Genetics of Good and Evil

Good is something that would increase our collective chance of survival as a species. Evil is just the opposite. Certain things look good and noble to us precisely the same way healthy babies look cute to us. Our genes survived because we are the kind of people who would find our collective survival a noble thing, and wanton destruction of lives a cruel or evil thing.

The genetic explanation of good and evil above, though reasonable, may be a little too simplistic. Many morbid things are considered great or noble. Mindless brutality in wars, for instance, is thought of as a noble act of courage and sacrifice. Certain cruel social or cultural practices were once considered noble and are now considered abominable. Slavery, for instance, is one such custom that changed its moral color. The practice of slavery was condoned in some parts of the world while slave liberation was frowned upon, in an exact reversal of the current moral attitude.

Can we understand these apparent paradoxes in terms of our DNA replication algorithm? What exactly is the scope of the DNA replication algorithm? Obviously, it cannot be that a DNA wants (or is programmed) to replicate all DNAs. We would not be able to eat or survive in that case. Even the maxim “survival of the fittest” would not make any sense. Neither can it be that a DNA wants exact clones of itself. If that were true, it would not take a father and a mother to make a baby.

There is some behavioral evidence to suggest that DNA replication is optimized at sub-species or even intra-species level. A male lion, when he takes over a pride, kills or eats the cubs so that the lionesses of the pride have to mate with him. This behavior, however cruel and evil by our own genetic logic, makes sense to the male lion’s DNA replication program. His DNA is not interested in replicating the species DNA; it wants to replicate a DNA as close to itself as possible. Other examples of sub-species level optimization are easily found. Gorillas are fiercely territorial and protective of their groups. Their violent behavior in promoting their own specific DNA is in stark contrast to our perception of them as gentle giants.

Such blatant genetic motivations are mirrored in human beings as well; ethnic cleansing and racism are clear examples. We are also at least as territorial about our countries and homes as our gorilla cousins, as evidenced by the national boundaries and Immigration and Naturalization Services and so on. Even our more subtle socio-economic behavior can be traced back to a genetic sub-species level struggle for survival of our DNA.

This sub-species genetic division leads to the apparent paradox of the mixing of noble and the evil. Patriotism is noble; treason is evil. Spying for our country is bravery, while spying for some other country is clearly treason. Killing in a war is noble, but murdering a neighbor is clearly evil. A war for liberation is probably noble; a war for oil is not. Looking after our family is noble, but ignoring our own and looking after somebody else’s family is not that good.

Even though the actions and effects of each pair of these noble and evil deeds are roughly equivalent, their moral connotations are different. This paradoxical difference can be explained genetically by the notion that the DNA replication algorithm distinguishes between sub-species.

Ref: This post is an excerpt from my book, The Unreal Universe.