Image of DNA

Are all our moral beliefs misleading products of evolution? Do all our judgements of right and wrong really come from genes busy making us maximise our offspring?

The idea has become part of the culture that tells us we are all selfish so there is no point in aspiring to do any better. Cultures which accept this are bound to degenerate. In this post I argue that even its main exponents do not accept its disastrous implications. Nevertheless it remains influential and is a major hindrance to a revived social morality.

Evolutionary ethics was debated in the 19th century and revived in the 1960s, its main proponents being E O Wilson and Richard Dawkins. Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (published 1976, reissued 1989) has had immense influence.

The basic message is that all our beliefs about right and wrong are products of our evolution. Evolution works by natural selection, which means that over time forms of life better at producing fertile offspring prosper while their competitors die out. Whether we realise it or not, we are all driven by our genes to do whatever will increase our reproductive success. All human behaviour, even our morality, can be reduced to biology. As Michael Ghiselin puts it,

Given a full chance to act in his own interest, nothing but expediency will restrain [a person] from brutalizing, from maiming, from murdering – his brother, his mate, his parent, or his child. Scratch and “altruist” and watch a “hypocrite” bleed.[1]

What is new?

For thousands of years philosophers and religious leaders have noticed how humans, like other animals, defend themselves and their interests but also often perform cooperative and altruistic acts. However they have also observed a difference. Humans do not simply obey instinct: we reflect and decide. Our selfish and altruistic actions can be freely chosen.

It is this difference which sociobiologists have been busy denying. For E O Wilson, ‘morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function’ than ‘to keep human genetic material intact’.[2] For Michael Ruse,

Morality, or more strictly, our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends… In an important sense, ethics… is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.[3]

For Richard Dawkins,

Humans and baboons have evolved by natural selection… Anything that has evolved by natural selection should be selfish. Therefore we must expect that when we go and look at the behaviour of baboons, humans, and all other living creatures, we will find it to be selfish.[4]

For Richard Alexander,

I suspect that nearly all humans believe it is a normal part of the functioning of every human individual now and then to assist someone else in the realization of that person’s own interests to the actual net expense of the altruist… Despite our intuitions, there is not a shred of evidence to support this view of beneficence, and a great deal of convincing theory suggests that any such view will eventually be judged false.[5]

So all our moral beliefs are, contrary to what we always thought, reproductive techniques in disguise. This biological ‘selfishness’ governs everything we all do. If you really believe this, how will you respond? Will you stop giving to charity and being polite to the neighbours? Oh no, your genes are making you do these things, because in some mystic way they increase your chances of fertile descendants. You will carry on doing them.

But your genes also fool you into thinking these actions of yours are moral – and now you know they are not. You have defeated your genes. Yet the whole point of the theory is that you cannot defeat your genes. Is there a contradiction here?

The moral appeal

Here is a clue. After Wilson and his disciples have spelled out in all its stark emptiness why all our morality is nothing but techniques for reproduction, they tell us to behave differently – for moral reasons!


Human nature can adapt to more encompassing forms of altruism and social justice. Genetic biases can be trespassed, passions averted or redirected, and ethics altered.[6]


To say that we are evolved to serve the interests of our genes in no way suggests that we are obliged to serve them… Evolution is surely most deterministic for those still unaware of it”.[7]


Let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish.[8]

What seems to be happening in their minds is that finding out what is going on enables us to stop it, and we can afterwards do what we ought to do, not what our genese make us do.

Escaping necessity

In these moral appeals they are contradicting their own theory in two ways. Firstly they are abandoning the determinism essential to the theory. The whole point of the theory is that our ethical beliefs and practices are determined: whatever we think, our ethical stances are really driven by the reproductive imperative.

Their moral appeals urge us to escape from this determinism. If we are capable of doing so, nothing is left of the basic theory except the precise biological details of how genes work. To say that we have a selfish nature but we also have the ability to resist it is, after all, what philosophical and religious traditions have been saying for thousands of years.

Moral sources

The other contradiction is that, after insisting that all morality comes from evolution, they then appeal to different moral standards which they consider better. Where did they get these better moral standards from, since according to their theory there is no other morality?

Each of these contradictions is, on its own, fatal to the whole idea that our behaviour is determined by our selfish genes. Put them together and the result is absurd. How can they, and we, know that we are being deceived unless we have already escaped the deception? How can they urge us to overcome the selfishness of our genes, unless they and we already have the capacity to do so? From what transcendent source have they received the better morality they are urging upon us, if the only morality available is the one provided by our selfish genes?

So, faced with the disastrous implications of their theory, they ignore it and appeal to the traditional moral concepts which their theory rejects. They, and we, can only do better than our selfish genes if, in addition to this selfishness, we also have the capacity to rise above it, judge for ourselves that there are higher standards to live by, and change our behaviour accordingly.

This is what we believed all along, before they tried to persuade us otherwise.

1. Michael Ghiselin, The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974, p. 247.
2. E O Wilson, On Human Nature, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1978, p. 167, quoted in Nitecki, Evolutionary Ethics, p. 117.
3. Ruse and Wilson, ‘The evolution of ethics’, New Scientist, 1985, 108, 1478 (17 October) , pp. 51-52.
4. Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, New York: Oxford UP, 1989, p. 4.
5. Richard Alexander, The Biology of Moral Systems, New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1987, p. 3; ‘Biological considerations in the analysis of morality’, quoted in Rolston, Genes, p. 251.
6. E O Wilson, ‘Human decency is animal’, New York Times Magazine, 12 October 1975, p. 50.
7. Alexander, R, The Biology of Moral Systems, p. 40.
8. The Selfish Gene, p. 3.