Ethical Adventures of an Evolutionary Theorist

“How does it matter to us?” seems to be the logical conclusion for a number of intellectual explorations. A conceptual construction or a scientific elaboration would then have their raison d’être in their capacity for implying a set of conclusions bringing a benefit – inexistent before the process – for, say, the author, a group of individuals, humanity at large or even the whole of living beings.

Addressing evolution theory, Elliott Sober brings this assumption to its most ambitious edge: after having described the evolutionary history of species, including the human species, and the importance of evolutionary processes in the genotype and phenotype of non-human species, the author naturally asks whether this dynamics is also responsible for all the ‘grey area’ of humanity – its social, behavioral, cultural and psychological sophistication. Could everything be explained through the evolution theory? In an interesting case of involuntary foretelling, Sober mentions right away that for Wilson, the author of the 1975 breakthrough Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, the main issue for sociobiology, or the adaptation of evolutionary theory to human society and culture, is the enigma of altruism (Sober 2000, 188). Elaborating this point, Sober, contends that “the characteristic outlook” of sociobiology is “adaptationist, with strong emphasis on the hypothesis of individual adaptation” (ibid.). In other words, sociobiology thinks in terms of individual strives for survival and procreation. It may not, arguably, comprehend evidences suggesting diammetrically opposite principles. The social branch of the scientific discipline of biology would thus be closed to a vast set of cultural phenomena, such as those put forth by interdisciplinary thinkers like Nietzsche or Freud, who had suggested serious revisions for the axiom according to which life, and human life especially, is necessarily self-affirming.

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For the side of the ethical subjectivists, there would be an unbridgeable gap, no correlation between the (cultural) formulation and establishment of those ethical norms in a society, and the society’s actual fitness for evolution.

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Sober gets to the thorny question. Having reviewed the potential ideological and anthropocentric risks of sociobiology, he attempts his own exploration of ethics through the lens of biology. In a faithful Baconian spirit, Sober announces: “it is important to break the phenomenon we call “morality” into pieces” (ibid., 206). Sober then formulates what is seemingly meant as a representative picture of the debates on ethics in the community of sociobiologists. There is, he argues, on the one hand the ethical subjectivists, who face the ethical realists. The former side contends that ethics is a matter of opinion, containing or corresponding to no fact that could be scientifically examined. In other words, as Sober illustrates, statements like “murder is always wrong” and “murder is sometimes permissible” are both untrue for the subjectivists. That is: these statements do not enter into the frame of an individual-concerned evolution theory. There would be an unbridgeable gap, no correlation between the (cultural) formulation and establishment of those ethical norms in a society, and the society’s actual fitness for evolution.

For the realists, on the other hand, certain ethical positions do represent facts that make evolutionary sense. This would also mean that some ethical positions are universally true, for a species as a whole or – who knows? – for the whole realm of beings. Sober acknowledges that “a full treatment of the dispute” would be complex to trace, but he goes through a series of arguments pro subjectivism to then demonstrate their irrelevance.

The actual problem arises at the time of his conclusion. He admits the difficulty of breaking ethics into pieces and explains:

“Even harder than the problem of understanding the secrets of the atom, of cosmology, and of genetics is the question of how we ought to lead our lives. This question is harder for us to come to grips with because it is clouded with self-deception: We have a powerful interest in not staring moral issues squarely in the face” (ibid., 212).

The passage is perplexing. Either Sober indeed reflected seriously on the question, and realized that the problem of morality is more complex than other scientific queries, but then this simplistic formulation, in the style of an adolescent prose, seems particularly naïve. Or Sober actually just thought about the matter, and then his hierarchical claim is a hasty one. The second option may be more tempting, as one keeps reading: “No wonder it has taken humanity so long to traverse so modest a distance” (ibid., 212). This is mere ignorance and disregard for what should not even be simplified under the category of ‘literature of ethics’. And this is not mentioning the fact that Sober did not actually address his initial query: conflating ethics and morality, he tangentially discussed the evolution of moral reflections in the human, without addressing Wilson’s question on altruism. Disregarding centuries of refined reflections on the matter, Sober improvises an opinion on the possible (evolutionary) roots of morality. Truly, cultural philosophers did for long ignore the depth of the scientific explorations of their age, but a number of them are now making the effort to learn those developments. It would then be time for a popular scientist like Sober to do his own part of the homework.


Sober, Elliott. Philosophy of Biology. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000.

Image courtesy: Anton Croos