Evolution and compassion for the weak

Pity on the whole thwarts the law of evolution, which is the law of selection. It preserves what is ripe for destruction; it defends life’s disinherited and condemned.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist

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9 Responses to “Evolution and compassion for the weak”

  1. morsec0de Says:

    Nietzsche was wrong, as he seems to think that evolution has a specific goal.

    Actually, compassion and empathy are attributes we (meaning the human species) acquired at least partially through our evolution. What is a simple instinct in some animals that leads them to care for their children leads to compassion in animals with higher thought capacity, like us.

    • soulangler Says:

      I’m not so sure Nietzsche thought evolution had a goal – this would imply personality. Persons have goals but impersonal laws (such as natural selection) are blind (hence ‘The
      Blind Watchmaker’. Perhaps the law of gravity is analogous here – there is no ‘goal’ to gravity – it just is.

      So evolution has no goal like gravity. To have compassion on the weak is to jump in the air. Feel free to do it, but it you will come back down. To pity the weak is ultimately futile from an evolutionary perspective.

      To say “Actually, compassion and empathy are attributes we (meaning the human species) acquired at least partially through our evolution” is a presupposition, a faith commitment that is both empirically unproven and unprovable. To point to any compassionate activity of humans or animals (which obviously do occur) as ‘proof’ merely begs the question whether these creatures evolved or not.

      You keep reminding me of Sartre’s point (he and Nietzsche seemed to agree at this point but disagree with you) https://fixednails.wordpress.com/2009/07/25/atheism-and-the-loss-of-morality/
      Best wishes!

      • morsec0de Says:

        “is a presupposition”

        No. It’s conclusion based on the available evidence. And I hold it tentatively.

        But due to the simple fact that we are commonly descended with the other animals, and most species show different attributes of what could be defined as ‘moral behavior’, it’s not hard at all to study them to see why evolution would favor such behavior.

    • soulangler Says:

      “No. It’s conclusion based on the available evidence.”

      Do you really believe ‘evidence’ or ‘facts’ are available apart from an interpretative grid or worldview? I mean, take the two of us. Let’s say we both look at a ‘fact ‘ or piece of ‘evidence’ – a tree. What could be more of a ‘fact’ than that the tree is there?

      But what is the tree? I see the handiwork of the Triune God of the Bible. You see, well I guess (and you can correct me) a product of natural selection that has a certain use, perhaps is pleasing to the eye etc.

      Same fact, different conclusion.

      • morsec0de Says:

        A tree is only the evidence of a tree. How a tree operates becomes evidence of how it operates…certain leaves withering and falling off as evidence of a lack of water flow to those branches, for example.

        You need more than a fact to give evidence for a very specific claim.

        Here the claim is that, if multiple animal species show rudimentary altruism, and if it’s true that humans share common ancestry with the other animal species, it is reasonable to conclude that our ancestors had similar rudimentary altruism.

        And if rudimentary altruism is a trait common to many species, given that attributes of successful species are generally held on to because they help the animal survive or at the least don’t hinder it, we can look and ask why altruism can help for survival.

        If you understand evolution, it’s really quite easy to see where the roots of what we now refer to as compassion comes from.

    • soulangler Says:

      There are a few ‘ifs’ in there (not least ‘if it’s true that humans share common ancestry with the other animal species’) but let’s run with this notion of rudimentary altruism. I suppose you mean something like mother birds feeding their chicks(?)

      1. Are humans unique, then, in showing compassion (sometimes) to non-family, do you think?
      2. What about examples of animals behaving like, well, animals? (E.g. an animal preying on a weaker or runt sibling and thus having a better chance of surviving thanks to the calories provided by ex-brother/sister). Aren’t they too cases of ensuring the survival of the fittest?

      I guess you can argue that in some cases helping the weak is a good thing for survival of the fittest, but I’m failing to see how it always is good – or perhaps that wasn’t your contention?

      • morsec0de Says:

        1. Not at all. I think other animals are more limited to their in-groups. (But then, so are humans. Our in-groups are just larger and we refer to them as ‘nations’.)

        One example is a meerkat. If I remember correctly, the meerkats will feed above ground with a single member of the group (and I believe they aren’t all related by blood, but I could be wrong) as a lookout for potential predators. That lookout position rotates among the members. If the lookout sees a predator, it makes a noise, thus warning all the other members of the group and attracting the attention of the predator onto itself. Thus potentially sacrificing itself for the good of the group.

        “Aren’t they too cases of ensuring the survival of the fittest?”

        Certainly. And had we evolved from carnivorous, nomadic recent ancestors we may very well have ended up like that as the norm. As it is, the type of animals that were our direct descendants were social omnivores.

        There isn’t only one path to survival for every species. Different species find different niches. We happened to find this one. For which I am particularly happy, because if not our history might have been even more violent than it is.

        You have to remember that evolution is about the species, not the individuals. Certain actions, like the meerkat lookout, may be negative for the individual but beneficial for the species as a whole.

        And you also need to remember that evolution and survival of the fittest and natural selection aren’t philosophies. They’re just descriptors of how life operates. They aren’t about how people (or animals) should act. They’re just about how we do act. And trying to understand why.

  2. leftcoastlibrul Says:

    Hm. Well, what Nietzche failed to understand is that in evolution, there is the evolution of the individual and the evolution of the species. At a certain point, protection of the species as a whole makes us more inclusive and less individual.

    Plus, one should never really accept a short out of context blurb as a greater truth.

    • soulangler Says:

      (as to your last point) I agree there is a real danger in that. The vast majority of the quotes I am putting up here on this site are from books I have read from cover to cover. But sometimes they are quotes of quotes and there is a danger in going against the author’s original intention.

      I would appreciate it if you could show me how I’ve gone against Nietzsche’s point (or anywhere else for that matter). I know Christians (and others) have latched onto quotes to ‘make their case’ and I don’t think this is God-honouring. I intend to remove ANY quotes from this blog that misrepresent the author’s intent by, e.g., failing to take into account the context in which an author has made the quote.

      As to your first point “At a certain point, protection of the species as a whole makes us more inclusive and less individual”
      I was wondering how that would encourage the preservation of endangered species.

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