Gould on Darwin and Kropotkin: should we seek moral guidance in nature?

Massimo Pigliucci
Dec 14, 2020 · 8 min read
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[image: a social group of bonobo chimpanzees, Wikimedia Commons; this is essay #255 in my Patreon/Medium series]

“There are no shortcuts to moral insight. Nature is not intrinsically anything that can offer comfort or solace in human terms — if only because our species is such an insignificant latecomer in a world not constructed for us. So much the better. The answers to moral dilemmas are not lying out there, waiting to be discovered. They reside, like the kingdom of God, within us — the most difficult and inaccessible spot for any discovery or consensus.”

These words conclude a fascinating essay by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould on the nature of morality, Darwinian natural selection, and the writings of Russian anarchist Petr Kropotkin. Typical of Gould, his writings span across science, philosophy, literature, and everything in between. Some people downright dislike Gould, even eighteen years after his death. Others are still in awe of his prodigious output both as a scientist and as a writer. Count my friend Bob Wright in the first category, and count me into the second one.

That said, my admiration for Gould has not stopped me from openly criticizing him. Years ago, for instance, I wrote an essay for Skeptical Inquirer in which I took him to task for his notion that science and religion as “separate magisteria” that have nothing to say to each other. Still, whenever I read Gould I pay close attention, as in the case of a piece he penned about Kropotkin and what Nature has to tell us, if anything, about morality.

Kropotkin published a book in 1902 entitled Mutual Aid, in which he directly responded to Thomas Henry Huxley’s 1888 essay, “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society.” Huxley, also known as “Darwin’s bulldog” (not to be confused with Richard Dawkins, Darwin’s rottweiler), argued that the Darwinian theory of natural selection is not at all a useful guide to human ethical behavior, as so-called Social Darwinists had maintained. Nature “red in tooth and claws,” says Huxley, is a fair description of the struggle for existence, Hobbes’ war of all against all, but that is precisely why we should reject it as a model for human societies.

Kropotkin replied that the Victorian take on Darwin’s theory was misguided, and likely self-serving. His view of what actually happens in the wild is that we observe widespread cooperation and mutual aid among living organisms, because that’s the best ticket to the two currencies of evolution: survival and reproduction. Following this analysis, Kropotkin suggested that we humans should take Nature’s advice and act accordingly. Indeed, he thought that the more “advanced” species tend to be the ones more obviously characterized by cooperation. Five sequential chapters in his book cover mutual aid among animals, among “savages,” among “barbarians,” in the medieval city, and in contemporary societies.

Gould’s take on all this is that both Huxley and Kropotkin were mistaken about the science, and that Kropotkin was moreover in error about the human implications of Nature’s rules. One of Gould’s main sources of evidence is that Kropotkin’s ideology obviously drove him to cherry-pick certain examples rather than others, as well as to deploy metaphors that helped his case. Just like the Social Darwinists he criticized. While I concur about Kropotkin’s naiveté, I think Gould himself (and, in fact, Huxley) was a bit too quick to dismiss the role of Nature in ethical guidance. Let’s see why.

First off, Kropotkin was correct that there are many examples of cooperation in the biological world, though of course Huxley’s counterexamples cannot be dismissed either. Indeed, this is an eminently empirical question, and modern biologists have a much better understanding of the issue compared to what was available more than a century ago. Cooperation and competition are two alternative (and not mutually exclusive) evolutionary strategies that are arrived at by natural selection as a function of the biological characteristics of a given species. Competition — both with members of other species and with individuals from one’s own species — is the dominant mode in solitary organisms. Cooperation, by contrast, is prevalent among social organisms, from eusocial insects to many species of mammals, primates in particular.

Second, on one thing Kropotkin was definitely wrong: he thought that cooperation aids the survival of the species, but there is no place in the Darwinian framework for anything other than the survival (and, especially, reproduction) of the individual. Species are just assemblages of individuals, they are not the object of natural selection.

(Caveat: much has been written about group selection, or what nowadays is often described as multi-level selection. My assessment is that group selection is real, but it is controversial whether it extends to the level of species. And if it does, it is definitely not in the sense proposed by Kropotkin. The issue is rather technical, but here is the best book written on the subject.)

All of the above said, Gould was unwarranted in rejecting Kropotkin’s basic idea, because his basis for such rejection was that we can find examples of both competition and cooperation. This is true, but Gould is egregiously mixing apples and oranges, or rather lions and bonobos. The question is not whether Nature as a whole can teach us something about morality, but rather whether we can glean ethical guidance from the study of human nature. After all, we are Homo sapiens, not lions or sharks or anything else.

The ancient Greco-Romans very much thought that we should look at Nature to learn about ethics, but also understood “ethics” in much wider terms than most contemporary writers, Gould included, understand it. Ethics, or morality (I am using the terms interchangeably here), in modern parlance is concerned with the study and determination of whether certain actions are right or wrong. Is abortion wrong? Are charitable donations right? And so forth. The two dominant frameworks in this respect are Kantian-style deontology (i.e., rule based ethics) and Utilitarianism (the notion that what is right is what makes the most people happy).

But in ancient times — and in many cultures throughout the world today — ethics meant the study of how to live one’s life. This does include figuring out right and wrong, but it is much more expansive than that. It is about what sort of person we want to be, what kind of character traits we wish to cultivate in ourselves.

The Hellenistic thinkers thought that we should “live in accordance with nature,” and they differed among themselves on the basis of how they cashed that phrase out. For the Epicureans, for instance, human nature is primarily about the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure, and so those are the parameters of a good human life. For the Stoics, human beings are naturally social and capable of reason, so the application of reason to the improvement of society is what really matters. And so forth for the other schools. This tradition was then expanded to the legal realm by Cicero, one of the first writers on the subject of what became known as natural law.

A number of modern philosophers — and not just those writing from the point of view of the Stoic movement — have also adopted what they describe as a naturalistic ethics, for instance Philippa Foot with her landmark book, Natural Goodness. The idea is not, of course, that whatever happens to be natural is ipso facto also right. That would be committing the logical fallacy known as an appeal to nature, which is easily rejected by counterexample (e.g., poisonous substances are natural, so why not ingest them at will?).

A better way to understand naturalistic ethics is to think of it as analogous to medicine. There are certain physiological parameters that define a healthy human body, and those are the ones that medicine seeks to preserve, or to re-establish if they have been altered by disease or accident. As far as human beings are concerned, certain values of those parameters correspond to health and others to disease, but such values don’t apply to other species, since they will have their own biological definitions of health and sickness. Moreover, there are multiple ways to be a heathy human being, though there are many bad ways as well.

Similarly, philosophy as a way of life is medicine for the human psyche. Certain behaviors are conducive to a healthy psyche while others undermine it. What is psychologically healthy for us does not correspond to what is psychologically healthy for other animals. And there are many ways to have a healthy psyche and many ways to have an unhealthy one.

A compelling argument in favor of naturalistic ethics is that if we reject Nature as a source of guidance for our psychic and social wellbeing, then where do we get such guidance from? You might have noticed that Gould is pretty vague on the issue: “The answers to moral dilemmas are not lying out there, waiting to be discovered. They reside, like the kingdom of God, within us — the most difficult and inaccessible spot for any discovery or consensus.” What am I supposed to do with that?

One of the most popular answers is that God is the source of our morality. But that possibility has been dispatched by Plato 24 centuries ago, in a beautiful short dialogue known as the Euthyphro. A surprisingly common alternative among modern philosophers is some version of emotivism, according to which when we say that, for instance, genocide is bad, all we mean is that we don’t like it, as if it were a flavor of gelato to which we are — incomprehensibly — highly emotionally attached. Philippa Foot dispatched of such a bizarre notion very effectively in her book.

So are we — and should we be — naturally selfish or cooperative? Those alternatives are, as I pointed out earlier, not mutually exclusive. And the Stoics understood that perfectly. The famous circles of Hierocles, which are meant to explain the Stoic concept of oikeiosis, or “appropriation” of other people’s concerns, begin with the self:

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Hierocles and the other Stoics recognized that our first, natural, impulse is toward self-preservation. But we are also naturally prosocial (an embryonic form of virtue), meaning that we immediately sense that our survival and wellbeing depend on others, beginning with our caretakers. Later on, once we have reached the developmental age of reason, we keep extending our circles of concerns to wider and wider groups, until — ideally — we encompass the entirety of the human cosmopolis (and, as some modern Stoics have argued, beyond). As Seneca puts it:

“At our birth nature made us teachable, and gave us reason, not perfect, but capable of being perfected.” (Letters to Lucilius, XLIX.11)

I’m guessing Kropotkin — had he been aware of both ancient philosophy and modern biology — would have understood and appreciated this. More importantly, let us all keep striving to perfect our reason and to apply it to make this world just a little be better for everyone.

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Massimo Pigliucci

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Ethics, general philosophy, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://massimopigliucci.com/essays/

Science and Philosophy

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Massimo Pigliucci

Written by

Ethics, general philosophy, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://massimopigliucci.com/essays/

Science and Philosophy

Medium’s center for scientifically-informed content.

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