On the Origins of Altruism

March 15, 2010
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Sure, evolution explains how modern humans have come to look as we do, but can it explain how we act? What can Darwinian thought tell us about altruism and morality? This is the question posed this week by the Guardian as part of its fascinating “The Question” series.

Is [morality] merely a trick played on us by our genes? Or is that in turn an incoherent idea? Can science naturalise morality, and show that there are certain good ends which come naturally to the sort of animals we are? Where, in that case, is the belief that we are free too choose our own ends? Does an evolutionary account of human nature challenge liberalism as much as it challenges conservatism?

The first respondent is University of Chicago Press author Michael Ruse, a philosopher of biology, who writes that morality is a product of natural selection:

Morality then is not something handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is something forged in the struggle for existence and reproduction, something fashioned by natural selection. It is as much a natural human adaptation as our ears or noses or teeth or penises or vaginas. It works and it has no meaning over and above this.

Ruse has long championed Darwinian theory (and challenged Christian doctrine). His 1979 book, The Darwinian Revolution, was the first comprehensive and readable synthesis of the history of evolutionary thought. Reissued in 1999, it still remains today one of the best primers on the subject.
More recently Ruse has collaborated with Devid Sepkowski to edit the The Paleobiological Revolution: Essays on the Growth of Modern Paleontology, a collection that traces the ascent of this once marginalized field to its current position as a first-rate discipline central to evolutionary studies.

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