Ruse and Wilson claim that culture is shaped by biology and that “a tight and formal connection can be made between biological evolution and cultural change” (Ruse & Wilson, 184). They provide incest as an example of this process. The biological explanation for our repugnance towards it is that because inbreeding produces lower genetic fitness, natural selection has produced a juvenile sensitive period, where children (0-6 years of age) that are consistently within close proximity to one another develop an inability “to from strong sexual bonds during adolescence or later” (R&W, 184). This aversion we feel towards incest once we’ve reached sexual maturity has given birth to cultural norms that dictate such behavior is morally reprehensible.
This would suggest, as Ruse and Wilson advocate, that moral norms are a product of the evolution of our biological nature, or in the very least that they are tightly connected. However, what about cultural norms that are contrary to our biology? There are two major examples that spring to mind: methods of population control and modern medicine.
Humans are unquestioningly biologically programmed to reproduce. However, given our problems with population, it is possible that many people have decided to forgo their natural urge to procreate in order to help curb overpopulation. An example of this being a cultural norm rather than simply an individual choice is China’s one child policy. Does this imply that because I feel the morally correct action is to not reproduce, I am actually acting immorally because it is contrary to my biological nature? Perhaps I have that moral inclination because I am biologically programmed to; in that case the only way that moral inclination could biologically evolve is if those who obtained it passed on to others in their genes, which is absurd.
Modern medicine is another great example. There is a prevalent cultural norm that saving the lives of others is a morally good action. However, it is also clear that many of the ailments modern medicine treats are a result of biology. For example, if I develop a deadly form of cancer because I had a specific gene that predisposed me to cancer, it is doubtless in my ‘biological makeup’ to die from it. Does that mean I shouldn’t seek treatment that could save my life? I’m not sure how this issue can be addressed from the stance that Ruse and Wilson take on morality and biology.
There are numerous other examples that are culturally normative and biologically opposed (i.e. ritual suicide), but I won’t delve into them here. My point is that if biological evolution and cultural change is so tightly related, as Ruse and Wilson claim they are, how do we account for the glaring anomalies? Any ideas?
(Works Cited: Ruse, Michael and Wilson, Edward. "Moral Philosophy as Applied Science". 1986: pg. 173-192)