We Have Evolved Beyond Evolution: How Can Evolution Help?

There is an argument favored by some fans of evolutionary psychology that goes something like this:

For the vast majority of our 150,000 years or so on the planet, we lived in small, close-knit groups, working hard with primitive tools to scratch sufficient food and shelter from the land. Sometimes we competed with other small groups for limited resources. Thanks to evolution, we are supremely well adapted to that world, not only physically, but psychologically, socially and through our moral dispositions.

But this is no longer the world in which we live. The rapid advances of science and technology have radically altered our circumstances over just a few centuries. The population has increased a thousand times since the agricultural revolution eight thousand years ago. Human societies consist of millions of people. Where our ancestors’ tools shaped the few acres on which they lived, the technologies we use today have effects across the world, and across time, with the hangovers of climate change and nuclear disaster stretching far into the future.

That is the major premise. The minor premise is: “evolutionary pressures have not developed for us a psychology that enables us to cope with the moral problems our new power creates.”

The rollocking conclusion is:

Moral Bioenhancement…Enhancing our moral motivation would enable us to act better for distant people, future generations, and non-human animals…Our knowledge of human biology — in particular of genetics and neurobiology — is beginning to enable us to directly affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation, either through drugs, or through genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process.

That was a lot of words, so let me simplify. (1) Evolution made us exactly and everything that we are. (2) Through evolution we learned to create many things. (3) We are now beyond evolution. (4) So we must use our evolutionarily gained skills to create things to catch back up to where we would have evolved to if we evolved along with our inventions.

Make sense?

David Stove called this approach the Cave Man way: “you admit that human life is not now what it would be if Darwin’s theory were true, but also insist that it used to be like that.”

In the olden days (so the story goes), human populations [were subject to evolution]…But our species…escaped long ago from the brutal régime of natural selection. We developed a thousand forms of attachment, loyalty, cooperation, and unforced subordination, every one of them quite incompatible with a constant and merciless competition to survive…

The Cave Man story, however implausible, is at any rate not inconsistent with itself. But the combination of it with Darwin’s theory of evolution is inconsistent. That theory is a universal generalization about all terrestrial species at any time. Hence, if the theory says something which is not true now of our own species (or another), then it is not true—finish…

If Darwin’s theory of evolution is true, no species can ever escape from the process of natural selection.

In short, we cannot evolve beyond ourselves.

Paradoxically, purveyors of the Cave Man argument are split on whether ancient mankind was peaceful, coexisting with nature as in a James Cameron fantasy and that he is now hyper-competitive and a positive harm to himself, or that mankind was then brutal, leading nasty, violent existences and that he is now on the verge of New Consciousness, Utopia is within his reach if only he would do X.

X for the authors—the ever-appalling Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson—of the current incarnation of the Cave Man is jiggering with genes, i.e. “moral bioenhancement.” Something like: Stop the badness in the womb before it escapes and pollutes the world.

Savulescu, in the manner of our president asking if he has any faults and his retorting “I care too much,” offers three “criticisms” of his theory.

Objection #1: We may be too late to apply our panacea. “Moral educators have existed within societies across the world for thousands of years — Buddha, Confucius and Socrates, to name only three — yet we still lack the basic ethical skills we need to ensure our own survival is not jeopardised.” The omission is noted.

Objection #2: Who can evolve beyond evolution and discover the way out of being human? Moral gene replacement therapies “will have to be developed and selected by the very people who are in need of them.” And how can this be if those who will do the developing are stuck in the pre-enlightened evolutionary state? Savulescu has no answer save to say it “is possible for humankind to improve morally to the extent that we can use our new and overwhelming powers of action for the better.”

Objection #3: Some people might actually vote for Mitt Romney against their better judgment. (Just kidding!) “[T]here is good reason to believe that voters are more likely to get it wrong than right.” All we need do is stop “Powerful business interests” from holding us back from voting the proper way.

Rarely do we come across a man who argues so badly and yet reaches such a lofty position as Savulescu has. The only explanation is indeed evolutionary: many people like to have power over other people and will say anything to get it.


Note: the appalling Savulescu with Persson has written a book entitled Unfit for the future: The urgent need for moral enhancement. Has anybody a copy they would like to lend? I’m averse to putting money in that man’s pocket.


  1. LuisDias

    What a relief, at last a blog post in weeks where we can share our distaste, befuddlement and facepalms at exactly the same thing for the same reasons ;). I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Ken

    Since we’re on this peculiar foray into slective philosophizing via selected philosophers, let’s consider another great one: Rod Serling, who took deep issues and condensed them into bite-sized pieces.

    There’s an old Twilight Zone episode where some young girl is inclined to be just who she is, no bio-enhancements, which she finds abhorrent (making her unusual for her species). She’s forced to upgrade her body and comes out with a much longer lifespan, a new psychologically happy outlook (unlike before), and a whole new set of values & morals consistent with this new utopia. She’s happy & all is well.

    So, the lesson there is that if “bio-enhancement” is done properly, everyone will be just fine with the result, consistent with the new programming. So what’s the problem?

    As for the rest, Twilight Zone and the original Star Trek series have undoubtedly addressed the same key themes already…so no need “beating a dead horse.”

    Better to pick on something useful & pragmatic rather than hand-picking the whackiest stuff from the tassels of the lunatic fringe (after all, one is judges by the company one keeps) — especially on topics that have already found their way into the mainstream via Hollywood productions.

  3. Briggs

    Hey Ken!

    Your best critique yet. Well written, concise, even practical example. And no Philistinism of abandoning philosophy. Am I proud? Boy.

    Only thing: I don’t believe Savulecu saw that Twilight Zone episode. Perhaps you can find it and forward it on to him?

    Or wait: maybe he did see it. Could be where he formed his delusional notion of fashioning a master race via genetic enhancement. What do you think?

  4. Ye Olde Statistician

    I am always curious about “laws of nature” that need human assistance from the Besserwissers in order to produce the Right Results. The law of gravity needs no such assistance, nor those of electromagnetism.

  5. RickA

    I don’t see your recast point 4 in the quoted material. Of course, it may be in the original somewhere, but I just don’t see how you can conclude your point 4 from the quoted material.

    I don’t agree with the author that we are beyond evolution. While we certainly do enable traits (like bad eyes via glasses), there are many more which we are not even aware of enough to influence.

    For example, lactose intolerance, living at altitude, different responses to taste, and the like are examples of ways in which we continue to evolve.

  6. Andy

    Our ancestors lived and survived in a wild variety of environments. We are adapted to adapt, hence the fist part of the argument is wrong, as is the rest.

  7. Pangloss

    It may seem like semantic nitpicking, but…

    “living at altitude, different responses to taste, and the like are examples of ways in which we continue to evolve.”

    are examples of adapting to ones environment, not evolution.

    I may have acquired a taste for Indian food, and, after several years living high up in the mountains, I no longer get winded simply getting off the couch, but, no matter how long I sit in my hot tub, I still don’t have gills.

  8. It can’t be both? If stress, abuse…perhaps satisfaction alone?  Why not environment and adaptation just is in the forefront?

  9. Rich

    If “evolutionary pressures have not developed for us a psychology that enables us to cope with the moral problems our new power creates.” how were they able to raise the issue?

    They say, “yet we still lack the basic ethical skills we need to ensure our own survival is not jeopardised” yet if evolution is the ultimate source of morality who cares whether we survive or not?

    Yet again we hear the “elite” sneering at the great unwashed.

  10. Andy

    Of course the same evolutionary processes lead to this man having the moral outlook to tell us that the rest of us have a poor moral outlook due to evolution, but he of course does not.

    It’s the old do as I say because I know better dressed up with some poor science.

  11. DEEBEE

    Pangloss stop being impatient, persevere, evolution will come. And if it does not its cousin salvation will.

  12. Uncle Mike

    It’s always just days before Armageddon to the Paranoid Delusionalists.

    We must repent, now, and (just in case the End is not all that Nigh) also undergo selective breeding managed by, ironically, the most defective members of our species.

    I can only imagine the Appalling Savulescu, natty in his rumpled white lab coat, peering “scientifically” through the one-way mirror into the Breeding Room where his selected participants conjugate. Make me a superior baby, do it, do it!

    Meanwhile in the Suction Room, non-approved feti are disposed of “humanely” by fierce but tube-tied 50-ish women from Planned Parenthood. You must die you horrible little monster from an unapproved union. Kill it, kill it!

    Twilight Zone is right.

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