Ethics and Science

One of the recurring arguments amongst more moderate religious and irreligious people is that science and religion really aren’t incompatible, it’s just that they concern themselves with different areas. Science is about observation and fact, whereas religion is about morality and ethics.

I am one of those people who thinks that religion and science are, at the most fundamental level, completely incompatible. I know that there are many religious scientists, and scientific religious people, but this does not mean that the two can really coexist. In these instances, it’s just that these people have erected some sort of partition in their head that has declared a certain set of beliefs (the religious ones) off limits to scrutiny, or at least subject to different standards of scrutiny. Science promotes free inquiry, and demands that all claims be backed up with empirical observation. Religion simply ignores empiricism and demands its followers believe based on faith. From a scientific point of view this is absurd. If you do not have any support for your hypothesis, no one is going to accept it. And, unlike religion, science won’t chastise other scientists for being “closed-minded”. No, it will in fact chastise you for not having any empirical backing.

                But, what about ethics? There is no doubt that being an ethical person is very important. But did you know that science has a lot to say when it comes to ethics? It may surprise you to know that, using evolution, you can not only predict the existence of an ethical code, but also which exact principles the code will have.

                This is a tremendous claim. Many religious people point to The Ten Commandments or some other code as a basis for their own morality, but, using science, we can actually construct a parallel list, derived solely through evolutionary logic.

                First, we must determine just what is an ethical code. I define it as something with which we have a “gut feeling” is right or wrong. We feel what is right and what is wrong, even if we can’t articulate it. Why would we have these feelings? From an evolutionary standpoint, we would have them if it would give us a competitive advantage to have them.

                So what ethical feelings would we have if they were evolved? Well, a taboo against murder would be the most obvious one. If you hang around someone who tends to murder people, you’re much likely to end up murdered yourself. Since evolution depends on creatures which survive and reproduce, shunning people who murder is evolutionarily prudent. A similar argument goes for stealing. Way back in time, whatever we bothered to lug around with us was very likely essential for survival. Without it, our odds for survival go down, and so allowing such behavior will be selected against.

                Helping others is also something that would selected for. If you help someone, say by bringing them food when they cannot hunt or gather themselves, they are more likely to survive, and if you are helped, you are more likely to survive. What is interesting is that we can winnow down all these ethical codes and declare that our ethical feelings are all based on what will help our social group remain cohesive. As group animals, we depend on others for help. By banding together, the odds for all of us to survive increases.

                This is why most animals in the world live in groups. There is an evolutionary advantage to it. And such groups will develop rather complex ethical systems, at least in higher animals. What is interesting is that we do see these complex social systems develop. Chimps instinctively know it’s wrong to murder another chimp within their own group. Wild dogs will develop social structures without fighting or bloodshed, because such behavior would be counterproductive. It all points to an ethical code that evolved naturally, rather than having it being dictated by a supreme being.

Of course, one could argue that a god could have simply given us and the animals these codes because they do help with survival, but that does not mean that god’s sanction infuses these principles with “right” and “wrong”. They are right or wrong regardless of a god’s sanction.

So what is our evolved ethical code? If we test each one of these, we see that evolution easily selects for them (note: not all ethical codes are listed, due to lack of ingenuity by the author).

1)      Do not murder

2)      Do not steal

3)      Submit to authority

4)      Take care of your children

5)      Take care of the females in the group

6)      Promote promiscuity, especially among males

The last one is interesting contrasted against traditional Christian values. We are hard-wired to intrinsically feel all of these (and more), and it’s almost impossible to break them. Four billion years went into their development and a few decades of trying to oppose it is futile.

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1 Response to “Ethics and Science”


  1. 1 Mrs. F. February 23, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Yep, just ask Tiger Woods about number 6.


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