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Evolutionary Ethics and Contemporary BiologyReview - Evolutionary Ethics and Contemporary Biology
by Giovanni Boniolo and Gabriele De Anna (Editors)
Cambridge University Press, 2006
Review by Nicholas Ruiz III, Ph.D.
Feb 20th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 8)

An ethics based upon 'evolution' implies that we can derive and understand, perhaps even reproduce, a moral response to our genetic Code.  Evolutionary ethics further implies that there is primary knowledge to be gained (other than basic science) on the order of our Code.  Such an instrumental moral confrontation with ourselves, a conflict most often played out in religious and political forums, as exemplified by our human history--might it proceed differently, perhaps even yield a differing insight into our human condition?

Though specificity in moral desirability assuredly varies from one cultural milieu to another, in subtle and striking kind, the fact that all human populations display moral codes at all is unequivocally at the heart of Boniolo and De Anna's collection.

Because such an exception does not exist, a non-moralizing milieu, as it were, and because so much other information about the human condition (e.g. disease states, psychological states, etc.) is currently being produced via Code studies (i.e. genetic research): it is unsurprising that philosophy is reconsidering some its subjects in light of new biological data.

Many interesting thoughts are generated from such a negotiation between philosophy and biology.  For example, in his contribution to Boniolo and De Anna's edited collection, Francisco Ayala writes:

Moral codes, like any other dimensions of cultural systems, depend on the existence of human biological nature and must be consistent with it in the sense that they could not counteract it without promoting their own demise.  Moreover, the acceptance and persistence of moral norms is facilitated whenever they are consistent with biologically conditioned human behaviors. (p.149)

An almost common-sensical approach, no?  It's not that the idea of human behavior arising from an interwoven relationship with biology is new--there is a long history that evinces the historical development of such ideas.  Aristotle described man as a 'political' animal by nature; Darwin theorized animal evolution; later we see the evolution of theories of sociobiology and discussions regarding the 'naked ape'; today we have the academic fields of behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology--so there is little surprise that some in philosophy are prepared to consider it timely to contribute an 'evolutionary ethics.'  As the human condition becomes increasingly geneticized, it becomes rather clear that a human conditional category such as ethics can no longer ignore evolutionary science.

What might an evolutionary ethics look like?  How is it different or similar to other systems of ethics?  Can there be a notion of ethical progress, despite there being, from an evolutionary standpoint, nothing but a directionless flow of genetic Code, adapting to a directionless environment?  Perhaps such a view results in a moral skepticism, and in the words of contributor Michael Ruse, "a kind of moral nonrealism"?  Ruse:

As a Darwinian, it is plausible to suggest that humans might have evolved with the John Foster Dulles kind of morality, where the highest ethical calling would not be love your neighbor but hate your neighbor.  But remember that your neighbors hate you, so you had better not harm them because they are going to come straight back at you and do the same.  (p. 24) 

Darwinian and plausible, reversing that persistently popular, anthropic mirage of the real, which is that 'all is full of love,' no?  After which, perhaps an evolutionarily ethical perspective compels that movements in such a direction of selfless love are from a philosophical standpoint, morally 'nonrealistic,' despite being ideologically real for many people.  An interesting conceptual underground that has long characterized our immanent biopolitics. Our political and economical laws, I suspect most would agree, are built upon the strength of the State to enforce them, and the punishment that obtains when laws are flouted, rather than the State's beneficent love and the citizenry's reciprocation of love's romantic sentiment. In any event, we are well situated today to explore the notion that our biological edicts are the stubborn subtext of our social laws.

Summarily, Boniolo and Vezzoni, and essentially all of the writers of Evolutionary Ethics and Contemporary Biology most want us to know, I expect, that "not everything is in our genes" and yet, "something is in our genes" (p. 78).  In human terms of polity, as we further our becoming within a medical rationale of biological editing, it is only 'natural' that we also question whether some partial substratum of our moral codes, appears on the order of biological codes.  Might ethics, as an 'evolutionary' ethics, fall under the biopolitical scalpel of biotechnological operationalization?  A code is a text, no?  And no text is above the virtue of the edit, we might suppose.  Are there recognizably 'modern' concerns of a potentially postmodern 'moral eugenics' to be raised?  The political importance of as thoughtful an exploration as that of Evolutionary Ethics and Contemporary Biology should not be underestimated.   


© 2007 Nicholas Ruiz III


Nicholas Ruiz III was born in New York City. He teaches in the Humanities Program of the University of North Carolina at Asheville and in the Department of Humanities at Kaplan University.  He is the author of The Metaphysics of Capital, (Intertheory Press, 2006).  He is also the editor of Kritikos.



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