The Western world is awash with people claiming that their product or service is ‘healthy’ because it’s ‘natural’. From beauty and skin care products to healthy eating and a range of alternative therapies we are sold the message that natural is somehow ‘better’. Often these advertisements are dressed up in ‘sciencey’ language to add credibility but still the basic message is that natural is best. More significantly for this post the idea is that ‘natural’ is the same as ‘how it ought to be’.
This idea that ‘natural’ is the same as ‘ought to be’ is the essence of the naturalistic fallacy. It has dogged our understanding of the world and spawned entire political movements simply because people haven’t quite grasped the simple truth that describing something isn’t the same as supporting it.
Of course natural isn’t necessarily best at all. It’s not that simple. There are many natural poisons and a number of naturally occurring bacteria that will happily kill you given half a chance. There is much more to the equation than that. But that’s only one part of the naturalistic fallacy. The really dangerous one is the idea that natural shows us how things should be – that it can inform our ideologies.
That’s the fallacy that has created the biggest problems in our society.
In the context of evolution let’s consider Social Darwinism – a bastardisation of Darwin’s theory of ‘Evolution by means of natural selection’ that brought nothing but confusion, misery and death to mankind.
Charles Darwin brought us the theory of evolution in the mid nineteenth century and demonstrated how via the mechanism of survival of the fittest our species (along with every other modern species) evolved and outlived weaker competitors over unimaginably long periods of time. That’s why human beings exist at all – because the Australopithecines were good at escaping from predators and because Homo habilis learned how to be a little more creative than the next guy.
But Darwin didn’t make any sort of moral or ethical judgement about natural selection and the survival of the fittest. He merely described the reality. Nature doesn’t care about our sensibilities. It doesn’t care about anything. Nature just is. Natural selection doesn’t give two hoots about our happiness either – it can’t – it’s an unconscious, inanimate process that has nothing to do with right and wrong, individual contentment or anything else except getting genetic material (DNA) into the next generation.
It’s true that evolution by natural selection has a great deal to do with our sense of morality (as we shall see later) but that most certainly doesn’t mean that our morality is particularly moral. In fact – in many instances it’s easy to see how, from a moral perspective, human evolution has left us sadly lacking. There is no benefit at all in assuming that the way we evolved in the ‘Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation’ (EEA) or ‘Ancestral Environment’ for short will be effective or even desirable today.
When we follow the evidence of natural history we can understand what has happened and even how it happened but we cannot draw any conclusions about what ought to happen. We particularly can’t use nature as a justification for what we’d like to do next. And yet that is precisely what the social Darwinists did. They took the knowledge of natural history and natural selection and confused it with the ideal of creating a master race. In its most extreme form it spawned the eugenics movement and inspired much of the thinking behind the holocaust in World War 2. And yet it is profoundly ill-informed and ridiculous.
Just because something is a particular way does not mean that it ought to be that way.
The naturalistic fallacy confuses reality with ideology and the results are not only foolish – they’re also extremely dangerous. The idea that if it’s natural it’s also how it ought to be has been used as a justification for social Darwinism and also by creationists to oppose evolution:
“It can’t be right if it’s not what God said!”
Both of these ridiculous assumptions are as bad as each other. They’re two sides of the same coin. Just as we can’t use the naturalistic fallacy to decide upon right action we can’t use ‘The Agency Fallacy’ either. Substitute the term ‘Natural selection’ for ‘God’ in any statement about how things ought to be and you have an equally silly proposition. In each case you have rules (conscious or unconscious) that suited a different time, place and culture but that have little or no real relevance here and now.
Evolution by natural selection is the mechanism that brought us to where we are now. But it has nothing to do with right and wrong and it has nothing to do with God or Gods (except that it can explain how we evolved the tendency to believe in Gods in the first place).
Of course many people will disagree vehemently with this assertion and in fairness, there’s no reason why they should believe me just because I said so. The next post will outline the evidence for evolution by natural selection, building upon the idea of ‘falsifiability’ described in part 2.