Human Nature after Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction

By Janet Radcliffe Richards | Go to book overview
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Selfish genes and moral animals

This chapter introduces the problem of Darwinism and morality by discussing the familiar claim that if we are entirely products of evolution we must be inherently incapable of anything but self-interested action, and therefore of genuine morality. This is often regarded by dualists as an implication of the materialist forms of Darwinism.

The chapter argues that this is another misconception, and tackles the issue in three stages. The first discussion is essentially scientific, and deals (briefly) with the way in which the problems of altruism encountered by classical Darwinism were solved by the genetic theories of neo-Darwinism. After that there are two sections considering claims that the kinds of altruism allowed for by neo-Darwinism are spurious, and therefore that accusations of radical selfishness must stand. It is argued here that these claims, too, are mistaken, and that the radical forms of Darwinism do allow for genuine altruism.

The chapter extends the use of the analytic techniques used so far by adapting them for the critical assessment of texts. It also recapitulates earlier issues by illustrating other contexts in which there are dangers of equivocation, and where apparently clear ideas turn out to be incoherent. It also analyses the accusation of reductionism, which is one of the main sources of confusion in Darwinian controversy.


The threat to freedom is the most fundamental threat to our idea of ourselves as moral beings. Moral behaviour is a matter of making some choices rather than others, and therefore if we lack the capacity to make choices at all, morality seems impossible. I certainly do not think that the previous chapter is going to remove all doubts about our capacity for choice and responsibility; it is more likely to have raised previously unthought-of worries. For now, however, set those concerns aside and accept, at least for the sake of argument, that we can make choices, and go on to the next question, of whether those choices can be moral.

The traditional idea of human nature was that our earthly bodies dragged us down - often literally and morally at the same time - while skyhooks did their best to pull us in the opposite direction, towards God and the good. But what happens if you have reached the conclusion that there are no skyhooks, and that we are ultimately nothing more than animated dust, configured into our present forms by the purposeless forces of natural selection?

If we are entirely the result of evolution by natural selection - the process that is popularly known as survival of the fittest - that surely seems to imply that we are inherently incapable of the altruism that is necessary for any kind of moral action. Moral behaviour, whatever its details, must involve the capacity to subject your own interests to the good of others, or to the requirements of moral


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Human Nature after Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction


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