Quora – How does evolution explain morality and the development of morality?

Quora – How does evolution explain morality and the development of morality?


First one needs to explore a bit of the complexity present in both the ideas of evolution and the idea of morality, then one can begin to build some reasonable approximation to a simple model of an answer to that question.

It is helpful to start by accepting that the answer is likely to be deeply complex, and there is a set of ideas that one can assemble together to give a reasonable model (much as one can use Lego to make a model of an airplane, but never expect such a model to actually fly).

First a little about evolution.

Evolution is probably one of the most misunderstood ideas in our culture, because it was co-opted very early by Huxley for political purposes, and his famous characterisation of “nature red in tooth and claw” has tended to dominate most understandings, but is actually only a very tiny part of a very complex picture.

At the simplest level evolution can be characterised as the differential survival of replicating strategies in different contexts. So in this sense there are always two aspects – the strategy of the replicator and the context within which it exists. Both are equally important to what happens over time, both can get very complex.

If you start with a single replicator (something that can make copies of itself in some environment with some degree of accuracy), and there is more than one environment in which it is able to survive, then evolution will happen, because of those two sets of differences.

Evolution relies on the “some degree of accuracy” part above.

If something copies with complete accuracy, then there can be no evolution.

Evolution requires that there is some non-zero probability of errors in the process of replication. The degree of variation that exists is a very important part of the process.

Too much variation and there is not enough stability for complex pattern to survive.

Too little variation and there is not enough variation in the population to allow it to adapt to the inevitable changes in the environment that happen from time to time.

Exactly where that “sweet spot” lies will vary greatly between contexts and degrees of complexity present.

There are many dimensions to context that are very important to evolution, dimensions like productivity, size, variability (all of which help to determine how big a population can survive there), and they will be determined by variability of things like rainfall, sunshine, temperature etc at various scales of space and time. And there seems to be fundamental uncertainty and variability present in reality – it does not seem to actually be as neat and tidy as our ideas of laws would like to have it be (and some of those “laws” work to remarkable degrees of accuracy in some contexts).

The next idea that is important is that things can associate and form groupings at different scales, and evolution can happen at each and every scale of grouping simultaneously. And that can get really complex really quickly, and very often one level of association will tend to dominate in any particular context, but not always.

Some examples of scales of replicators are, individual RNA molecules, RNA and DNA cooperating to form replicators, groups of these in chromosomes, groups of chromosomes within nuclei and cells, groups of cells as communities to form complex cells, differentiated groups of cells to form bodies with complex organs, groups of bodies to form families and tribes and communities and ecosystems etc.

Once complex brains with abstract language came into existence, then a new levels of replicators and environments came into being – memes. Memes are units of transmissible behaviour. Anything that may be copied from one individual to another without anything physical having to be exchanged. It might be a sound, or a behaviour relevant to some context, or some idea, or some set of symbols or words, or some abstract idea represented by some set of symbols.

So the basic idea of evolution is:
Something that can replicate;
Some level of variation in the replication process;
Some level of variation in the environments in which those replicators can exist;
Differential survival of variants in different environments leading to the emergence of different populations in different contexts over time.

And that rapidly gets very complex.

I started out calling them replicating strategies.

I did that because at the abstract level, one can consider strategies of replication independent of the embodiment of those replicators. Looked at strategically like this, then one can see the same pattern expressed in a relationship between RNA molecules, between cells, between bodies, between populations, between ideas, between cultures, between abstract models. The same way of characterising relationship can apply at any of these levels.

There is an entire branch of mathematics called games theory devoted to the description of the types of relationships one can find and how they interact with each other in different contexts. That branch of mathematics contains infinite sets of infinities, but like all such things when you use smaller numbers relatively simple sets of relationships emerge (but as the numbers get bigger the complexity of the relationships rapidly goes beyond the ability to compute in any real time – and that idea is hard for many to get a real appreciation of as our brains are so good at subconsciously simplifying things, that we tend to over simplify that which is truly complex, and not notice that we have done it).

And this is where it starts to get really complex, and there are some useful simplifications that can be applied with usually reliable results.

If you look at any scale of replicator (from molecule to cell to bodies to families to tribes to societies or anything else in between or beyond) then you can characterise them in terms of the threats faced by the individuals at that level of grouping, and the sources of such threats.

And here is where it gets really interesting, and remarkably simple.

If the threats to individuals (at any level of grouping) come largely from other individuals within that group of individuals, then competitive systems will tend to dominate, and that system will be driven to some local set of minima on the available complexity landscape.

What the hell does “some local set of minima on the available complexity landscape” mean?

It means, that if you think about all the things that might possibly emerge as a variation on a theme at that level of population, and you look at the energetic cost of producing it, then the probability of that thing surviving will be an inverse function of that cost.

What does that mean? In a competitive environment, anything complex that does not quickly recover the “cost” of that complexity, is going to be quickly eliminated. Things will be driven to the lowest energy cost solution. If one thinks about that in the more abstract form, freedom is reduced to a minimum – and that has risk, as it reduces diversity.

Contrary to popular belief and dogma, competitive contexts are the enemy of freedom at this most basic of abstract strategic levels.

So going back to evolutionary contexts, what is the alternative?

If the threats to individuals come largely from factors outside of the population, and those threats may be effectively countered to some degree by some set of cooperative activity, then cooperation can emerge and stabilise in a population, and diversity can result. At the more abstract level, cooperative contexts actually empower freedom.

And it is vastly more complex than that, as any naive cooperation is vulnerable to exploitation by cheating strategies, and thus must have cheat detection and removal strategies present (and they rapidly evolve into an ecosystem at each level).

And this, finally, is the first level of the emergence of the underpinnings of morality.

And morality is in practice usually very deep, with many overlaying sets of such systems that have in fact worked in the practical past of that set of entities.

And there is another level at which it is very useful to consider such things.

Every level of structure has boundaries required to sustain its form. Cells require cell walls [or more technically correct – membranes – some sort of boundary], bodies require skin, and social systems have limits on behaviours (freedoms).

At higher levels of structure and abstraction, one can think of particular moral systems as being some approximation to some optimal set of boundary conditions required for the survival of that level of structure in the set of contexts of its past.

Now that poses several sets of profound and very complex questions.

To what degree (if any) do the current changes in context require changes in the morality that worked in the past?

And a related question – but from the other evolutionary aspect:

What is a useful approximation of a required set of boundary conditions for any new level of structure that may emerge?

When one looks very closely at a cell wall, it is a very complex thing. It has different sizes and shapes of holes in it that let some things in and out but block other things. It has some structures in it that actively transport some things (some are actively thrown out, others are actively gathered in). It can be flexible or firm. It has the ability to change many of these vary rapidly in response to changes in context that can be chemical, electrical or physical. It has structures in it that perform very complex functions.

Skin is similarly complex, and the internal skin of our mouth, nose, lungs and gut are even more complex.

Similarly with our social institutions, over simplifying them will cause systemic failure, as will over complicating them. There is always a “sweet spot” that will vary substantially with context. This is true of evolution at any level, as it is true of morality at any level.

At at the highest level of morality, at the level of the cooperative existence of intelligence generally (human and non-human, biological and non-biological) in a physical world that poses many levels of threat that can only be mitigated by the highest levels of cooperation; then there does seem to be a bare minimum that is required from all – a respect for individual life first and foremost, followed by a respect for individual liberty, and both of those impose demands upon every individual for responsible action in social and ecological contexts (ie not to pose an unreasonable threat to the life or liberty of anyone else).

So without getting into any of the extremely messy details of the evolution of particular “things” in particular contexts, we can say that any human being capable of language is an instance of a collection of many trillions of cooperating systems expressed over at least 15 levels of complex adaptive systems. We are, each and every one of us, complex beyond the ability of any individual (human or non human) to understand in detail (we contain many levels of complexity and chaos that defy computation at anything other than probability level). We must all be mysterious to ourselves and everyone else in many essential aspects.

We must each accept that most of what we recognise as regularity in others is more an artifact of the way our subconscious brains create a simple model of the world around us to present to us as our personal conscious experience, than it is an attribute of the reality that seems to actually exist beyond that experience.

The naive view that our experience is reality has be falsified beyond any shadow of doubt. Plato’s analogy of shadows on a cave wall is more accurate than he could possibly have known, and the complexity of systems that actually exist to create that effect are mind numbingly complex – even for someone with 50 years of experience of systems and complexity, I have only a rough sketch of the basic outlines. I know enough to know that should I live a million years I will still be learning interesting things about how we actually function in detail.

So morality seems to be a highly evolved set of essential boundary conditions, and any particular morality is most likely to contain many aspects that are left-overs from past contexts that are not really relevant to the context we have now, or those that are coming. And some of them will be. And there is no simple way to say which is what.

Welcome to the complexity of evolution.

And to be clear, I have only begun to scratch the surface of the complexity present. This subject has been a passion of mine for over 50 years, and after reading thousands of books and papers, and spending thousand of hours observing, I have far more open questions now than I had 50 years ago.

One of the really “odd” things about exploring really complex systems, is the more one learns, the more one learns there is to learn, and the more uncertainty one has about things one was once very confident of (too arrogantly confident of – a necessarily common attribute of youth or over specialisation).

[followed by 17/4/20 in response to a comment from Jon McCormick]

Hi Jon,

War, conquest, slavery and genocide can emerge as semi-stable strategies in contexts where the populations are beyond the capacity of the context to support them. There can be all sorts of drivers for that, population expansion, resource depletion (eg drought/crop failure through disease, etc), or any other perceived scarcity (monetary, or anything else believed to be).

And yes, looking at written history one does see many instances of such things, and they often have complex sets of drivers. (Jared Diamond’s Guns germs and steel is a good intro, as are Nassim Taleb’s writings – it is complex, even more so than Nassim identifies).

The concept of individual liberty is far from a recent development. What is recent is the idea of applying it universally. The idea of liberty has always been a favorite of the ruling elites.

We have some very big drivers of change available to us.

We have contraception. Women can now have reliable control over their reproduction (for the first time in history). That is huge.

We have technology, allowing us to do more with less.

Agriculture made great strides when farmers learned how to multiply their efforts with horses and oxen. Then came water power to grind flour (freeing women from a lot of work), and reticulated water and sewer systems. Then steam engines. Then internal combustion. Then electricity.

Using trees as firewood is about 3% efficient at storing sunlight and returning it as useful energy. Solar power systems are at least 3 times as efficient, and as sodium based batteries become available, that efficiency will increase hugely.

Certainly, if you look for competition and deceit and betrayal you will find many instances of it. It happens.

And if you look for cooperation and the subjugation of immediate desires for the long term interests of the group, you will find plenty of that too.

Here in New Zealand we are currently under level 4 lockdown. Essential workers only leaving home. In three weeks I have been to the supermarket 4 times. Other than that it has been stay at home except for an occasional walk around the block staying well away from everyone else. Most people are complying with the requests (way over 90%). Very few laws changed. Very little use of police powers (about 80 arrests in 3 weeks from 5 million people). No use of guns.

Most people can see the need for it.

Most are giving up their immediate desires for the long term benefit of themselves and those they care about. That is an overwhelming example of cooperation in action.

I am not aware of any murders during the period.

Plenty of issues, and most are being prioritised and dealt with.

Most are choosing to impose severe restrictions on their own liberty for the lives of others.

We can see what we look for.

We have been taught to look for competition and ignore cooperation.

We must start seeing clearly that all levels of our survival are fundamentally based in cooperation; and that while limited competition can be a lot of fun, all out competition is as unsafe and destructive as it gets.

Competition on a cooperative base is great. But without the cooperative base, it is self terminating at our level of complexity.

Everyone needs to understand that all new levels of complexity are based upon the emergence and stabilisation of new levels of cooperation. Jon von Neumann’s attempt to stabilise competition with Mutually Assured Destruction is not stable. Each side has to believe that the other side is actually mad enough to do it, and the only way to do that is for them to actually be that mad, and that means having necessary instabilities that guarantee systemic failure eventually. It is mathematically impossible to stabilise all out competition; it must end in destruction. It is possible to stabilise cooperation, and it requires eternally searching for new strategies to detect and mitigate/reform cheating strategies.

We have the ability to use machines as the serfs and slaves to do the base production that makes higher order freedom possible.

That makes it possible to extend individual freedom universally.

And that will only work if everyone accepts that freedom always comes with responsibilities, if it is to avoid leading to destruction. All levels of structure have sets of boundary conditions that are required to maintain that structure.

Most systems have tipping points beyond which recovery is not possible. We need to make reasonable efforts to identify and avoid those – all levels.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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