We are often faced with the deceptive, dichotomous choice between committing to particular deities and formal religions for one’s moral guidance or else having no access to any rich moral structure at all. Traditional moral thought of the “Western us” has tended to conclude that if one has no religious or spiritual inclinations, then one is unable to fully comprehend and live within a moral foundation.
This view assumes that the atheist is amoral, and that if such people occasionally do some good, it is only by accident, or through the overriding power of a god. However, my sense is that the capacity to experience ethical feelings, intuitions, and thoughts that result in moral action has always been within all of us—from the beginnings of life on Earth. And the perception that one can lose this ability simply by not believing in the supernatural is based in the assumption that there was at some time a supernatural being who passed the foundation of morality as truths on to us.
I believe that moral foundations are generated by us, as well as for us, through the process of evolution. A host of evolutionary attributes enables us to take action on how to relate with Others, affording life the ability to navigate the necessary interconnections with those outside of the unit of self, facilitating living entities to develop ever more intricate and sophisticated forms of negotiating with life’s living alongside the Other—an Other who exists within the same spatial and temporal reality. There is no avoiding this Other, ever; we are always bumping into someones at sometime.
There seems to be an evolutionary continuum through deep time where no earthly living entity has been created independently of the Other—there is always a common ancestor. We humans have evolved from a long line of life’s wondrous and intricate play on interdependencies. Our physical essence has come to be through the incessant stacking upon stacking of entities—protocells to prokaryotes to eukaryotes to fish to amphibians to mammals—to form who we are.
Human life’s trajectory would benefit and perhaps become sustainable if we always remembered this reality with every thought and with every action. If we did, would we perhaps avoid creating alienating, estranging concepts of Otherness—human Otherness, nationalist Otherness, and animal Otherness—and instead embrace Otherness and wholeness at the same time? It would certainly take generations to reimagine and reorganize our human selves and our resulting institutions and moral structures, but selves and institutions have been reimagined and reorganized before, and it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.
We can look toward evolutionary theory as an alternative understanding to religious and spiritual beliefs to excavate a moral framework within ourselves—one that is in us and of us, between our neighbors and rising up from our relationship with place.
Evolutionary science is a standard go-to theoretical model for unpacking the diversity of life, even among religious and spiritual peoples. We have agreed that our physiological nature, our chemical and biological make-up, has evolved from a similar lineage with other creatures. When we also come to understand complex adaptive psychological and behavioral traits—our appetites for food and sex, our fear responses, our patterns of aggression, our parental care and bonding, and our patterns of cooperation and retribution—from an evolutionary perspective, then we see that these are all a part of humanity’s ethical toolkit, evolved over millions of years during our creaturely lineage. But when we measure ourselves against a spiritual or otherworldly benchmark—when we take ourselves out of time and place—even bodies of scientific knowledge like evolution or climate science are turned into ideologies and deceptions.
So let us take one more step toward embracing evolution as a theory on life and look to it for insight into life’s ethical dynamism.
We are coming to understand, through recent research in microbiology, that even our human bodies can no longer be viewed as autonomous entities, independent of Others and therefore somehow the “special” creatures on Earth. As Rosenberg and Zilber-Rosenberg put it, “Animals and plants can no longer be considered individuals. All are holobionts, consisting of a host and numerous symbiotic microbes.” We are not however, merely hosts to these other creatures; we live in tandem with them. Even the genetic makeup found in the human body is part of a co-evolving hologenome evolving alongside—and, more importantly, as a result of—our microbiome’s genetic structure. And we are not just talking about the nice bacteria lining our gut, gathering sustenance while helping us process ours, but about bacteria, fungi, and viruses effecting the very expressions of the human genome, perhaps affecting our moods and even directing genetic mutation (versus mutation by error or damage).
Such a collaboration, or mutual aid, among taxonomic kingdoms and viruses (considered non-life entities) requires what I am calling ethics: a process of navigating interactions between autonomous entities, with the tendency toward mutual aid, allowing life’s essential processes to occur on Earth, which facilitates the development of a diverse set of tools supporting the infinite amounts of actions and reactions between Otherness. Therefore, we can perhaps come to an agreement that the existence of the animal, Homo sapiens, is not even possible without this ethical dynamism within the human-microbe holobiont community. (Just imagine the ethical dimensions of our present-day ingestion of a multitude of pesticides and antibiotics, our favorite microbiome killers.)
Our current understanding of where human morality rests is in our capacity to apply normative guidance for our dealings with one another and with planet Earth. We are motivated by societal norms that have been rationalized as oughts and ought nots to direct thoughts and actions in response to life’s variety of circumstances. These normative understandings often are attended to as truths that come to us from the supernatural realm or through the very special, god-given gift of reason. However, what if the human capacity for creating religious and spiritual forms of guidance is not grounded in the supernatural at all, but rather is based in a set of skills, including reason, which results from our biologically adaptive toolkits that bestow upon us all—humans and other-than-human entities alike—a variety of selective advantages for social cohesion and cooperation?
If we re-imagine and comprehend ethics from an evolutionary point of view, then a way of reconciling Otherness and mutual aid opens up. If the ability of employing moral judgment to govern human behavior is a result of evolution, then the capacity for morality is humanly universal, in that it represents a range of species-typical behavior. Each culture normalizes and moralizes a somewhat different set of behavioral possibilities from within that universal range; each society fills its ethical toolkit in somewhat different ways, but against a universal background. We humans all evolved with the ability to respond and take action in regards to the Other via our sensory, emotional, and intellectual adaptations. All animals and plants have done this, but their adaptations have been varied. In human beings, the rational thought tool supported the development of complex language, giving us the ability to gather and organize an immense amount of information with which to assess which behaviors are acceptable within a certain community and which are not. This provides a selective advantage for large groups of individuals to successfully live amongst one another. These adaptations seem to also influence the very content of our moral judgments. “Even where moral beliefs are heavily shaped by culture,” William FitzPatrick observes, “there might be evolutionary influences in the background: evolved psychological traits may have contributed to the shaping of cultural practices themselves, influencing, for example, the development of ‘family first’ cultural norms that inform our judgments.”
In another sense, human morality is relative (to place and time) in that each cultural or social group has the freedom to apply these adaptations—which have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and have become amazingly intricate and complex—to organize and reorganize their specific cultural oughts and ought nots.
Another dimension of morality’s universality and relativity is perhaps uncovered from recent debates about the essence of morality explained in the “mere rationalization hypothesis.” Many theorize that moral actions and decisions seem most often made via the perception of emotions and feelings, but are then rationalized, perhaps in order for us to share them with Others. William FitzPatrick, for example, maintains that:
Moral philosophers have long recognized that people have often been led rationalized their views, inventing justifications for positions held due to other causes. . . . The reason why philosophers tend to find a ‘mere rationalization hypothesis’ plausible for such beliefs as [that interracial marriage is morally wrong] and [homosexuality is morally wrong] is that (i) the justifications offered for them have consistently failed to stand up to critical reflection . . . and (ii) there are plausible alternative explanations for why people have really come to hold such beliefs, such as that they have misconstrued personal feelings of disgust as perceptions of objective moral wrongness, and projected those feelings onto the world as ‘moral impurity’. . . .Our giving of reasons for our moral beliefs in such cases is interpreted as mere post hoc rationalization. Rather than engaging in autonomous reflection and reasoning, and coming to believe certain moral propositions for the reasons that emerge from that reflection . . . what is happening instead according to this hypothesis is that (1) our moral beliefs are simply caused by emotions or ‘moral instincts’ we have largely due to our evolutionary background, and (2) we then invent rationalizations for these resulting beliefs in order to try to make sense of them to ourselves, unaware of their real causal origins.
In the view I am suggesting here, moral beliefs are triggered by emotions and/or moral instincts that are a result of our evolutionary background and can therefore be understood as universal elements; whereas the rationalizations or justifications for these resulting beliefs occur on an individual and cultural level and can thus be considered relative.
The tool of reason, I can imagine, allowed us humans to collect and communicate the moral decisions agreed upon over time and space, permitting larger and larger groups of human societies to work as a whole, sharing life’s treasures with one another (food, drink, shelter, skill sets). It is truly a challenge to agree upon, share, and follow one’s emotional expressions of morality with the larger groups found in cities, in nations, and among nations. We thus depend on our skill of reason and our ability for complex language, which allows us to communicate a more intricate moral understanding with the larger cross-spatial and temporal group of humans. The human rational reflection simply supports, communicates, and solidifies our foray into evolution’s ethical realm. (This is quite a different form of understanding rules and communicating them than the creatures we know as ants have evolved, but with a similar evolutionary direction for group cohesion.)
Although moral standards do change through time and through geography, these standards are not merely arbitrary constructs to be dismissed only because they are of a specific time and place. Each set of ethical standards has its emplaced function, and standards as such are necessary social structures required by a larger cohesive group of individuals who have decided to interact closely with one another with the intention to support and benefit the whole. Humans have the capacity via their evolutionarily crafted ethical tool box—emotions, feelings, reason—for developing a set of intricate, widely distributed written and oral rules regarding oughts and ought nots that have allowed for all this intermingling. And these intense interactions are prime drivers and results of evolution. Therefore, the process and results of ethics are not arbitrary at all. They are a necessity for and of life.
On the basis of seeing ethics from an eco-atheist—an evolutionary—point of view, I can now begin imagining an “ethics of being, in place” to counterbalance the tradition of religious and philosophical thinking that bases ethics in the supernatural. In my conception of place-based being, place—existing in geological space and evolutionary time—is the surrounding you interact with at all times: the ocean, the forest, the ecosystem, the city, the region, the nation, the planet, the solar system. It is the envelope that houses everyone and everything and all their interactions. And the ethics is the process and end result of how all these entities (on Earth) process their becoming with that of Others’ becomings.
(Excerpt from "An ethical journey into deep time", Minding Nature, vol.11, No.1)
Published on 30 November -0001
 S.R. Bordenstein and K.R. Theis, “Host Biology in Light of the Microbiome: Ten Principles of Holobionts and Hologenomes,” PLoS Biology 13, no. 8 (2015): e1002226. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1002226.
 W. FitzPatrick, “Morality and Evolutionary Biology,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-biology/; accessed September, 14, 2017.
 FitzPatrick, “Morality and Evolutionary Biology.”
 B. Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson, The Ants (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1990).