Category Archives: Ethical Selection Theory

Theorems of Evolutionary Theory

I recently found a list of principles of evolutionary theory and I thought that it would be useful to organize this list according to their domain and level of generality. I like the term “theorems” for this, but perhaps I am mistaken in this usage.

The first section is for the highest level or “Universal Theorems”. These apply to all life. Below this are principles specific to animals. Below this level are others, structured as follows:

  • Animal kingdom
    • morphology (the structure of their bodies)
      • Mammalian morphology
    • biogeography (geographical distribution
  • Sexual dynamics
  • Social dynamics

Note that I have not placed sexual and social theorems under the animals, since they apply to plants and many other taxa as well. It is rather interesting how few and boring are the distinctively zoological theorems. The sexual and social theorems also apply to plants for example. However, I think that we can find some distinctively animal and even uniquely human principles in social dynamics, but sexual dynamics are surprisingly wide-ranging.

These principles are found by scrolling to the bottom of this page:

I will add to this list as I find or create more.


Universal Theorems


Biejernik’s Principle
(of microbial ecology): Everything is everywhere; the environment selects.

Bulmer effect: Genetic variance is reduced by selection, in proportion to the reduction of phenotypic variance of the parents relative to their entire generation.

Cope’s ‘law of the unspecialized’: The evolutionary novelties associated with new major taxa are more likely to originate from a generalized member of an ancestral taxon rather than a specialized member.

Fisher’s Fundamental Theorem: The rate of increase in fitness is equal to the additive genetic variance in fitness. This means that if there is a lot of variation in the population the value of S will be large.

Galton’s Regression Law: Individuals differing from the average character of the population produce offspring, which, on the average, differ to a lesser degree but in the same direction from the average as their parents.

Gause’s Rule (competitive exclusion principle): Two species cannot live the same way in the same place at the same time (ecologically identical species cannot coexist in the same habitat). This is only possible through evolution of niche differentiation (difference in beak size, root depths, etc.).

Haeckel’s ‘Biogenetic Law’: Proposed by Ernst Haeckel in 1874 as an attempt to explain the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny. It claimed that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, i.e., an embryo repeats in its development the evolutionary history of its species as it passes through stages in which it resembles its remote ancestors (embryos, however, do not pas through the adult stages of their ancestors; ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny). Rather, ontogeny repeats some ontogeny – some embryonic features of ancestors are present in embryonic development (L. Wolpert: The Triumph of Embryo. Oxford University Press, 1991). Also discussed in detail with original pictures by Haeckel in D Bainbridge: Making Babies. Harvard University Press, 2001).

Hardy-Weinberg Law: In an infinitely large population, gene and genotype frequencies remain stable as long as there is no selection, mutation, or migration. In a panmictic population in infinite size, the genotype frequencies will remain constant in this population. For a biallelic locus where the allele frequencies are p and q:

p2 + 2pq + q2 = 1 (see Basic Population Genetics for more).

Heritability: the proportion of the total phenotypic variance that is attributable to genetic causes:

h2 = genetic variance / total phenotypic variance

Natural selection tends to reduce heritability because strong (directional or stabilizing) selection leads to reduced variation.

Protein clock hypothesis: The idea that amino acid replacements occur at a constant rate in a given protein family (ribosomal proteins, cytochromes, etc) and the degree of divergence between two species can be used to estimate the time elapsed since their divergence.

Red Queen theory: An organism’s biotic environment consistently evolves to the detriment of the organism. Sex and recombination result in progeny genetically different from the previous generations and thus less susceptible to the antagonistic advances made during the previous generations, particularly by their parasites.

Selection Coefficient (s): s = 1 – W where W is relative fitness. This coefficient represents the relative penalty incurred by selection to those genotypes that are less fit than others. When the genotype is the one most strongly favored by selection its s value is 0.

Selection Differential (S) and Response to Selection (R): Following a change in the environment, in the parental (first) generation, the mean value for the character among those individuals that survive to reproduce differs from the mean value for the whole population by a value of (S). In the second, offspring generation, the mean value for the character differs from that in the parental population by a value of R which is smaller than S. Thus, strong selection of this kind (directional) leads to reduced variability in the population.

Tangled Bank Theory: An alternative theory to the Red Queen theory of sex and reproduction. This one states that ‘sex and recombination’ function to diversify the progeny from each other to reduce competition among them (see a review by Burt & Bell (1987) on the Tangled Bank Theory).

Wright-Fisher model: The most widely used population genetics model for reproduction. It assumes a finite and constant size (N) and non-overlapping population and random mating. One of the results is that if a new allele appears in the population, its fixation probability is its frequency (1/2N). See a Lecture Note on Wright-Fisher Reproduction.”

Animal Kingdom



There is a gradient of increasing species diversity from high latitudes to the tropics (see New Scientist, 4 April 1998, p.32).


Allen’s Rule: Within species of warm-blooded animals (birds + mammals) those populations living in colder environments will tend to have shorter appendages than populations in warmer areas.

van Baer’s Rule: The general features of a large group of animals appear earlier in the embryo than the special features.

Cope’s Rule: Animals tend to get larger during the course of their phyletic evolution.

Mammalian Morphology

Bergmann’s Rule: Northern races of mammals and birds tend to be larger than Southern races of the same species.




Sexual Organisms

Bateman’s Principle: Males gain fitness by increasing their mating success whilst females maximise their fitness by investing in longevity because their reproductive effort is much higher.

Coefficient of Relatedness: r = n(0.5)L where n is the alternative routes between the related individuals along which a particular allele can be inherited; L is the number of meiosis or generation links

Fisher’s Theorem of the Sex Ratio: In a population where individuals mate at random, the rarity of either sex will automatically set up selection pressure favoring production of the rarer sex. Once the rare sex is favored, the sex ratio gradually moves back toward equality.

Haldane’s Hypothesis (on recombination and sex): Selection to lower recombination on the Y-chromosome causes a pleiotropic reduction in recombination rates on other chromosomes [hence, the recombination rate is lower in heterogametic sex such as males in humans, females in butterflies].

Lyon hypothesis: The proposition by Mary F Lyon that random inactivation of one X chromosome in the somatic cells of mammalian females is responsible for dosage compensation and mosaicism.

Muller’s Ratchet: The continual decrease in fitness due to accumulation of (usually deleterious) mutations without compensating mutations and recombination in an asexual lineage (HJ Muller, 1964). Recombination (sexual reproduction) is much more common than mutation, so it can take care of mutations as they arise. This is one of the reasons why sex is believed to have evolved.

Parental investment theory (Robert Trivers): The sex making the largest investment in lactation, nurturing and protecting offspring will be more discriminating in mating and that the sex that invests less in offspring will compete for access to the higher investing sex (Trivers RL. Parental investment and sexual selection. In Campbell BG (Ed) Sexual Selection and the Descent of Man, 1871-1971. Chicago:Aldine, 1972, pp. 136–179; ISBN 0-43-562157-2). See also Trivers-Willard Hypothesis.

Weismann’s hypothesis: Evolutionary function of sex is to provide variation for natural selection to act on (see (Burt, 2000) for a review of Weismann’s hypothesis).



Social Dynamics

Hamilton’s Altruism Theory: If selection favored the evolution of altruistic acts between parents and offspring, then similar behaviour might occur between other close relatives possessing the same altruistic genes, which were identical by descent. In other words, individual may behave altruistically not only to their own immediate offspring but to others such as siblings, grandchildren and cousins (as happens in the bee society).

Hamilton’s Rule (theory of kin selection): In an altruistic act, if the donor sustains cost C, and the receiver gains a benefit B as a result of the altruism, then an allele that promotes an altruistic act in the donor will spread in the population if B/C >1/r or rB-C>0 (where r is the relatedness coefficient).

Trivers-Willard Hypothesis: In species with a long period of parental investment after birth of young, one might expect biases in parental behaviour toward offspring of different sex, according to the parental condition; parents in better condition would be expected to show a bias toward male offspring (Trivers-Willard, 1973).




Noramativity a la Nature

In Evolutionary Ethics, ethics is an adaptation that comes from evolutionary processes. A common response to this is “It may be empirical theory, but is it also a normative theory? If evolution can can say why ethics exists, but can it say what we should do?” In the following I argue that it can in the following ways.

  1. Ethical Selection Theory gives a final cause for ethics, not merely a formal or material cause. Only a final cause can provide a normative theory.
  2. It constrains our choice of ethical theory based on the final causes for ethical behavior.

Once we see that ethics is essentially evolutionary, then evolutionary ethics is at least as normative as any ethical theory that has ever been proposed, in addition to having a factual basis in a well-founded theory of natural science concerning humans, the creature widely known to be ethical in nature.

The Final Cause of Ethics – “Not going extinct.”

  1. Evolutionary theory accepts final causes. It has to. Evolution is the explanation of adaptation. Adaptation is always essentially adaptation for something. As in for a purpose. “What is the purpose (Grk. telos) of bird’s wings?” Is a perfectly answerable question from within biology; not requiring any input from a non-naturalistic value theory. This is because evolution cannot be defined without adaptation and “adaptation” cannot be defined without teleology or “final causes”.
  2. Evolution is not merely about physical structures, but also about behavior.Behavior includes not merely physical movements, but also speaking, thinking and feelings. Your feelings of anger, love, or hunger are adaptive or maladaptive and serve a purpose. There is no ethologist in the world who does not think that animal feelings are not explained by evolutionary biology.
  3. Thus our ethical intuitions, both rational and sentimental, are all of them adaptive. This is proven by thinking what would happen without them. If one group people started murdering, lying, and stealing from each other without remorse, how could they compete with people who related to each other decently and morally? If this is true, then it necessarily follows that ethics is adaptive.Ethics are also inherited; by far the majority of ethical intuitions and concepts can only be understood and acted upon by humans. No animal raised as a human could ever be held ethically responsible nor hold other ethically responsible for acting from the respect of duty.
  4. Thus ethics is a evolved adaptive behavior, not just bodily movements or working together, but also the words, ideas and feelings that are also part of cooperation. Even the common idea that ethics is somehow supernatural is part of ethical behavior and should be explained by evolution.
  5. In science, the purpose of anything is “How it contributes to preventing extinction.” (Cf. Darwin 1859 )
  6. Therefore,  the purpose of cooperation is to avoid extinction.
  7. By 4 and 6, the purpose of ethics is to not go extinct. Q.E.D.

The normative value of avoiding extinction. Part 1: The Simple Cases

The most simple cases; or the paradoxes of modern non-evolutionary ethics:

  1. “The Repubnant Conclusion” – a paradox of utilitarianism.
  2. Extreme pacifism a la Tolstoy and Jesus.
  3. Voluntary Human Extinction
  4. Fad diets that do not suit your system such as vegetarianism and veganism. (Note that I am assuming that these diets are not healthy. I might be wrong. My point is that any diet which does not suit you is by that fact alone eliminated from your list of moral duties.)
  5. Many forms of radical feminism that discourage the reporductive role of women.
  6. Universal celibacy
  7. Extreme versions of animal rights.
  8. Extending full civil rights to children.

In all of these cases, we might have a hard time justifying our common practices within modern non-teleological ethical theories, but once ethics is placed in the context of natural final causes, their refutation is trivial. Furthermore, the way in which evolutionary ethics handles these paradoxes is quite in keeping with out naturally evolved moral intuitions.

Part 2: The Categorical Imperative as Evolutionary Stable Strategy

By the above Final Cause of Ethics, you can never be obligated to go extinct, because that would contradict the entire point of ethics. In other words, we can eliminate or argue against any ethical principle or rule that we have good reason to believe is maladaptive. “Maladaptive” in biology means that it cannot become part of an Evolutionary Stable Strategy.(ESS). Conversely, we can argue for actions that are part of our current ESS or may become our future (successful replacement) ESS. This means many things; but one of the most interesting is that an ESS must be able to be followed by the vast majority of a population and not lose its competitiveness. In my view this is the truth behind Kant’s requirement that the Moral Law must be universalizable. Any moral precept must be able to be followed by a moral community as a whole for it to be an ESS. There are many strategies which are “stable” (in another sense) but are rather parasitic, for example being s a thief or liar are stable in that there will always be individuals who follow this strategy, but they can never be ESSs because they can never define an adaptive strategy for an entire gene pool. As such, an essential part of many ESS is the naming and shaming of these deviants. Ethical discourse evolved in humans as part of this need to protect the current ESS against those who seek to disrupt its effectiveness and drive their population extinct. In this way, we can derive the need to make ethical judgements from evolution. I propose that any species that uses language like we do must also follow a somewhat similar morality.

Of course, there is always room for debate; one generations deviants can eventually define the next ESS. This is rare but possible, ands is an essential part of evolution. But whether the ESS will continue to be stable or not, it is a natural fact that is so or not so. The fact of real issues for ethical debate is not one strike against moral naturalism if we have a natural account of this debate.

Secondly, we can use biological reasoning in normative criticism of human action. Before we do this, let’s see how normativity can be used in normal biological theory.

If you take any trait in any non-human species where one allele has so much more diversity and provenance and is spreading faster and faster through time than some other allele, then you would have to say that it is “better” from an evolutionary perspective. (I’m following Richard Dawkin’s practice from the “Selfish Gene” to put scare quotes around the use of the evolutionary “should”.) Notice how sexual creatures are rapidly diversifying and outcompeting asexual creatures over the long term. This is basically what it means to be “better”.

Sometimes you might have a short burst of reproduction that is not “better”, like rats breeding on Easter Island. This is not a long-term gain because this habitat will not support much more expansion and the rats are not diversifying. Soon they will reach a limit and their population will crash. If they were diversifying, then they might come up with a new strategy that would allow them to continue to expand. Perhaps they would be able to fly or swim or learn to utilize some completely new resource that previous generations of rats did not use. Compare this with humans. Humans are “better” from an evolutionary perspective because our population is not only expanding, but creating new strategies and niches that never existed before. They are not only accessing new resources, but new types of resources. Our diversification and innovation is unparalleled in all of nature. The closest competitors are ants. However, ants are developing very slowly and I highly doubt that they will be able to survive the event of the Earth being swallowed by the Sun in 5 billion years. It is far from certain that humans will survive this, but it is a strong possibility. Ants evolved 40 million years ago, if humans survive for that long, we will certainly never go extinct. But ants are pretty much stuck. They are pretty cool and rather advanced, but they are not really going places in the way that humans are. And this fact is what is means by saying the humans are better from an evolutionary perspective.
Of course, we may still go extinct since nothing is certain, and there maybe some evolutionary bottleneck ahead. However, something line of development like what we are now following is surely the only possible way to avoid extinction. And that’s good. If you disagree with that, then I could argue that point, but on second thought I will just ignore it, because some of us like to argue useful things.
To return to our example, if you look at the metazoans that practice sexual reproduction and compare them with asexuals, you can’t help but notice that reproducing sexually sure seems to be “better” than asexuality, and evolutionary theory has a lot to say about why this is so that is very interesting.

That’s not to say that sexuality is not without its drawbacks, it’s just that sexual creatures are really doing a lot *better* than asexual creatures, so it must be the case that its advantages outweigh its costs. They are more numerous and more diverse. In fact they are more numerous because they are more diverse. More diversity gives evolution more to select from. Likewise, humans are “better” than other creatures because we are the most diverse species on the planet (and vice-versa, we are diverse because we are “better”.). So with this in mind, can we use these same criteria to point out which subsets of the human race are “better” than others? Yes, those cultures which have more diversity will tend to become more numerous over time for the same reasons as our biological examples above; greater diversity gives more raw material for evolution to select from.

And this is true not only of humans, but also of mammals. Mammals are the most intelligent Class of creatures on the Earth, and one of the most diverse. If we are merely counting species, then Beetles and Hymenoptera have us beat, but what about if we compare the diversity of habitats and survival strategies? All insects are terrestrial, whereas some mammals live in the ocean. Sperm whales even obtain most of their food from the deep ocean where sunlight never shines. That’s something that no insect could ever do. Insects are also lacking in intelligence. Every mammal is smarter than any insect. While I agree that intelligence way be overrated, it is one trait that has made mammal very competitive. For example, the cetaceans (whales, etc.) have driven many sharks extinct, and this is due in large part to their intelligence. Sharks will never come up on land and drive any mammal extinct ever. So it seems that mammals arte also “better” than your average life form. Likewise with bacteria, vertebrates, insects and angiosperms; each of these taxa are so diverse and numerous because they are “better”.

Now let’s say that you answer the above argument with the rebuttal: “Just because humans evolve to think and feel a certain way does not make it right.” Yes it does. You may as well say that “Just because female Cardinals are most sexually attracted to red males does not make red males more sexy.” What is there to being sexy besides being sexually attractive to others?  If you can answer this, then you can tell me what there is to being “good” than being to the long-term inclusive fitness of living creatures. And of course whether something is adaptive or not is not always clear ahead of time, but it is a natural property open to empirical study, not something that is magically indefinable. And if I have a word, I like it to refer to something real, especially if it’s an important one like “good”. If we take our cue from reality, we know what ethics is: it’s a set of adaptive rules for cooperation, and the feelings that motivate us to follow them. That’s good.

I’m not saying that you can’t use “good” in some other way, or that when you use it in your daily life, you have to think like this. All I’m saying is that this is what “good” really means. There are a lot of words that we use in our daily life to mean one thing and in science it means another. For example “up”. Most people think of up as one single direction, but in reality, it is any direction as long as it is away from the center of the nearest planet. So you can keep on talking and feeling about the good as you have been all your life. But if you would like to really figure out if you or anyone else is really good apart from conventional definitions, there is no other way than to take your normativity from nature. And that is what philosophy really is.

Show me the Arkhe!


I would like to challenge you to try to think from first principles. This means you are searching for an explanation for your beliefs which is the most comprehensive and cohesive with known facts.

Thinking from first principles will eliminate dualism of any kind. While there have been dualisms proposed by the great Thinkers, Philosophy and Science can never ever be satisfied with an unbridgeable dualism.

For example, why should there be an “is/ought” distinction? Are their ANY cases in which we fell confident that this does not apply? Are their any things in this universe that have a purpose as a matter of undeniable fact? What is the purpose of bird’s wings? If I say that “A bird OUGHT to be able to fly.”, am I committing the naturalistic fallacy? What if I say that “Humans ought to talk to each other and think about things.”, is THAT justified any less than something I say about birds? I don;t think so.

Not only do wings have a purpose for birds, but birds also have an ecological purpose. They perform a function for the biosphere. What’s so mystical about that? There’s nothing supernatural or non-physical about purpose or function. Perhaps you might think that there is, but the fact that you think that way has a rather nifty explanation which is far more comprehensive and cohesive than the explanation you will give for why your life has purpose.

Dualism is the mind-killer. Face your dualism and let is pass over you. When it is gone, only the Arkhe will remain.

Long ago we thought there was two kinds of matter: celestial and terrestrial. But then we found they were the Same. Later on we had a dualism of matter and energy; those also were the Same.

What about Matter/Energy and Space and Time, are they not totally different?. Later on, we found out that is the Same as well.

What about the difference between Physical reality and Information, are they not totally different? Guess what? Later on, we found out that information is a physical phenomenon. (No kidding! Look it up.)

So if you come up with some tiny thing you think is so special that it could never ever be the Same as something else. I will laugh at you.

Any statement of the form “There are only two types of things: x and everything else.” is by definition unwarranted. Its very form violates the conditions of possible knowledge. This is because all explanation as such must subsume the explanandum under a genus as a new species with a difference from other species.

Formerly light was essentially the field of visibility and on the other hand there had recently been discovered “radiation”. One was visible and the other not; two things could not seem to be more different, could they? But in due course science explained radiation. How? Simple, we found that it was actually a form of light; invisible light, but light none the less. Now are you going to accept an argument that light qua light must be visible? In a very common sense way “light” is visible by definition, but science is not limited by common sense usage of any term. What physics has done with “light”, Philosophy must do with “consciousness” and “ethics”. Ethics is not necessarily ethical, and consciousness is not necessarily conscious.


Naturalism and the “Testimonial Imperative”


Introduction: the Challenge of Philosophy

Years ago, a creationist challenged me to justify the assertion that people evolved from apes when we share lots of characteristics with raccoons. Now I know that we have many more characteristics in common with apes than any other animal, but rather than quibble about details I realized that I did not know the basis of evolutionary theory. My philosophical studies had focused on the history of astrophysics and cosmology, and I realized that I could not generalize my philosophy of science to explain the Darwinian revolution. I admitted to him that I could not justify it other than out of respect for scientific authorities.

For the next few years, I read the relevant books to understand evolution. First the “Origin of Species” itself, which easily refutes all the haters, but I kept on going for years, because evolution and its related disciplines are so vast; they overlap with mathematics, economics, and computer science quite a bit.

Realizing your ignorance is the beginning of a wonderful new stage in the search for truth. I know what it is like to reply to an objection using empty nonsense without really understanding the argument in its strongest sense. Of course I understand that evolution has not fitted the human race to be composed of freethinkers; we will always be the exception. It’s a law of nature. So I am very compassionate when I see people replying to me with empty nonsense. However, I will never ever willingly waste a day of my life believing in empty nonsense, for reasons explained below.

The Practical Basis of Naturalism – the “Testimonial Imperative”

The “Testimonial Imperative” simply means calling a spade a spade; or more precisely for the subject of ethical theory, every “ought” must be cashed out in terms of an “is”, and every “is” is only that which can be referred to without ambiguity, is defined operationally, and is known to exist with some specific level of certainty and evidence.

One may reasonably challenge me to cash out the Testimonial Imperative (TI) itself in terms of the “is” as a test of its completeness. After all the TI is itself and ethical standard like any other. So let us test it by applying it to itself and translate it from “ought” to “is” thusly: My strategy is to clearly define everything so that people know what I am saying and can better judge my words, and to clearly show how my words relate to higher principles which unite other areas of accepted knowledge. I cannot do this on my own, but require others to follow the same rule. Therefore, if you will not speak naturalistically, I will ignore you. I will ignore you because ultimately you are using vague terms which refuse to give up their meanings under scrutiny. Why should I put up with your nonsense ? You can’t possibly have any reply worthy of my time without accepting the Testimonial Imperative and its corollary, Methodological Naturalism.

If you decide to provisionally accept for the time being my demands of discourse, you could say that “How do you know that your Imperative is actually an Evolutionary Stable Strategy (ESS)? If it is not, then within Selection Theory your whole position is as unfounded as any theocracy.” I accept that caveat, since it applies to any ethical stance whatsoever concerning anything from scientific honesty to  the prohibition of murder to abortion rights. This is exactly what our moral basis is: I am taking a stance with my life on a certain definition of an adaptive strategy. Mine is “Philosophy”; which includes science, secular politics and freethinking in general. I am simply phrasing my definition of this strategy in the same way that any other moral principle is *actually * defined (iif it is ever defined at all!). When I oppose murder or aggressive warfare, I am taking a stance by pledging allegiance to an adaptive strategy that excludes these practices. Prohibiting murder and aggressive warfare have proven effective stratgies over many thousands of years, not only for humans but almost all other animals, so I am safe in this respect. Few will object on the point of theory, perhaps only quibbling over how this rule applies to specific cases. The number of ethical rules that are supported with this level of certainty are rather large; lying, stealing, gluttony, greed, envy, and lust are good examples.

So far so good. But when I take an ethical stance concerning the Search for Truth, I am on far shakier ground than with murder. However, the form of justification in both cases is the same because intellectual honesty is just as much an ethical virtue as other forms of honesty. I like to think it’s the most important, but perhaps it’s not. The main thing is that for Selection Theory, I am clearly defining all my terms, including “ought”, and I am clearly explaining how my oughts are binding. While you are clearly free to refuse to accept my ought, this only means that you are declaring yourself as one who does not care for the Truth, because you are not at all willing to accept the first principles of discourse, Aristotle’s “Three Laws of Thought”.

The Testimonial Imperative, like every other imperative (ethical or otherwise), is part of an adaptive strategy, which for humans means the regulation of cooperation. This strategy is a new thing; it seems weird to people because our ancestors did not search for the Truth in the way that some modern people do; i.e. by practicing Philosophy. (NOTE: When I capitalize “Philosophy”, it includes “science”.) Part of following the strategy of Philosophy is to define things clearly (Aristotle’s “Three Laws”) and to look for ultimate principles (the “arkhe”). Ignoring the arkhe means to take an unprincipled position. Truths are either axioms, or they are derived from axioms. Even contingent empirical truths have an axiom: For example, “I saw it happen.” is based on the axiom, “If you see it, it happened.”

While in my personal life, I like and cooperate all kinds of people, in my Work I will not respect anyone who tries to avoid the duty of defining what they mean or of relating what they say to the Arkhe. The desire to avoid this is a way to avoid the Truth. I agree that there are many well-founded fields where certain things are left vague because they are not ‘interesting’. These vague terms could be seized on by others unfairly. Creationists do this with certain aspects of legitimate biology, and I very much hope that I do not commit this error. However, it is very clear that almost every evolutionary concept is more clearly defined than almost every creationist concept. And this clarity is not merely in theory but also in practice. Likewise, when I do metaethics, I will define the broad range of my concepts more clearly and with firmer basis than is possible with any other competing theory. Also, my ethical concepts will be defined and explained using higher principles. It may be handy to simply define a principle out of nowhere, such as when Newton created “Gravity” and a name for some unknown force that affected matter. However, this cannot be the final result of science; gravity must eventually be explained in its relation to other phenomena. This is exactly what Selection Theory does with ethics. Just as gravity must eventually be cashed out in terms of other natural forces, ethics must be brought into theroretical relation with the rest of Nature. Perhaps Selection Theory has some fatal flaw unseen by me, but something like it must be the case. The nice thing about a naturalistic theory like mine is that even if it is wrong, it’s still a better use of your time than non-naturalism. This is because a naturalistic theory refutes itself, while non-naturalism never hazards any meaningful assertions about anything and merely maintains the deceptive appearance of knowledge.

The relation of ‘Physics’ and Ethics in Aristotle

‘Physics’, for Aristotle, is essentially the study of things which change in space and time.  The only things that are not ‘physical’ in this sense are unchanging essences (math, logic) and God (which for Aristotle was an ‘unchanging substance’.). God is included in the Physics Book VIII because of its role in explaining eternal physical motion, not because it is physical in itself. On this view, anything that changes through time is part of “physics”. IN algebra, adding x to y to get z is a ‘change’ in a sense, but it’s not taking place in time, so it’s not ‘physical’. Rocks, planets, stars, the weather, atoms, light, lightning, etc. are all physical because they change in time.

Living things are also ‘physical’ in Aristotle’s sense; they have every attribute that any other physical thing has: mass, energy, size, et cetera. However, they also have other things that nonliving physical objects do not have: heredity, metabolism, adaptation, function, ecological niche, genome, genotype, phenotype, et cetera.

These are very interesting and surprising characteristics that you could not predict from physical characteristics, so many people are tempted to say that there is something nonphysical about life. This intuition is nearly universal among traditional beliefs and in “vitalism”. Vitalism was taken seriously by Aristotle and  many other scientists up until the early 20th century, but no longer. However, it is still a fact that biological properties are different in meaning from physical properties, so in philosophy some people try to make this seem like some fatal flaw in physicalism. However, every such criticism cannot get around the fact that every biological fact is “superveninent” on the physical. This  means that you cannot change a biological fact without changing a physical fact., and conversely the only way to change a biological fact is to change some physical fact. Life may of may not be ‘reducible to physics (whatever that means), but there is nothing supernatural about life; it breaks no physical laws and it is implemented only by physical laws. Biology is perhaps just a shorthand that simplifies the expression of certain things that certain physical objects do.

Just as “physics” has the subfield of biology, so also Aristotelian biology has a further subfield: ethics .  According to Aristotle, “ethics” is the study of a certain subset of living creatures which “have logos” and are “political”. Neither of these terms have a simple translation from Greek into English. But in my view it means those animals which can:

  • Speak.
  • Think.
  • Live in a society.
  • Be “responsible”, which means:
    • Be held responsible for one’s actions by others.
    • Accept responsibility from others for one’s own actions.
    • Hold others responsible for their actions.
  • Have character (behavioral tendencies).
  • Perhaps many others….

All of these above processes are changes which take place in time, and which can only be done by particular kinds of living creatures. In any case, there is no way that ethics could possibly be relevant to any non-physical being without engaging in fantastic speculations that contradict ancient and modern physics. For Aristotle, the ‘soul’ was defined as a principle of change in living creatures, and not as anything ‘supernatural’ or having anything to do with an afterlife. Ethics was thus defined as a subfield of “physics”, the study of the principles of change in nature.

The famous ‘Four Causes’ apply within ethics just as they do in every other subfield of “physics”. Perhaps there are some differences in how they are used, but they apply. As such, Aristotle’s “Physics” can be seen as a foundation for his Ethics. It is certainly a foundation for my adaptation of his ethics to our modern world. The biggest change that we see in the modern world is that only biology and ethics have final causes, whereas nonliving physics does not. This is not a very contraversial thing to say nowadays, and it leaves the validity of final causes in biology and physics intact. Biology cannot get along at all without final causes, because without final causes you could not say “birds should be able to fly” or “the immune system should retain antigens from previous pathogens” or “the temperature of the earth should allow for liquid water”. Of course each of these statements makes some assumptions to be true, but they are all naturalistically meaningful and decidable. Furthermore, if ethics is a subfield of biology, then it must also have final causes, and they must work in a similar way. Just as birds should fly, humans should be able to talk and cooperate to satisfy their mutual needs in an efficient manner. While some ants rely on slavery exclusively, humans tend to rely on voluntary cooperation, and in both cases the ultimate causes are those common to all living creatures. And as time goes on, slavery is losing out to voluntary systems and this trend is is the basis for the ethical statement “Slavery is wrong.” It could have been the case that slavery was more adaptive than freedom, but as it turns out this is not true.

Modern physics also includes everything we need to explain ethics, since all living creatures follow the physics of information. All life is just information processing; evolution itself as well as the behavior of living creatures are all essentially forms of information processing. This means that without information processing, there can be no life and vice versa, because they ultimately mean the same thing.


So what is the upshot for our current situation? Obviously Aristotle’s Physics as he has presented it cannot be accepted, so are all the above irrelevant to us? No, In my opinion the teleological aspect of Aristotle’s Physics has been merely “demoted” down to biology, which is where it was really suitable in the first place. Aristotle saw that final causes were ubiquitous in biology, so he assumed that this was true of the rest of ‘physics’ as well. But in the modern world, we know that final causes originated  with life and are meaningless apart from life. Since we know that physics preceded biology, the sun is not ‘for’ the Earth’s biosphere in the robust sense that Aristotle and Classical Theism have in mind. Rather, the teleological aspect is emergent from the behavior of certain molecules in certain conditions.

The applicability of Aristotelian teleology is limited to the results of evolution, the biosphere, and the inputs necessary for life.  Ethics falls within this sphere, and as such Aristotelian final causes are applicable. The final causes are the same as those defined by evolution: not going extinct, also known as “inclusive fitness”, the passing on of DNA. That’s what ethics is for: promoting forms of cooperation which pass on DNA. Something like this view is or should be the default view, since it assumes that the behavior of a certain organism has an evolutionary origin. This axiom is assumed in the study of all other organism besides humans, and the world will not end if you try out this assumption on one more creature.

If you disagree with this, please leave a comment telling the rest of us what ethics is for. While you formulate your answer, ask yourself is your alternative really the sort of thing that could be the founding theory of a branch of natural science? Because that is what ethics is. The only other conception that makes any sense is the Platonic and Kantian conception of ethics as a formal or exact science. This theory cannot be dismissed out of hand, but on my view all the aspects of ethics that support Platonism are most parsimoniously seen as deriving from the most general axioms of evolutionary game theory, which even in their general form are imperatives followed for a purpose.

On Platonism, both Metaphysical and Ethical

The following selection paraphrased from the article on ‘Morality and Evolutionary Biology’ from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an objection to metaphysical naturalism, but it is also relevant to ethics as well.

The Challenge from Irreducible Pluralism

“Lets take mathematics and evolution as an example. If we say mathematical proposition x (e.g. ‘There is always a prime number between the integer n and 2n.’ ), we can determine the truth of this proposition by use of mathematical reasoning. We do not say x is true because there is an evolutionary advantage to x being true. A moral realist would argue that moral philosophy is similar to mathematics ( or physics, chemistry, etc). For example the statement that interracial marriages is wrong one can use moral reason to say this statement is false in light of the moral truth that all human beings have the same moral worth. In the same way we can use autonomous mathematical reason to evaluate mathematics we can use autonomous moral reason to evaluate ethics. Of course moral reasoning can be influenced by culture and biological factors and there are other (would argue less) plausible moral approaches like expressivism or error theory than moral realism, but the statement all ethics is simply evolutionary biology seems very premature.”

This selection is  probably the most interesting interpretation/rebuttal of ‘reductionism’, a concept commonly used but rarely well-defined. It claims that the formal sciences are in some way ‘autonomous’; they give themselves their own principles. Frege famously defended this in his conflict with Husserl’s early psychologism. According to this modern variety of “Platonism”, the principles of a formal science cannot be derived from any empirical field. If this is true of mathematics and logic, then is seems as though this sets a precedent for the “is/ought” distinction.If a priori knowldege were shown to have a separate basis from a posteriori knowledge, then it could be used to clarify the separation of fact and value. It would seem that Platonism in this sense give us at least two realms of beings who are independent and yet have a certain level of ‘pre-established harmony’ between them. Math for example, is useful and authoritative for many empirical fields from physics to economics. How this could be so was what Kant sought to explain, and his solution sought to bring both formal and ethical beings into relation with the empirical.

My basic idea for naturalistic metaphysics is this: mathematics performs a cognitive function and therefore has adaptive value in light of this function. In order to perform this function, it needs to satisfy certain formal conditions. We are constrained by the definitions of mathematical beings because changing those definitions in the least destroys the functional and adaptive value of math.

Arithmetic is founded on nothing but the set of sets whose members map onto each other. “Mapping” means that each member of one set has a unique counterpart in every other set with the same number of members. This is the only way to clearly and primitively define integers, and all other math is founded on this simple set of interrelated definitions. If you change the defintion of one interger, it becomes the same as its neighbor and leaves a gap. Thus there is only one possible set of integers, and therfore only one possible way to relate them, meaning there is only one possible multiplication table.

If you changed the definition of one of the integers, it would also lose it’s adaptive value. Mathematics is only “autonomous” because each mathematical being has NO autonomy from most if not all mathematical beings, and all are dependent on the simple idea of the relationship of sets mapping onto each other. This idea is in turn is derived from problems like figuring out:

  • how to share a big basket of fruit
  • if a war party is evenly matched by the enemy
  • if someone has stolen some of our cattle

If basic arithmetic can’t accomplish this, it’s useless crap. I’m sure I oversimplified and left out some other items ( such as the fact that there are multiple mathematical foundational theories ), but I hope this clarifies my overly-short answer of how evolution can produce creatures with a priori knowledge of the ‘universal language’ of mathematics. In this view, some ethical principles can have something like this sort of a priori validity if we can find a suitable starting point. For math, the starting point I used was defining the integers through set theory. The starting point for ethics could start with the game theory of the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this dilemma, there are only a finite number of Evolutionary Stable Strategy-schemas, i.e., definable sets of strategies that work. Examples of a strategy-schemas include “Initially Benevolent Strategies” ( strategies that do not betray without being betrayed first) and ” 2-turn Forgiving Strategies” ( strategies that stop betraying in revenge after two turns without a betrayal ). Perhaps there’s a better starting point than the Prisoner’s Dilemma. But this is just to illustrate possibility of how to get started generating ethical rules from evolutionary game theory. This could fulfill the dream of Plato, Kant and other ethical rationalists while paying proper respect to modern science.



What is Evolutionary Ethics?

What I’m engaging in is called “metaethics” or “ethical theory”, the study of “what is ethics?”. Are ethical judgments cognitive, emotional, religious or other? Can they be true and false? Or are they by definition neither true nor false? To answer certain questions like this, we need to decide what sort of thing ethics is. One sort of thing that ethics could be is some natural phenomenon rather than some transcendent Platonic or mystical reality from another level of reality. If you believe this, then you are a “moral naturalist”.

Here I am presenting a type of moral naturalism based on an acceptance that human behavior evolved. I know that this seems pretty obvious in certain sense, but lots of people do not like to apply this truth to ethics.  When some non-naturalists say that many ethical concepts “do not make sense in light of evolution” ultimately means this: people did not evolve to be scientists, they evolved to be religious. That’s all that really means, because ethics makes very good evolutionary sense. If humans stopped being ethical, they would go extinct. This is simply true and accepted by science, and since this is the case, morality os one of our most adaptive traits. Seekers of knowledge who cannot accept this fact must propose a counter theory for ethics or accept evolutionary naturalism.

The closest thing we now have to a counter-theory is theistic natural law. The ethical “theories” that are spoken of in secular ethical theory ( e.g. virtue, utilitarianism, deontology, etc. ) are not really “theories” in the way that I am using it here because even if we humans were to agree that Kantian ethics were correct, we would still be left with the problem of figuring out how humans evolved to have such a morality. Theistic natural law, would go further than most ethical theories by explaining the purpose of life in terms of God’s Will. This bridges the alleged gap between “is” and “ought”. Without such an account, the numerous problems in what is normally called “ethical theory” would require a higher-level basis from which to resolve these difficulties. For example, all the paradoxical actions that seem to be derivable from Kant or Utilitarianism would be explained away by reference to the ultimate basis for theses moral theories, which would also bridge the fact/value gap. But modern ethical theory cannot bridge this gap. Why? There is no other real or scientific basis for any sense of “ought” than the following:

  1. For an artificially created system, there are normative statements like – “A vehicle ought to travel.”, “Humans (as God’s creation ) ought to serve God.”, “A tool handle ought not to break.”, “Citrus fruits ought to be harvested in the winter.”, “Mulberries ought to be sweet and juicy.”
  2. A naturally-evolved system, there are normative statements like- “Caterpillars ought to become butterflies.”, “Leaves ought to be exposed to sunlight.”, “Parents ought to care for their children.”
  3. For any combination of the above, there are normative statements like.- “In this weather, we ought to construct shelter.”, “We ought to prevent human extinction.”, “The government ought to promote the general welfare.”

Ethical judgments are all a form of selection, and this fact alone is how selection theory bridges the is/ought gap. Evolution runs on a few types of selection: natural, sexual and artificial selection are all well known, but “ethical selection” should also be added to the list. Just as we choose sexual mates with whom to cooperate in our reproduction, thus engaging in sexual selection, all other forms of cooperation require ethical selection to determine who we share resources with. One form of ethical selection consists of making ethical judgments about others or debating their character. Both sexual and ethical selection are oreciprocal or “peer-to-peer” selection.

When we explain ethical selection, we need to keep separate two levels of discourse:

1) Folk Morality – The discourse of our day-to-day ethical judgments themselves, the ways that agents discuss and engage verbally in their own forms of cooperation, by praising, blaming, exhorting, etc. Wen we judge people in our daily lives, we are not bound by the scientific worldview.

2) Ethical Theory – The study of the ways that agents (humans, animals, computers) have to cooperate, by theorizing, testing, researching, et cetera. Our scientific discourse about ethics proper, which is bound by scientific worldview.

Any reference to ethics needs to keep from getting these two levels confused, because the scientific worldview is most certainly not going to sit well with ethical common sense, nor need its approval. Expecting scientific ethical theory to be ethically uplifting is like expecting a biological theory of sex to be pornographic; the two levels are essentially separate. Ethical anti-naturalists base their entire position on this confusion.

All confusion in ethics can be avoided if you clearly distinguish which of these you are doing. Of course, all claims made in the second category of speech have their ultimate basis in the statements of the first category. Many speech-acts in the second category have no basis at all and may even have no truth value at all since they are merely exhortations for one’s political unit to cooperate, schism, attack, etc. But there is no reason that a group may come to exist in some future time for whom all political speech-acts are reducible to some set of scientific statements.

For example if I say that “murder is wrong, x murdered y, therefore x is wrong”. This is a true statement and is completely within category 2, but if we ask WHY murder is wrong at all, we must leave category 2 and go to category 1. At this point we shall have to explain modes of cooperation the same way we explain hair color, body shape, immune systems, et cetera, either by saying “God made it that way.” or “That’s the best Evolutionary Stable Strategy. (ESS)” or whatever.  And it’s actually true that murder is not a good ESS; animals rarely every kill their own kind, and this can be explained using Evolutionary Game Theory. Most people who have not studied evolution have this idea that evolutions favors the wicked, but wickedness destroys itself in short order if it takes a dominant role in any context. It can only “dominate” on the fringes of a stable ecology or economy, and “goodness” is that which makes for the best long-term evolutionary outcome. Evolution actually favors the good over the long term, so never lose hope!


How did ethics evolve? Just like any other social behavior. There are three parts to it:

  • Behavior
  • Feelings
  • Thoughts/speech

Everything we call “ethics” is included in each of these, and evolution has no trouble whatsoever explaining them. It is only people who refuse to see that ethics must be evolved who get snared in paradoxes when they try to come up with some reason why morality cannot be evolved.

If it is not an adaptation, what is it? Some feeling you have? Something given to / imposed on you by your fairy godmother? I can’t think of any other possible explanation. If you have some meaningful explanation that might just possibly be proven sometime someday by some person, I would like to know it.

Ethics can be explained by God or by Evolution. (Assuming that there is a God…) Both of these have the common advantage that they have a clear basis for ethics in an explanation of why people exist. For God, the punishment is the Afterlife. For Evolution, the punishment is going extinct. Yes, social creatures will go extinct unless they observe social rules of cooperation. It’s a fact. Both of these punishments have a common problem: the are both ignored by bad people, and are thus not as effective as we would like.

If someone decides to break the rules that make our society function, they are bringing themselves and everyone around them closer to extinction. So over time we would expect that the people who do not go extinct would get better at preventing unethical behavior. Which is exactly what has happened since primates have evolved. Everyone knows this, but people really dislike bringing real science into ethics so they try to ignore the role of evolution.

Slavery is a great example of this. Why is it wrong? Because it does not work, and by ‘work’ I mean it cannot outcompete freedom. ( I am here using ‘freedom’ to refer to any non-slavery system. ) If it could outcompete freedom, then slavery would be a lot more common today. On the contrary, it is actually a wasteful and inefficient way to get things done. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and the USSR all used tons of slave labor in their war effort, and they lost to all the countries who used very few if any slaves. Look at all the countries that use slaves today; are they well off? No. Nobody wants to move there and buy slaves. Ultimately, slavery is wrong for evolutionary reasons, and successful groups of humans tend to dislike having slaves. There is a lot more to be said on this subject, but the key thing is that anybody can just ignore the Moral Law no matter what they believe about its source. Theists are famous for  ignoring the possibility of Hell. And we all see lots of people who are going extinct due to their lack of fitness. Both groups are in the same boat in terms of their lack of virtue.

Theistic Ethics has the weakness in that it lacks any factual basis. Evolutionary Ethics has the weakness that it’s hard to explain to kids and the uneducated. Of course evolution has the advantage that it is true no matter what you believe; religion is better in that it is easier to believe and thus makes a suitable ethical ‘operating system’ for most societies.