Are Fitness Indicators Immoral

The idea that the human mind evolved as a bundle of fitness indicators does not sit comfortably with contemporary views of human nature and human society. In fact, it violates at least eight core values commonly accepted in modern society. Variation in fitness betrays our belief in human equality. The heritability of fitness violates our assumption that social and family environments shape most of human development. Loudly advertising one's fitness violates our values of humility, decorum, and tact. Sexual status hierarchies based on fitness violate our belief in egalitarian social organization. The idea that people sort themselves into sexual pairs by assessing each other's fitness violates our romantic ideal of personal compatibility. The conspicuous waste demanded by the handicap principle violates our values of frugality, simplicity, and efficiency. The sexual choice mechanisms that judge individuals by their fitness indicators violate our belief that people should be judged by their character, not the quality of their genes. Finally, it seems nihilistic to propose that our capacities for language, art, and music evolved to proclaim just one message that has been repeated loudly and insistently for thousands of generations: "I am fit, my genes are good, mate with me." A mind evolved as a set of fitness indicators can sound like a fascist nightmare.

How is it possible for one biological concept to affront so many of our fundamental values? It seems quite astounding that a scientific idea should so consistently fell on the wrong side of the ideological fence. I think it is no coincidence. Look at it this way; our human norms and values developed as reactions to patterns of natural human behavior that we decided should be discouraged. If a great deal of human behavior consists of advertising one's fitness, and if many ways of doing that impose social costs on others, and if moral norms develop to minimize social costs, then a lot of moral norms should be aimed directly against the irresponsible use of fitness indicators. We value humility precisely because many people are unbearable braggarts who try to flaunt their fitness indicators so relentlessly that we cannot hold a decent conversation. We value frugality because so many people embarrass everyone with their ostentatious displays of luxuries, and waste limited resources that others need. We value egalitarianism because it protects the majority from aspiring despots intent on power and polygyny

These norms do not just fall randomly from the sky. They emerged as moral instincts and cultural inventions to combat the excesses of sexual self-advertisement and sexual competition. Our moral aversion to fitness indicators may tempt us to reject them as an important part of sexual selection. But if we reject them, then it is hard to see how our moral norms evolved in the first place. It is possible, perhaps even necessary, to admit that much of human behavior evolved to advertise fitness, while simultaneously realizing that the essence of wisdom and morality is not to take our fitness indicators too seriously. This is not to say that our capacities for wisdom and morality are cultural inventions that liberate us from the imperatives of our genes. Our moral instincts may be just another set of evolved adaptations. It is not a question of "us" overriding our genetic predispositions, but of using one set of predispositions to overrule others—just as our evolved desire to preserve our looks can override our evolved taste for fat and sugar.

Another response to such worries is to point out that practically every theory of human mental evolution sounds like a fascist nightmare when we compare it with our comfortable modern lives and our political ideals. According to the Machiavellian intelligence theory, our minds evolved to lie, cheat, steal, and deceive one another, and the most cunning psychopaths became our ancestors by denying food, territory, and sexual partners to kinder, gender souls. Richard Alexander's group warfare theory suggests that our minds evolved through genocidal violence, with larger-brained ancestors killing off smaller-brained competitors. The theory that human genes and human cultures co-evolved sounds slightly less bloody in the abstract, but it sounds that way only because it fails to specify any selection pressures that could have actually shaped anything. In terms of survival selection, what it boils down to is the view that those with brighter brains learned better technologies to grab resources before those with dimmer brains could, leaving the dimmer brains to starve, die of infectious disease, or be eaten by predators.

No theory of human origins can avoid the fact that evolution depends on reproductive competition, and competition means that some individuals win and some lose. With survival selection, the losers die. With sexual selection, the losers merely get their hearts broken (as their genes die out). If one demands moral guidance from a theory of human evolution, one is free to pick which of these options sounds better. Personally, I think that scientific theories should try to account for facts and inspire new research, rather than trying to conform to contemporary moral values.

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