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Evolutionary Ethics

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 laws.

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 knowledge.

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.

Human Development

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 York).

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, Salinas, CA).

Turchin, V. (1977): The Phenomenon of Science, (Columbia University Press, New York ).

Copyright© 2000 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen, V. Turchin,

Oct 24, 2000 (modified)
Aug 1993 (created)


Metasystem Transition Theory

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Evolutionary Values

Will for immortality

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