Evolution’s unpredictable dark side: Everything ‘natural’ is not always good

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Given a choice, most people gravitate toward the natural over the artificial. After all, natural environments are preferable to garbage dumps, natural foods are nearly always healthier than stuff concocted in a chemistry lab. Yet it needs to be said loud and clear: Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s good. “Smallpox is natural,” Ogden Nash noted. “Vaccine ain’t.” Gangrene, acne, hurricanes, earthquakes, COVID-19—all bona fide natural.

When it comes to humane values the evolutionary process is, if anything, not so much neutral as negative; it is likely to lead to results that most ethicists will and should reject. It is a wonderful thing to learn about, a terrible thing to learn from.

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Add cases of animal rape, deception, nepotism, siblicide, matricide, and cannibalism, and it should be clear that natural selection has blindly, mechanically, yet effectively favored self-betterment and self-promotion, unmitigated by any ethical considerations. I say this fully aware of an important trend in animal behavior research: the demonstration that animals often reconcile, make peace, and cooperate; no less than the morally repulsive examples just cited, these behaviors also reflect the profound self-centeredness of the evolutionary process… [T]he only outcome assessed by natural selection is whether a given tactic works—whether it enhances fitness—not whether it is good, right, just, admirable, or worthy of rainbows and sparkly unicorns.

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