somewhat narrower gap between mammals and other
animals. If the gap between human beings and other mammals is narrower still, it is a very
robust gap n
There are traces of moral consciousness in other primates, but just
enough to be the exceptions that prove the rule. The human soul, with its richly woven passions


Dennett (1996): 25


and extraordinary capacity for intelligence, is for all practical purposes som
ething unique on the

That Darwinian biology largely confirms Aristotle’s psychology demonstrates that the
theory of common descent cannot result in a reductionist portrait of the soul. Human beings are
at least animals.
e eat and go potty, jus
t like all the
e walk away from pain
and pursue pleasure, like the other animals.
In so far as we

can pray, ponder, and propose, we
are alone.
It is simply to wrong to say, as Harvey Mansfield has said, that

our “better, higher nature.” While most biologists would be nervous about “better,”
there is no question that the human soul, in the Aristotelian sense, is higher than animal and plant
souls in so far as it both comprehends and transcends

But if D
arwinism isn’t metaphysically reductionist, might it nonetheless be morally
reductionist? One of the most common criticisms

of Darwinian ethical thought is that it reduces
all motives to the single drive for successful reproduction. We may say we love ou
r wives,
children, friends, or countrymen, but what we all really want is to get our genes into the next
But this is obviously wrong. Only one kind of organism on the planet knows
anything about genes, and what these creatures know they have
known only for a short time.

When two bull elk square off on in the shadow of a mountain, they are not trying to
achieve genetic success, or reproductive privilege; what they are trying to do is beat the snot out
of one another. To be sure, they are beh
aving in a way that makes sense only in light of natural
selection. The most powerful, best armed, most aggressive buck will get all the does in the
harem. In turn, the does will

powerful and aggressive sons who will soon sprout big


Generation of Animals




obey Darwinian laws, they do so
only by pursuing their own agendas
Does anyone
doubt that the affection a mother feels for her children is in part an
It is observed across a wide range of animals. It is innate. The genes that code for it
are helping to maintain their own frequency in the population. But understanding how maternal
love arises in the history of the organism and what maintains it doesn’
t mean that the passion less
genuine. Mothers do not love their genes, they love their babies.

Far from indicating genetic determinism,

provides a serious basis for a
metaphysics of freedom. Organisms have to be able to respond to their environment with some
degree of flexibility. In the simplest case, a species may achieve this flexibility by flooding the
environment with a number of c
lones, with different genes coding for different traits. When the
environment changes, a different clone comes to dominate the pool. More sophisticated
are capable of testing out different responses and identifying the most successful one.
the case of all plants and most animals, the
follow an elaborate but fixed genetic
script. But at some point
, probably
because it resulted in

greater flexibility

the genes gave up
direct control over the organism’s
mind. I

suspect that this ma
y have been the point that genuine
sentience first appears on earth. If so, then consciousness is more or less the same thing as
freedom. Sentient creatures

cannot be simply instructed to eat, mate, and rear their young;
instead, they have to be
bribed or punished to get them to
do what they must do to
communicate their own species over time.

Darwinism can help us understand why
something pains or pleases us, offends or
gratifies. It can help us determine
in what ways and to what degree

ur inclinations can be
modified. It does nothing to discredit
the genuineness of human passions
or the possibility

of deliberation among the ends toward which the passions direct us,
and so
Darwinian theory
cannot undermine the possibility of genui
ne nobility.

Another reason that Darwinism

is thought to be morally reductionist arises from a

o of Aristotle’s four causes. Both partisans and c
of evolutionary
theory have sometimes assumed
evolution is

itself a goal
directed process.
In this view, the
direction of evolution is toward perfection, and hence human beings
at the end of
the end of it. Our intelligence and capacity both for deep and for subtle yearning represent

peak in the history of lif
Or perhaps

evolutionary fitness itself is the goal
: the fit deserve to
triumph over the less fit, for the good of the species and life as a whole
. Either way, for
“progressive evolutionists
” what has naturally evolved or is consistent with
the traject
ory of
evolution receives moral validation.

Critics are right to point out that this would have untenable moral consequences.
, slavery, and

are as much consequences of evolved predispositions

monogamy, liberty, and compromise.
any behavior that has been selected for is by that fact
redeemed, then virtually everything human beings have ever considered evil would be granted
license. If fitness itself were the moral standard, the results would more farce than horror.
tribe might
well persuade


they are

fitter than another;

but by that standard
human beings
fare poorly

For we

are more vulnerable
as a species than
, and fl
in general,

less fit than grass.

In fact, evolution is
not a teleological process.

While it obviously results in such
processes and sustains them,
it has no program and so it is not itself goal
directed. It is driven
entirely by efficient causation, and a much simpler kind of efficient causation than that w
hich is


Kim Sterelny and Paul E. Griffiths,
Sex and
Death: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Biology

University of Chicago Press, 1999), 280


observed in individual ontogeny.
Some organisms reproduce successfully while others don’t; as
a result, the frequency of certain genes in the population changes. That’s all.
To the extent that
it has a direction at all, it is simply to occupy al
l environment niches, and explore all the
reachable positions in “design
Unlike evolved creatures, evolution cannot succeed or
fail at anything; it can only continue or not. It cannot confer moral validation or condemnation
on anything.
This rai

the obvious question: what end or standard

allow us to distinguish
right from wrong, justice from injustice?

In the history of moral thought, there have really been only

two answers to that question:
either the just is just because God loves it,
or God loves it because it is just.

If it is the former,
all we need to know for moral guidance, and perhaps all we can know

is what

God loves and
what He hates. But i
f God loves the just

it is just, then justice must be explicable, at
least in

part, independently of the fact that He loves it.
How can this be understood?

Perhaps the just is a subset of the good. Human beings are living beings, subject to pain
and pleasure. Those things that lead to the one and the other are the good and bad

things in the
simplest sense. We are also subject to powerful emotions, and can thus be happy or sad in
almost as simple a sense.

we are capable of having a conception of our lives as a whole,
and thus we alone
can achieve

what Aristotle called

What is by nature good for
human beings is

a life that is satisfying as a whole. We want it by nature, because of the kind of
kind of creatures we are. We want it because it is good for
; not because it is good for our

So what does Darwinian evolution have to do with any of this? In fact, it largely
underwrites classical political philosophy, and in many cases deepens the latter and adds detail
that was unavailable to the Socratic philosophers. The most basic fact unde
rlying moral and


the Euthyphro


political philosophy is that human beings are sometimes tempted to do

what they ought not to do.

awareness of this distinction, between what


and what is good for
, is the
existential basis of all morality.
Out of
the moral passions are born. Darwinian Theory can
explain it. Our evolved dispositions
obviously worked well enough to secure our reproductive
success, or we wouldn’t have them. But they

are sometimes at odds with one another and with
our happiness.

Our appetites, emotions, and aversions, are products of human evolutionary
history, but so is our capacity for deliberation.

Contrary to a
common assumption in the philosophy of ethics
, morality does not
necessarily involve relations between people. I
f someone does something he knows to be
unhealthy he may well feel guilty about it, even if it affects no one but himself. When he does
get sick, he may feel shame. These are fundamental

moral judgments

made by himself against

But human bein
gs are social creatures by nature. Indeed, we were social long before
we were human. The good for human beings involves living together in communities. But just
as each person is sometimes tempted to cheat himself, as it were, he is also tempted to chea
other people.

Here, Darwinian thought becomes very interesting. Cooperation is a

old story in the
history of life.
It is present when large single celled organisms ingest smaller ones and, in return
for not dismantling the latter, accept certain ben
efits from the latter. It is present in every multi
celled organism, and in every social animal. But here is the thing: as soon as one organism “cuts
a deal” with another, which is the basis of all cooperation, then the possibility of cheating arises.
he partner in each biological partnership can get more out of cooperation than
he can get from
cheating, in the long run. Otherwise the cooperation would not occur.

But it may be got a lot
out of cheating in the short run; hence it will be tempted to ch
eat. Some mechanism must be

available for suppressing cheating and encouraging righteousness, even if it is righteousness
among fruiting bacteria.

This is what justice looks like. It occurs whenever individuals must sacrifice their short
rm interest
s for the sake of



in which their


larger interest is invested. It is
ubiquitous in nature

and very common on the level of animal interaction
. When a colony of
slime mold organisms builds a stalk and bulb structure in order to hitch a ri
de on a passing
insect, an implicit compact is formed. Only the creatures that make into the bulb have a
reproductive future, but a number of slime mold clones, with distinct genetic lines, must
cooperate to build the stalk out of their own bodies. Roll,

Jordan, roll. So a moral rule must be
no stalk construction without build representation
A clone that contributes without
benefiting won’t be around to contribute next time. That is the consequence of exploitation.

Likewise, honey bee work
ers are sometimes tempted to lay their own eggs and tend to
their sons rather than the offspring of the queen.
But service to the queen is the basis of the
extraordinary productivity of the hive, and the similar cooperation across a range of eusocial
cts is the reasons those insects have inherited so much of the earth. So some device must be
arranged to prevent cheating. It’s simple. The queen frequently patrols the nursery and eats any
eggs that don’t smell like hers. It doesn’t always work. A hi
ve was discovered where a handful
of treacherous workers were secretly raising their own young, with door too small for the queen
to enter. The bees need a
bard to dramatize such things.

One might object that bees, let alone amoebae, are too simple to car
e gets


from their activities, and that’s probably

right. It doesn’t

matter. With cooperation come

possibility of cheating and the necessity for


enforcement of justice, even among automatons.
Indeed, natural right is so ubiquitous among organisms, so identical in its character in each case,


Lee Alan Dugatkin,
Principles of Animal Behavior

(New York: Norton, 2004) 296


that it looks more like a Platonic idea than anything you would expect in Aristotle’s biology.
Among highe
r organisms, to be sure, genuine caring and moral passions get laid over the more
primitive systems.

Likewise, v
ampire bats will often share a meal with one another, an important means of
insuring against the luck involved in hunting. But each bat keeps

a mental record of who share

with her in the past

and who did not. T
hus cheating can be strictly punished. In such animals we
see the beginnings of a simple moral consciousness.
It is possible that the human mind, with all
of its astounding capacities
, is the result of a runaway selection process for moral relationships.
At some point in


our ancestor’s ability to enter into and maintain complex partnerships
became part of dynamic cycle promoting reproductive success. Good cooperators came t
inherit the earth
. The need for building such partnerships involving relatively large numbers of
people required constant upgrades to our onboard biological computers, and thus intelligence
came to be selected for. Later we would discover, as have our
children today, that a computer
can be useful for a lot more purposes than

those for which it was originally designed

Human beings are moral animals. We cannot live well or at all unless we live with
others, but fortunately we are designed

for that kind
of life. We are born to learn a language, and
born to learn moral rules. At the same time, we inherit many evolved predispositions
that make it difficult to live with one another. Given human and nonhuman nature as Darwinian
Theory describes it
, we can be confident that justice is both possible and necessary.

This is not to say that achieving the good society is easy. The flip side of

our ability to
cooperate is our


to cooperate with some in order to compete with or do violence to

others. For most of our history as a species, the greatest danger has always come from other
people. It may be that our adherence to codes of justice is only possible in the face of an external

threat, and thus human history will inevitably be a repeati
ng cycle of violence. But there is no
reason why this has to be so. Cooperation between groups is no less natural than cooperation
between individuals, as even the smallest societies consist of more than one family. Moreover,
human societies probably br
oke up and reformed fairly often in the environment of our
evolutionary adaptation. We seem designed to recognize unfamiliar human beings as
linguistic and moral partners. Perhaps it is a bit much to demand that we recognize all human
beings as

partners in justice and reciprocity. Or perhaps not.

Likewise, it may be that civilization is alien to the natural human good. We evolved to
live in much smaller societies, and perhaps that is our natural home. Socrates himself famously
made that arg
ument in the
. On the other hand, we were also seeking to satisfy our
natural inclinations when we left the city of pigs and went on to live in
cities and later in
large nations. Civilization has certainly made possible greater wars and gr
eater crimes than were
imaginable when we were confined to hunting and gathering, yet evidence suggests that life in
modern societies is much less subject to murderous violence than in simpler societies. This true
even if we factor in the great wars.
ce modern societies do a better job of adequately feeding
and otherwise providing for their citizens, leading to life spans far beyond those of earlier
societies, it is
at least

modern civilization better satisfies our natural inclinations
d provides more people with the requirements of blessedness than any previous society.
question is not what kind of society were originally adapted for, but given our dispositions as
Darwinian Theory describes them, what kind of society is best for us

Human happiness is not the goal of evolution which, as I have said, has no goal. It is the
object of our naturally evolved capacity for deliberation. That

is possible at all
is a great gift,
regardless of we conceive

of the gift
er. I am inclined to think that Larry

Arnhart is right, that a dramatic reconstruction of human nature by biotechnology will be much
more difficult than we now imagine.
If we think that our life on this earth is something
worthwhile, something worth pres
erving and enhancing, we ought to recognize how
extraordinary it is. If we destroy ourselves, nothing like us is ever likely to appear again. When
something is that precious, you modify it only with the greatest of caution, and not without
making sure yo
u have a lot of backup copies.

Richard Sherlock says that natural law cannot be separated from Divine law, but if that is
true then there is no natural law.
Natural law, if I understand

, is precisely that part of morality
that can stand alone, withou
t divine sanction. One cannot know that the Sabbath is special, or
that graven images are forbidden, unless one is privy to divine revelation. Everyone can see that
codes against murder, theft, and adultery, are necessary for the function of human societ
y. To be
sure, the independence of natural law in no way contradicts divine law. If God forbids what we
can see is bad for us, then we can say that it is bad because He forbids it

He forbids it
because it is bad.

I see no more tension between the c
laim for Biblical creation and Darwinian science than
there is between the

and neuroscience. Every thought and emotion we feel in this world
depends on the action of cells in our brains. Whatever else our souls may be, they are electro
chemical phe
nomena. If the brain chemistry goes awry badly enough, love or any other passion
becomes impossible. Yet far from contradicting Biblical Religion, this seems to

to confirm
it. It is the teaching of every major Christian church, so far as I know, that

resurrection means
the resurrection of the body. Christ did not float out of the tomb in vaporous form, as dogs go to
heaven in a Disney cartoon. He got up on his own two feet and walked out. Why else was it
necessary to roll away the stone? It would
seem that the author or authors of the Bible cannot

easily imagine human beings apart from human bodies, and do not see this as any obstacle to
Christ’s promise.

But if there is no tension between Darwinism and creation, the same cannot be said for
Darwinism and sin.
The basic teaching of Genesis 3 is that God created the world without
anything bad in it;
and that
it is man who is solely responsible for bringing pain, death, and evil
into existence. By contrast, if Darwin is right, sin is older than we are. It is a consequence of
contradictions between our evolved predispositions and between the former and the goo
d life
that we seek. Animals may have no laws forbidding adultery, yet they nonetheless commit
adultery. A male bird may establish a relationship with one mate while secretly wooing another.
In both cases a promise of support is implicit, but only in on
e case will it be forthcoming. Of
course two can play at that game. While the male is out with his downtown girl, another male
may visit his wife. On the origin of sin, there is a clear tension between the Darwinian and the
Biblical accounts. The Darwi
nian one seems to be right. But that is the kind of thing that
Biblical religion has been dealing with for more than eight hundred years. It can survive this
tension, if indeed it deserves to survive. On the other hand, Darwinian Theory largely confirms

the Biblical view of man: fallen, yet capable of some measure of redemption.

I have argued that Darwinian biology is consistent with a basically Aristotelian view of
life. The former is therefore non
reductionist both metaphysically and morally. Every
thing that
lives comes out of and is entirely composed of what is dead: mere matter. The organism is
nonetheless robustly alive. Nothing like it could have been predicted from any knowledge of its
material constituents or their laws. Human beings emerge

out of the tree of life, but we are
almost as great a leap from the other animals as the animals from the plants. We are capable of
deliberation concerning justice and the common good, without which we are the worst of all the

animals. We are not capabl
e of perfection, and so every human society will require governments
and laws. Human beings can be the best of animals, but we are also the most dangerous. That, I
submit, is the basic insight of conservatism.