Evolutionary Values
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Evolutionary Values

personal and social values can be derived from the implicit value underlying natural selection: the maximization of survival or fitness

The source of values?

The distinction between knowledge and will can be mapped into another perennial issue in ethics, that between ends (what to do: values, desires, goals) and means (how it can be done: beliefs, knowledge). Just as it is a truism that the ends cannot justify the means, so it is that the means cannot choose the ends. The theory of ethics recognizes goals as values, or what is good. Philosophical ethics has long been aware of this split between knowledge and values.

There have been many attempts to search for a "primary value", from which the others can be derived. God's will has been suggested as a theological source of such a value. This we must reject as non-scientific and non-constructive. An alternative ethical theory relies on naturalism (what is, is good), but the underlying assumption that values can be derived from states of affairs has been criticized as the "naturalistic fallacy".

A logical approach considers what combinations of goals will result in stable systems. The culmination of this approach is Kant's categorical imperative, which states that only actions which can be universally generalized to all actors can be ethical. Thus murder is unethical since universal generalization (universal murder) results in a lack of victims to further murder.

Evolution as source of values

Our approach is developed from the conceptual basis outlined above, and is a combination of the last two approaches. While primary values cannot be derived from nature, they must be consistent with evolution and natural selection, the primary mechanism that has generated all of nature. This mechanism has an implicit value, as selection entails a preference for certain states of affairs over others. Natural selection can be seen to strive to maximize survival or fitness. Thus we take survival, in the most general sense, as the primary value. If we also take into account reproduction, the more general evolutionary value is fitness: maximizing the probability that our genes (or memes) will still be around in future generations.

Because of the "Red Queen Principle" the seemingly conservative value of survival necessarily entails continuing progress, development, or growth: if you do not innovate by constantly trying out new variations, you will sooner or later lose the competition with those that do innovate. Thus we can from there derive the ultimate good as the continuation of the process of evolution itself, in the negative sense of avoiding evolutionary "dead ends" and general extinction, in the positive sense of constantly increasing our fitness, and thus our intelligence, degree of organization and general mastery over the universe.

Positive feelings

Because natural selection has shaped our needs and emotions, the value of fitness is actually built into our genes: organisms whose genes did not try to maximize fitness have been eliminated. Therefore, most of the things we intuitively feel to be good or pleasant, such as food, safety, sex, curiosity, love, or social support, are actually instantiations of the evolutionary value of fitness. More generally, happiness is an overall sign that our basic evolutionary needs are being satisfied, and can therefore be seen as a strong indicator of fitness.

The utilitarian value of "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" is therefore largely synonymous with the evolutionary value of maximizing the fitness of humanity. The main difference is in the time-scale: if it were possible to make everybody perfectly happy at this moment (e.g. by the massive distribution of opioid drugs), but this situation were unsustainable in the longer term, then evolutionary values would dictate that we should reject this state of affairs and prefer long term survival to short-term pleasure.

According to the need theory of Abraham Maslow, satisfying needs and thus increasing happiness typically happens in a particular sequence, starting with the lower, physiological needs, such as hunger, thirst and safety, and building up to the highest needs: maximally developing one's cognitive, emotional and social competences, or what he called "self-actualization". Achieving self-actualization is accompanied by a number of specific personality characteristics, such as openness to experience, empathy and tolerance towards others, creativity, high self-confidence and self-esteem.

Social Values

There are a few cases in which our in-born emotions are inconsistent with more high-level values or ethics. For example, our genes may stimulate us at moments to be greedy, jealous, or aggressive. This is because natural selection until now has optimized the fitness of the genes, not of humanity as whole. This produces a strong tendency to selfishness: caring only for oneself and one's direct kin. Yet, natural selection has also discovered the value of altruism and cooperation, although, because of the initial blindness of variation, the evolution of these values is more subtle and takes a longer time.

In a world which becomes ever more interdependent, these are the values that need the strongest emphasis, both because they become ever more essential for humanity to survive, and because the support they get from our genetic tendencies is relatively weak. In this case, natural selection of the genes has to to make space for natural selection of the memes (cultural codes of conduct), in order to develop a shared code of ethics (see memetic evolution of cooperation). This is especially true if humanity is to tackle the problems that affect us as a whole, such as pollution or global warming, which require a global cooperation or synergy.

A promising approach to reach consensus on values is to empirically observe which general characteristics of societies leads to happiness in these societies. This can be done by correlating various socio-economic indicators, such as wealth, health, security, freedom and equality, with the average happiness of the population. The resulting list of values is remarkably similar to the values underlying the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights", showing that universal values can be rationally agreed upon.

See also: The purpose of life: summary of a book by Donald Cameron, arguing that evolution provides a fundamental source of values and ethics

Copyright© 2001 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen, C. Joslyn, V. Turchin,

Oct 16, 2001 (modified)
Aug 1993 (created)


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