“Good conduct” is not an evolutionary survival trait

What passes for “good conduct” today is not so very different to what it was at least 5,000 years ago. It is very probable that it has not changed very much for much longer than that. To lie, to rob, to cheat, to harm, to murder and to rebel against established societal authority have all been considered “bad conduct” in human societies from long before recorded history is available. The earliest known codes of laws go back to Babylonian (Hammurabi -1800 BCE) and even to Sumerian times (Urukagina – 2400 BCE). Codes of conduct can be inferred to even earlier times with the beginnings of Dharma in the pre-Hindu Indus-Saraswati Valley, in ancient Egypt and in ancient China. 

Code of Hammurabi

Definitions of what constitutes “good conduct” must originate with the earliest societies of hunter gatherers and must therefore precede the spread of farming, the growth of cities and even the beginnings of semi-permanent settlements at the end of the last ice age (c. 12,000 years ago). It is not unreasonable that the Golden Rule (Do to others as you would have them do to you) emerged as a core definer of good conduct around 40 – 50,000 years ago. 

50,000 years is not insignificant in evolutionary time. For humankind it represents around 2,500 generations of natural selection. But our conduct has not improved. Evolutionary changes can be observed in humans and they are not small. All the races we identify today have emerged in that time. The changes are continuing but it is not apparent over our short lifetimes as to what the future holds for us. The changes are sufficient that it is not very likely that a human from 50,000 years ago would be able to breed successfully with a human from today.

Wikipedia – Human traits that (have) emerged recently include the ability to free-dive for long periods of time, adaptations for living in high altitudes where oxygen concentrations are low, resistance to contagious diseases (such as malaria), light skin, blue eyes, lactase persistence (or the ability to digest milk after weaning), lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, retention of the median artery, reduced prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease, lower susceptibility to diabetes, genetic longevity, shrinking brain sizes, and changes in the timing of menarche and menopause.

Humans are the only species which has shown the capability of interfering with the conditions determining natural selection. We started neutralising the effects of environment on us when we built shelters and gained control over fire. We now create our own bubbles in which we live and nullify the impact that climate and weather once had on natural selection. We use technology to minimise the impact of natural disasters on the evolution of our kind. Of course, the greatest impact humans have had on natural selection has come in the last 200 years or so with the great advances of medical knowledge. Being weak – mentally or physically – is no longer a de-selector for survival and reproduction. Natural selection no longer favours the “fittest”. Choice of mates is no longer (entirely) based on physical superiority. We deselect some characteristics before birth (Down’s Syndrome). Whether we admit to it or not, we employ a kind of eugenics by default. We have begun artificial selection (AI) though we are not quite sure what we are selecting for.

But it is not at all obvious that “good conduct” is any more prevalent among humans today than it was 50,000 years ago. We continue to lie, cheat, do harm, murder and flout established authority. As individuals we do so utilising the most advanced technologies available to humankind, always one step ahead of the established authorities. No doubt there is a genetic component to “good conduct”, but natural selection has not found any benefit in promoting it. In today’s age of entitlements, survival and reproduction by transgressors is actually protected. The genetic components of “bad conduct” are given a protected status. As societies we continue to war on each other for quite frivolous reasons with the most wonderful new weapons. In fact weapons production leads many technology advances – as it always has done.

The inescapable conclusion I come to is that “good conduct” is not a survival trait and has no impact whatsoever on the evolution of the species. In fact, “bad conduct” may well be preferred by the selection forces we have now brought into play. What evolution will result in remains to be seen. But it is highly probable that our conduct will not be any better than it is now. There is a chance it could be much worse.


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