In this section Keller dismisses evolutionary explanations for moral behavior. He claims that there is consensus that natural selection does not work on entire populations, and that there is no mechanism for modern morality to evolve in individuals. He brings up specifically our feeling that it is moral to help those outside our groups and to do so even when nobody will know.
Keller is making a few major mistakes in this section. One is to radically over simplify how natural selection and evolution work. The second is to assume that if he can’t think of a way for natural selection to work, that it cannot work. He makes this second one because he believes is has a better alternative, I assume “god did it”, but as I’ve pointed out over and over, that is not a useful or plausible explanation.
Keller admits that it makes sense for natural selection to favor altruistic behavior amongst those in our community, since if I save my sister’s life and she reproduces that’s half my gene’s being replicated. He then extrapolates that harming those not in the group would also be moral, implying that this is a problem. Except for basically all of human history this was the case. It still is unless you’re being asked a question by a priest. We love killing the bad guy. That’s how you get honor and that’s why the crusades weren’t condemned. If we relied exclusively on our evolved traits I think there’d rarely be a compunction against killing someone not from our tribe.
Modern morality is a largely learned behavior propagated by society. Keller is correct that natural selection does not work on populations, but societal norms, memes, can evolve over populations. Communities that encourage group to group altruism can form alliances to defeat common enemies, and eventually most societies, including our own, teach a morality that defaults to altruism, even to help strangers.
Keller asks why we’d be compelled to do moral things even when nobody is watching. What does that have to do with evolution. Instincts do not normally depend on an audience to kick in. Not that Keller is even right about this. Many studies have shown how people are way more likely to act morally if they are being watched. I would attribute this to the societal origin of much of morality. If god made us moral he certainly wouldn’t have built in caring about whether you’re being watched.
Perhaps my societal model of morality is wrong. The subject is very difficult to study and science is far from having definitive answers on such things. I think it is a more plausible explanation than Keller’s, and I present it as an alternative, since Keller acts as if there are none.
Here’s another. Perhaps humans evolved altruism in order to protect those around us, who, at the time it evolved, was almost certainly a family member, and so had evolutionary benefit. But in the past few thousand years we’ve structured our lives so we are surrounded by more strangers than family members. Our gene’s don’t know this, though, so when we see someone in trouble we spring in to action to help, our genes assuming they’re a cousin at least.
Here’s another. Perhaps we evolved an ingroup outgroup altruism dichotomy. We form an idea of who’s in the ingroup as we develop and help whoever is in it. Early in our history that would be people of the tribe or villiage we lived in, people we saw every day. However, the mechanism for forming this internal ingroup is flexible. As time passes more and more people have expanded the notion of who is ingroup to include people of the same language, or race, or nation, or religion, or people with similar philosophical values, or same sports team affiliation, or now the whole world.
I don’t know where human morality comes from. I suspect it is a very complicated thing with many influences. I will continue to think on the subject and support people who want to do experiments to answer the question. Keller doesn’t know where human morality comes from, either, but since he thinks there is a god, he never will. One thing is certain, Keller’s contention that morality could not be a natural phenomenon is wrong. Just because you don’t know how it works, or science doesn’t know how it works, doesn’t mean god must be involved. If everyone thought like that, we’d never have learned anything.
…Also, I’ve come up with three plausible explanations in 15 minutes.