Morality in nature

- Michael C. Morris, Ph.D.
Faculty of Systems Engineering
Shibaura Institute of Technology
Fukasaku 307, Omiya, Saitama 330-8570, Japan

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 10 (2000), 53-55.

Implications of the Darwinian theory of evolution

The theory of evolution proposed by Darwin is based on competition. Darwin pointed out that the number of possible descendants left by living organisms is far greater than the number we see. It is therefore evident that those which survive are the ones with a competitive advantage over their own species and others that they have to share their habitat with. It is the struggle for existence, and the selection of traits which allow greater competitive ability which is the basis for evolution. It is also a theory of individual selection. Selection for the good of the group or species has no part in Darwin's original theory. Darwin for example states

"Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring" (1).

Neo-Darwinians have accepted Darwin's concept of survival of those individuals best equipped to the "struggle for life", and have incorporated ideas on genetics that were unknown to Darwin. Evolution proceeds through both natural genetic variation and chance mutations. One of the best known living advocates of the Darwinian view is Richard Dawkins, and in his popular science best seller he continues the theme of the importance of competition as a driving force for evolution. For example, in a Chapter called "Aggression: stability and the selfish machine" he states that:

"To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food. It is something that gets in the way, or something that can be exploited" (2).

The Darwinian emphasis on competition influences our thinking on the role of competition and co-operation in human society. Competition is seen as the driving force of evolution, and when altruistic interactions are observed in humans or other species, those supporting the Darwinian view look for ulterior motives behind these actions which favour the individuals "selfish genes" (Dawkins 1989). As one writer put it, the aim is to "take the altruism out of altruism" (3).

Altruism is thought to come about because of selection for close kin that will share most of the altruist's genes, or through a mechanism ("tit for tat" strategy) whereby every member of the group is judged by other members and receives favours in the measure he or she gives them out (4). One popular science writer has dismissed the self sacrificial action of people such as Mother Teresa who died childless in order to help others, as merely obeying a sublimated mother instinct (5).

If altruism is indeed merely enlightened self interest, then the existence of a categorical moral imperative is in doubt. This leads to another conclusion of Darwinism, creation of the universe wholly by natural causes. This viewpoint is explained clearly by Dennett (6) who points out that a logical extension of Darwin's theory is that complex species can arise from simple ones, sentience from non-sentience and human souls from animal minds, and life from non-life (7). There is therefore no need for a Creator.

The basis of the Darwinian theory, evolution through natural selection, random mutations and nothing else has been in dispute even while its original author was still alive. For example, one physiologist pointed out that during the evolution of birds, so many simultaneous changes would have been necessary to convert the three chambered reptile heart into the 4 chambered bird model, that the change could not have come about through natural selection alone (8). Similarly, mutations are not all random as first believed, but have been observed experimentally to be more prevalent when the mutation is beneficial (9).

New theories have been proposed to account for these anomalies, but these are merely additions to the theory of evolution. Kauffman (10) has provided mathematical models suggesting that order may arise spontaneously from disorder in certain cases. Sheldrake (11) also has speculated on how a mechanism of morphic resonance, acting together with natural selection, could account for directed mutation.

In principal therefore, flaws in the original Darwinian theory therefore do not affect the philosophical stance that order can be created from chaos (12). Nor does the presence of design necessarily point to a conscious, personal designer. In order to do this, we need to look at features of the design itself.

The moral imperative

The presence of a moral imperative has been one of the strongest arguments used by Christian apologists (13) to demonstrate the reality of a supernatural being. Ethics may differ among cultures, but all cultures agree that ethics are a matter of fact and not opinion, and that the terms "right" and "wrong" have real meaning.

It can be argued (and quite convincingly), that altruism in humans can come about through natural selection. It is in the interests of humans to work together and therefore genes which influence this behaviour will be selected for. Of course, we also had to evolve complex behaviour to ensure that "cheat" mutations did not take over, and this explains why we are so ready to condemn selfishness in others (14).

The flaw in this argument is that the instinct to behave altruistically is only one of many instincts selected through evolution. Together with the selection pressure to punish cheats there is selection pressure to cheat more cunningly so that others do not find us out. It has also been suggested that the urge to rape has also been selected for by evolution (15).

There therefore seems to be no evolutionary reason to foster the instinct for co-operation and not our equally useful (from an evolutionary point of view) instincts to cheat, steal or rape. Nor indeed is there any moral reason why we should obey any of our biological instincts at all.

If we therefore show by our words and actions that we wish to foster our instinct for co-operation and rebel against our less desirable (from an ethical point of view) instincts, then we obeying a higher "instinct" outside our biology (16). The presence of such a moral imperative has been used as evidence for a Designer who has built co-operation into his design plan.

Altruism in other living things

Humans are not the only living things that will sacrifice their own interests to help others. Humans and other intelligent animals can prevent cheating through evolutionary mechanisms which serve to punish cheats and make sure every member of the group pulls his or her own weight. This would not apply to animals and plants which do not live in groups or do not have the mental capacity to enforce reciprocal deals (17).

In an earlier paper (18), I listed examples of such animals and plants which none the less will sacrifice their own interests for the sake of others of their own species or other species.

For example plants will use precious resources that could have gone into reproduction in producing estrogens which inhibit reproduction in herbivores that eat them. This diminishes the herbivore's reproductive capacity and thus saves future plants, but the plant producing the hormone still gets eaten (19). Other plants secrete a substance when they are wounded which warns their neighbours to mobilize their chemical weapons ready for an attack (20).

In this case, the wounded plant also gains from a concerted defense, but it would be more advantageous not to produce the warning chemical and instead to rely on the other plants. Such "cheat" genes should therefore be selected for at the expense of the "suckers".

It is of course very unlikely that plants are consciously acting to do good turns, as is the case with humans. It is more likely that they are programmed to act in this way, and in if this is the case we need to look at candidates for a Programmer. If the programmer is a "blind watchmaker" of evolution then there is no reason to suppose that it would make plants or animals in such a way as to co-operate.

Co-operation within multicellular bodies

Multicellular bodies are co-operative systems. Each cell acts its part in maintaining the body as a whole. There is also increasing evidence to suggest that this co-operation exists even within each cell, with the mitochondria arising through a symbiotic relationship with a bacterium (21). In addition, bodies of multicellular animals and plants are assisted by millions of symbiotic bacteria which communicate with the host cells and can even control gene expression (22). Multicellular animals and plants are therefore not members of one specific taxonomic group, but are ecosystems spanning two taxonomic kingdoms.

The Gaia hypothesis

In thermodynamic terms, living things are an open system, which means that they take in energy and matter in order to maintain their improbable (high entropy) configurations. Living things also show the characteristics of designed objects, in that the whole has a function (staying alive) which is not met by the sum of its components. According to the Gaia hypothesis of Lovelock (23), the earth itself should be regarded as a living organism. Lovelock pointed out that if chemical reactions on Earth had been left to achieve their equilibrium concentrations, then the earth would become a dead planet with an atmosphere similar to that of our neighbours Mars and Venus and a temperature either too hot or too cold to support life.

Instead, throughout the long period that life has been on Earth, the temperature and sea salinity has been regulated to within the limits required by life, and the composition of the atmosphere is vastly different from its equilibrium state. The Earth, like other living systems is therefore also a thermodynamically open system existing in an unlikely state.

In the case of living organisms it is possible in principal to attribute apparent design to the winnowing effect of natural selection. Such an option is not possible in the case of Gaia however, simply because there are no competitors and no replicators (24). The design of a cooperative system over the whole Earth, like the design of cooperation in humans, animals and plants, therefore points to the importance of co-operation in the overall design plan.


The presence of altruism in non human (and indeed non sentient) organisms, the existence of a moral imperative in humans, and the co-operative nature of the biosphere cannot be explained away by the Darwinian theory of natural selection, even with the add-on mechanisms of complexity theory and morphic resonance. These phenomena make it more likely that the design of our biosphere and everything inside it is the result of a design plan by a loving Creator, who designed all of us to co-operate with our own and other species.

Ecology courses, and ecology text books (24) emphasize the importance of competition as a driving force for evolution. Nature films are full of footage of predation and parasitism. Altruism is seen as just another form of enlightened self interest. The importance of competition should not be underestimated, and it is also important that we do not deny the many brutal features of the natural world.

However, while competition may be necessary to maintain evolution, life could not have started in the first place without a self-regulating biosphere, and multicellular life could not have got where it is today without the co-operative eucaryotic cell. Living things require co-operation all the time to maintain homeostasis, and within species there are many examples of one species helping another.

It is pleasing to note that an NHK presentation "ikimono no kikou" (a living journey) is showing excellent footage of animals helping one another, as well as the ubiquitous predator shots. However, there needs to be more of this type of balance in biological education as a whole. It also needs to be pointed out many of the altruistic elements in nature cannot be explained through blind chance, but rather require a Designer, with cooperation as part of the design plan. If students are made to understand the overall importance of co-operation, this may also go some way towards correcting the tendency of our present economic and politic systems with their emphasis on the desirability of competition as a way of achieving progress (26).


1. Darwin, C. 1968 (1859): The origin of species. Penguin Classics, London. p. 115, emphasis mine.
2. Dawkins, R. 1989: The selfish gene, new edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 66.
3. Trivers, R.L. "The evolution of reciprocal altruism", The Quarterly Review of Biology 46 (1971), 35-57.
4. Nowak, M.A. and Sigmund, K. "Evolution of indirect reciprocity by image scoring", Nature 393 (1998), 573-577.
5. Morris, D. 1977. Manwatching, a field guide to human behaviour. Elsevier Publications, London.
6. Dennett, D. 1995: Darwin's dangerous idea. Touchstone, New York.
7. Dawkins, R. 1986: The blind watchmaker. Penguin Books, London.
8. Carpenter, 1884. Cited by Ridley, M. "Coadaptation and the inadequacy of natural selection." British Journal for the History of Science 15 (1982), 45-68.
9. Hall, B.G. "Spontaneous point mutations that occur more often when advantageous than when neutral" Genetics 126 (1990), 5-15.
10. Kauffman, S. 1995: At home in the universe. Oxford University Press, New York.
11. Sheldrake, R. 1995: A new science of life. Park Street Press, Rochester.
12. Shanks, N. & Joplin, K.H. "Redundant complexity: a critical analysis of intelligent design in biochemistry" Philosophy of Science 66 (1999), 268-282.
13. eg. Lewis, C.S. 1952 Mere Christianity. Collins. Lewis, C.S. 1947: Miracles. Collins. Schaeffer, F.A. 1990: Trilogy. Inter Varsity Press, Leicester.
14. Roberts, G. and Sherratt, T.N. "Development of cooperative relationships through increasing investment" Nature 394 (1998), 175-179. Nowak and Sigmund, op. cit.
15. Shields, W.M. and Shields, L.M. "Forcible rape: an evolutionary perspective" Ethology and Sociobiology 4 (1982), 115-136.
16. Lewis, Mere Christianity op. cit.
17. op. cit. reference 14.
18. Morris, M.C. "God's design plan in nature: a fresh look at altruism" Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith (2000), in press.
19. Colborn, T.; Dumanoski, D. & Myers, J.P. 1996: Our stolen future. Abacus, London.
20. Coghlan, A. "Sensitive flower" . New Scientist 2153 (26 Sept. 1998), 24-28.
21. Anderson, S.G.E., Zomorodipour, A. Andersson, J.O., Sicheritz-Ponten, Alsmarrk, U.C.M, Podowski, R.M., Naslund, A.K., Eriksson, A-S., Winkler, H.H. and Kurland, C.G. "The genome sequence of Ricketsia prowazekii and the origin of mitochondria" Nature 396 (1998), 133-140.
22. Hamilton, G. "Insider trading". New Scientist 2912 (26 June 1999), 42-46, and references therein.
23. Lovelock, J. 1995a: Gaia: a new look at life on earth, new edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Lovelock, J. 1995b: The ages of Gaia, new edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
24. Dawkins, R. 1992: The extended phenotype. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
25. eg. Matsumoto, T. 1993: Seitai to kankyo (ecology and the environment). Iwanami, Tokyo. Brewer, R. 1994: The science of ecology, 2nd edition. Saunders, Fort Worth.
26. Milton, R. 1993. The facts of life. Corgi, London.

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