Our evolutionary philosophy can be used for developing an ethics
or system of values. The basic purpose here would be the continuation of
the process of evolution, avoiding evolutionary "dead ends".
Natural selection entails survival and development (growth, reproduction,
adaptation...), summarized in the concept of fitness, as the essential value (see the meaning of life). However, the idea of an evolutionary
ethics has not been very popular until now, and we will therefore go into
a little more detail about this aspect of our philosophical system. Evolutionary
ethics got a bad reputation because of its association with the "naturalistic
fallacy": the mistaken belief that human goals and values are determined
by, or can be deduced from, natural evolution (Campbell, 1978). Values
cannot be derived from facts about nature: ultimately we are free in choosing
our own goals (Turchin, 1991).
However, we must take into account the principle of natural selection,
which implies that if our goals are incompatible with the conditions necessary
for survival, then we will be eliminated from the natural scene. Of course,
there is no natural law or absolute moral principle which forbids you to
commit suicide, but you must be aware that this means that the world will
continue without you, and that it will quickly forget that you ever have
been there. If we wish to evade this alternative, this means that we will
have to do everything for maximising survival.
A second fallacy to avoid is the naive extrapolation of past evolution
into the present or future. The mechanisms of survival and adaptation that
were developed during evolution contain a lot of wisdom--about past
situations (Campbell, 1978). They are not necessarily adequate for present
circumstances. This must be emphasized especially in view of the creativity
of evolution: the emergence of new levels of complexity, governed by novel
For example, as shown by the theory of r/K selection in biological evolution, there is a trade-off between fast reproduction (r selection) and long life (K selection): organisms that reproduce quickly (e.g. mice, insects) generally do not live long and therefore do not have the time or the resources to become very large, strong, efficient or intelligent, as K-selected organisms would (e.g. elephants, tortoises, people). Quick reproduction (r) is advantageous in environments where the probability of death is high, but where there are enough resources for a fast growing population. Continuing development (K) is preferable in an environment where the risks of unexpected death are under control, but that is limited in its carrying capacity in terms of available resources. Our present society becomes more and more like a K-environment, and therefore evolutionary theory would admonish us to increasingly focus on the values associated with K selection, i.e. long life and extended development, while suppressing the inherited tendency to produce a lot of offspring.
As a more radical example of a needed change in evolutionary strategies, biological evolution, based on the survival of the genes, has favoured selfishness and nepotism: maximizing one's own profit, with a disregard
for others (unless those others carry one's own genes: close family). In
a human society, on the other hand, we need moral principles that promote
cooperation, curbing too strong selfishness. Once the social interactions
have sufficiently developed the appearance of such moral principles (e.g.
"thou shalt not steal") becomes advantageous, and hence will
be reinforced by natural selection, even though it runs counter to previous
"selfish" selection mechanisms (Campbell, 1978). The development
of human society is an example of a metasystem transition, which creates
a new system evolving through a mechanism which is no longer genetical
but cultural (Turchin, 1977).
The Striving for Immortality
One of the implications of that transition concerns the interpretation
of survival. In biological evolution survival means essentially survival of the genes,
not so much survival of the individuals (Dawkins, 1976). With the exception
of species extinction, we may say that genes are effectively immortal:
it does not matter that an individual dies, as long as his or her genes persist
in off-spring. The death of individual organisms can even contribute to genetic fitness, by focusing resources on reproduction rather than individual survival (see the evolutionary causes of death).
Individual death does not benefit cultural evolution, though.
In socio-cultural evolution, the role of genes is played
by cognitive systems ("memes"), embodied in individual
brains or social organizations, or stored in books, computers and other
knowledge media. However, most of the knowledge acquired by an individual
still disappears at biological death. Only a tiny part of that knowledge
is stored outside the brain or transmitted to other individuals. Further
evolution would be much more efficient if all knowledge acquired through
experience could be maintained, in order to make place only for more adequate
This requires an effective immortality of the cognitive systems defining individual and collective minds: what would survive is not the
material substrate (body or brain), but its cybernetic organization. This
may be called "cybernetic immortality" (Turchin, 1991). We could conceive its realization by means of very advanced man-machine systems,
where the border between the organic (brain) and the artificially organic
or electronic media (computer) becomes irrelevant. The death of a biological
component of the system would no longer imply the death of the whole system.
Cybernetic immortality can be conceived as an ultimate goal or value,
capable to motivate long-term human action. It is in this respect similar
to metaphysical immortality (Turchin, 1991): the survival of the "soul" in heaven promised by the traditional religions in order
to motivate individuals to obey their ethical teachings (Campbell, 1979),
and to creative immortality (Turchin, 1991): the driving force behind artists, authors or scientists, who hope to survive in the works they leave to posterity.
Another basic value that can be derived from the concept of survival
is "self-actualization" (Maslow, 1970): the desire to actualize
the human potential, that is to say to maximally develop the knowledge,
intelligence and wisdom which may help us to secure survival for all future
contingencies. Self-actualization may be defined as an
optimal, conscious use of the variety of actions we are capable to execute. Self-actualization is strongly correlated with happiness, or general satisfaction with life. By empirically determining which social and economic conditions contribute most to happiness for the world population, we can derive a more concrete list of basic values, such as health, wealth, safety, equality and freedom.
However, if the varietyof available choices becomes too great, as seems to be the case
in our present, fast moving and complex society, a new control level is needed
(Heylighen, 1991b). This may be realized by a new metasystem transition, leading to
a yet higher level of evolution. A more detailed understanding of this
next transition may help us to answer the question "Where are we going
to?", that is to say to understand the future of evolution.
Competition Between Levels
The main remaining problem of an evolutionary ethics is how to reconcile
the goals of survival and development on the different levels: the level of the individual
(personal freedom), the society (integration of individuals), and the planet
(survival of the world ecology as a whole).The necessary competition between levels follows from the problem of suboptimization, according to which what is best for a subsystem is in general not best for the global system. In its stronger form, this may lead to the "tragedy of the commons" (Hardin, 1968): the exhaustion of common resources because of individually selfish optimization. It is
clear that the different levels have very complicated interactions in their
effect on selection (Campbell, 1979), and hence we need a careful cybernetic
analysis of their mutual relations. For example, it is an open question whether
the "cybernetically immortal" cognitive system that would emerge
after the next metasystem transition would be embodied most effectively
in an individual being ("metabeing"), or in
a society of individuals ("superbeing").
Campbell D.T. (1979): "Comments on the sociobiology of ethics
and moralizing", Behavioral Science 24, p. 37-45.
Dawkins R. (1976): The Selfish Gene, (Oxford University Press, New
Hardin G. "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science, 162(1968): 1243-1248.
Heylighen F. (1991): "Evolutionary Foundations
for Metaphysics, Epistemology and Ethics", in : Workbook
of the 1st Principia Cybernetica Workshop, Heylighen F. (ed.) (Principia
Cybernetica, Brussels-New York), p. 33-39.
Maslow A. (1970): Motivation and Personality (2nd ed.), (Harper &
Row, New York).
Turchin V. (1991): "Cybernetics and Philosophy", in: Proc.
8th Int. Conf. of Cybernetics and Systems, F. Geyer (ed.), (Intersystems,
Turchin, V. (1977): The Phenomenon of Science, (Columbia University
Press, New York ).