Science in Society Archive

Towards a Biospheric Ethic

Modern moral philosophers have tended to study ethics in a void, ignoring the insights of the natural and human sciences. Some eminent scholars have sought to put this right; but they have based their ethical principles on a grossly distorted view of nature and human society. The result is a 'technospheric' ethic that seeks to equate progress and the moral good with economic expansion and the dominance of man over nature.

A new 'biospheric' ethic is required, says Edward Goldsmith, major author of "A Blueprint for Survival" and founder-editor of The Ecologist that initiated the environmental movement in Britain. We must place ethical values in their appropriate context, that of mediating sustainable human behaviour in relationship to society, the ecosystem, the biosphere and the cosmos itself.

Is there a principle for ethical behaviour?

One of the first questions to answer in a serious discussion on ethics is whether there exists an acceptable criterion for determining whether or not an action is ethical. Two eminent evolutionists took up opposing views. Theodore Dobzhansky, Russian émigré to the US, thought that there could not be such a criterion, because it would limit "the essential human faculty for the exercise of freedom". This is very close to what is being said by many scientists today in debates over the ethics of genetic engineering and related applications, from GM crops to human cloning.

Conrad Waddington, British born and bred, said that "it is possible to discuss, and perhaps to discover a criterion which is not of an ethical nature, but is.. of a supra-ethical character: a criterion…which would make it possible to decide whether a certain ethical system of values is in some definite and important sense preferable to another." The criterion he suggested, is "wisdom". But who possesses wisdom? Is it the educated, the scientific expert?

Two takes on 'evolutionary ethics'

We can consider 'ethics' as a set of instructions, whose implementation, in the light of the model of one's relationship with nature, enables human beings to co-exist stably with one another and with the rest of nature.

It has been argued that the way we obtain information about nature has been produced and validated by the process evolution, and hence evolution should be our source of ethics.

The most notorious attempt to derive ethics from one's model of how nature evolves belongs to the social Darwinists. Herbert Spencer and his colleagues in Victorian England preached an ethic of individualism, competition and aggression, which they justified as being in accordance with "natural law". Spencer wrote, "Progress is not an accident but a necessity. Instead of civilization being artificial, it is a part of nature, all apiece with the development of an embryo or the unfolding of a flower".

The social Darwinists painted a very distorted view of nature. They saw it as random, chaotic, atomised, competitive and aggressive, totally ignoring its more fundamental, cooperative aspects. For William Graham Sumner, the main prophet of Social Darwinism in the United States, "competition was the law of nature which could no more be done away with than gravitation".

The stress on competition was an essential tenet of social Darwinism, for in terms of Darwinism itself, and later of neo-Darwinism, competition provided the very motor of evolution. For the same reason, it was essential to the course of progress. The poor, the starving and the diseased, who were identified with the 'unfit', could thus be cast by the wayside without moral scruple.

"The whole effort of nature was to clear the world of the (unfit) and make room for the better." Spencer wrote. This was also the ethic of Adolph Hitler, for whom, "the law of selection justifies this incessant struggle by allowing the survival of the fittest. Christianity is a rebellion against natural laws, a protest against nature. Taken to its logical extreme, Christianity would mean the systematic cult of human failure."

Unlike the social Darwinists, Julian Huxley and Conrad Waddington did not see their evolutionary ethic as implying that it had to be individualistic and competitive. On the contrary, they were firm believers in co-operation and harmony. Their position was a strangely inconsistent one, and their efforts to eliminate this inconsistency unconvincing. They argued that both nature and human nature were themselves subject to evolutionary change, which they identified with progress and tending in the direction of increasing harmony and co-operation.

Julian Huxley rejected his grandfather Thomas Huxley's thesis that "there was a fundamental contradiction between the ethical process and the cosmic process". Instead, he thought that the contradiction could be resolved, "on the one hand, by extending the concept of evolution both backward into the inorganic and forward into the human domain, and on the other by considering ethics not as a body of fixed principles, but as the product of evolution, and itself evolving." Progress, an integral part of evolution, had made man less individualistic and less competitive and more co-operative and altruistic.

Thus, although both Julian Huxley and Waddington regarded themselves as proponents of the biospheric or naturalistic ethic, by insisting that progress was part of evolution, and that the technosphere or world of human artefacts was part of nature, they sought to justify the very process of economic development that is leading inexorably to the destruction, indeed to the very annihilation of nature.

This position had previously been articulated explicitly by Drummond, the American theologian, who declared that "the path of progress and the path of altruism are one", evolution being "nothing but the Involution of Love, the revelation of Infinite Spirit, the Eternal Life returning to itself."

Nobel laureate Belgian physical chemist Ilya Prigogine justifies the latest phase of technological progress - genetic engineering - in the same spirit. He sees this technology as a means of achieving a new earthly paradise.

Thus, the stark choice of an evolutionary ethic appears to be between social Darwinism, or one that embraces progress as defined by technological advance, whatever that advance may mean for the biosphere, in effect, a kind of technospheric ethic.

Anti-evolutionary ethics

There were strong reactions against deriving ethics from evolution among the most prominent biologists in Europe; but they all shared Herbert Spencer's view that the world is selfish, individualistic and aggressive, however.

Thomas Huxley, Darwin's most celebrated disciple in Victorian Britain, wrote, "from the point of view of the moralist, the animal world is on about the same level as a gladiator's show. The creatures are fairly well treated, and set to fight - whereby the strongest, the swiftest and the cunningest live to fight another day."

Unlike Spencer, Thomas Huxley believed that "the ethical progress of society depends not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it." Indeed "social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step, and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest, in respect of the whole of the conditions which obtain, but of those who are ethically the best." This ethical process he identified with material progress.

Sigmund Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis, perpetrated the same anti-naturalist doctrine, he saw the development of civilization as a systematic battle against man's natural instincts.

American evolutionist Gaylord Simpson put forward a broadly similar argument. "Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned," Simpson wrote. "The discovery that the universe, apart from man or before his coming, lacked any purpose or plan, has the inevitable corollary that the workings of the universe cannot provide any automatic universal, eternal, or absolute ethical criteria of right and wrong."

French Nobel laureate geneticist, Jacques Monod, likewise, said, "Since man has no role within the biosphere and is a stranger to it, the biosphere cannot impose any values on man."

The sociobiologists of the present-day see man by nature to be individualist, he is an egoist whose over-riding preoccupation is the survival of his own genes. But this does not mean we have to behave egotistically. Indeed, Richard Dawkins, the most prominent proselytiser of neo-Darwinian theory in Britain today, wrote, "We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism - something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."

And again, "If you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals co-operate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something which no other species has ever aspired to."

Neither Dawkins, nor any of his predecessors tells us where this miraculous power to "rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators" or against the innate competitiveness and aggressiveness of human nature comes from.

This school of anti-evolutionary ethics is incoherent and indefensible, and there is nothing that would distinguish it from utter anthropocentrism that can see no wrong in whatever the human species choose to perpetrate on the natural world. But it goes even further than that, for only the cream among the human species can enjoy this privilege.

Morality and the 'modern man'

Indeed, the cardinal tenet of the 'technospheric' ethic - one that is perhaps the most generally accepted by the scientific and scholarly communities - is that morality begins with modern man and that one cannot talk of primitive man, or of other forms of life, as being moral.

Thus, Thomas Huxley tell us that "society differs from nature in having a definite moral object; whence it comes about that the course shaped by the ethical man - the member of society or citizen - necessarily runs counter to that which the non-ethical man - the primitive savage, or man as a mere member of the animal kingdom - tends to adopt. The latter fights out the struggle for existence to the bitter end, like any other animal: the former devotes his best energies to the object of setting limits to the struggle."

Waddington adopted the same position: "It is only when we pass on from the sub-human world to deal with the evolution of man that ethics must, in its own right, enter the picture." Simpson, likewise, wrote, "There is no ethics but human ethics and a search that ignores the necessity that ethics be human, relative to man, is bound to fail."

Not just ethics, but purpose is unique to modern man. Most scholars see evolution as a random, purposeless process, due to 'blind' chance, until, that is, modern man appeared on the scene. The American philosopher Lester Ward made this explicit, "If there is no cosmic purpose, there is at least human purpose, which has already given man a special place in nature and may yet, if he wills it, give organization and direction to his social life. Purposeful activity must henceforth be recognised as a proper function not only of the individual but of a whole society." Ward distinguished between man-made phenomena that are the result of human purpose, which he called "telic" (from the Greek word telos, meaning goal) and natural or "genetic" phenomena, the result of blind natural forces.

And knowledge also begins with the human species; the best of knowledge, with 'modern man'. In non-human species and presumably among primitive people, there is only "experience", whilst with modern man there is "education", and hence true knowledge. This makes all the difference, according to Ward, "the knowledge of experience is, so to speak, a genetic product, that of education is a teleogical product."

Monod and Simpson attach so much importance to knowledge that they actually preach an "ethic of knowledge". Monod saw that as being the only ethic possible for modern man. This ethic would distinguish modern man from "animalistic" man, because the latter believes in teleology - that nature is inherently purposeful - which Monod regards as a hideous failing. For him, that is the opposite of 'objectivity', which alone gives rise to "authentic" knowledge.

Monod's "ethic of knowledge" is clearly an essential part of the ethic of the technosphere, since it is only through the type of "authentic" knowledge that he promotes as ethical that the technosphere is built up.

Julian Huxley is explicit on that score. "Knowledge is not merely an end in itself, but the only satisfactory means for controlling our future evolution."

The unspoken assumption is that all knowledge, even if not every technology produced as a result, must be good. That is why any attempt to make scientists accountable to society in their research is automatically rejected as a curb on the scientist's "freedom" and "imagination". In "objective" knowledge, there can be no wrong.

Indeed, it is only on account of consciousness, purpose, knowledge, and all the other unique endowments of modern man, that reason and choice can emerge, without which there can be no morality.

As knowledge builds up, our rational choices will change or rather "evolve". That means our ethics must be flexible: they cannot be absolute or, for that matter, universal.

Change, Simpson insists, is "the essence" of evolution and for that reason alone, "there can be no absolute standard of ethics". Waddington said the same. Evolutionary ethic "cannot be expected to be absolute but must be subject to evolution itself and must be the result of responsible and rational choice in the full light of such knowledge of man and of life as we have."

This has resulted in a dangerous combination of scientific fundamentalism coupled with total moral relativism. While scientists insists on doing any research they like from GM crops to creating human embryos for harvesting embryonic stem cells, the role of 'bioethicists' is becoming little more than manufacturing spurious arguments to make the morally unacceptable acceptable to the public.

Individualism rules

The 'technospheric' ethic is fundamentally individualistic. Simpson argued that even if we wished to derive ethics from nature, they would still be individualistic, for evolution tends towards individualization (as opposed to higher integration as ecologists once maintained). This individualization, Simpson regarded as "good". Man must be aware of "the goodness of maintenance of this individualization" and he must promote "the integrity and dignity of the individual…Socialization may be good or bad. When ethically good, it is based on, and in turn gives maximum total possibility for, ethically good individualization."

The individual has no duty to the community, or to the state. Individualism is associated with democracy. Democratic society is the product of the "social contract". As American scholar William Graham Sumner wrote, "Contract …is rational - even rationalistic. It is also realistic, cold and matter of fact. A contract-relation is based on a sufficient reason, not on custom or prescription. It is not permanent. It endures only so long as the reason for it endures. In a state based on contract, sentiment is out of place in any public or common affairs. It is relegated to the sphere of private and personal relations."

Julian Huxley and Waddington also accepted the ethic of individualism, but it was tempered with their knowledge that, in Huxley's words, "the individual is …meaningless in isolation", and in Waddington's, "a fully developed human being is inconceivable in isolation from society." Nevertheless, Huxley regarded "the fully developed individual" as "the highest product of evolution, the experiences which alone have high intrinsic value, such as those of love and beauty and knowledge and mystical union, are accessible only to human individuals", but he recognized that, "a certain right organization of society is necessary before those ends can be achieved."

It goes without saying that for sociobiologists, the only ethic conceivable is individualistic. The individual's overriding goal is to proliferate his own genes. The notion that this goal may, in the natural world, be subordinated to the more sensible goal of serving the interests of the community or the species or the ecosystem is considered unscientific, and those who suggest it, like British biologist, Wynne Edwards, are mercilessly derided.

Since the modern ethic is the product of conscious choice, based on 'objective' and hence 'scientific' knowledge, it is authenticated by no other authority but that of modern man himself, endowed as he supposedly is, with all his unique intellectual and moral gifts, and armed with the unique potentialities offered by scientific knowledge. Simpson said, "Man can cherish values if he wishes to", but they are his own, self-imposed values. No absolute ethics can be found "outside of man's own nature". Monod is of the same mind, "The ethic of knowledge would not be imposed on man. It is he on the contrary who would impose it on himself." That's essentially the line taken by scientists today when told they should be socially accountable. No one should have any say on what scientists can do, it is against their ethics of knowledge.

Ilya Prigogine and his disciple Erich Jantsch go even further. For them, the key determinants of progress are "consciousness" and "mind", which they consider the unique endowments of man. According to Jantsch, "mankind is not redeemed by God but redeems himself." He identified the evolution of consciousness with the evolution of the universe, which is in turn identified with "self-organisation". Prigogine, Jantsch and their followers in France Belgium and elsewhere have built up an extraordinary cosmology for rationalizing super-star technologies that are to achieve the latest progress in evolution, all the products of the deified modern man.

The anthropocentric modernist fallacies

The technospheric ethic has led to the systematic substitution of the man-made world for the biosphere or natural world, to fill it with ever more toxic waste products that have brought the earth to the brink of extinction. It is driving the economic globalisation that sanctions exploitation of the poor and weak by the rich and powerful.

It is clear that the technospheric ethic is based on numerous assumptions ranging from the debatable to the fallacious and abhorrent.

Many will argue that consciousness, and purposive behaviour begins much further down the evolutionary tree, with some biologists who spend a lifetime studying single-celled animals asserting that even those creatures are purposive, if not conscious.

Examples abound in nature of animals behaving altruistically, if not morally. Biologists such as the Russian prince, Kropotkin and Amercan naturalist Allee have argued convincingly that sociality, rather than competition, is the defining feature of the living world. The falsehoods perpetrated about the lack of morality in so-called 'primitive' societies are utterly reprehensible.

The emphasis on individualisation and equating it with individualism is fallacious. Individualisation is a term in embryology that describes the processes whereby definite organs take shape within the embryo in the course of development. It has more to do with differentiation of the whole than with individualism. The natural world is highly differentiated and organised. It is a vast co-operative enterprise, capable of maintaining its homeostasis under wide ranges of variation in its environment, as Jim Lovelock has shown. An atomised, individualistic biophere is a sick biosphere, one that has disintegrated, as ours is, under the impact of economic development defined as 'progress'. The same is true of an atomised or individualistic society. The alienated members of such a society have lost the power to govern themselves and must be run by a government with a vast bureaucracy. The ethic of individualism is the ethic of ecological and social disintegration.

The neo-Darwinian paradigm, on which the doctrine of competition and individualism is based, has been under ever more serious attack across a wide front, and is increasingly difficult to reconcile with our knowledge of living processes within the biosphere.

Biospheric morality

A biospheric ethic, one compatible with the ecological view of the world we live in, would be very different. It would involve human beings in helping to sustain the earth's biosphere. And unethical behaviour would be that which disrupts and destroy the biosphere.

This was undoubtedly what ethical behaviour was taken to be by many so-called primitive societies of the past. The laws or customs of such societies were observed not only because they had the moral force of having been promulgated by the ancestors in the "Dawn Period", but also because the behaviour that conformed to them was seen as maintaining the cosmic order. So long as that order was maintained, human beings prospered. If it became perturbed, if, in fact, "the balance of Nature" was upset, then disaster inevitably followed.

The indigenous person's fundamental role in life was thus to maintain the cosmic order, which is done by performing the prescribed rituals, taking part in the prescribed ceremonies and in general by observing the traditional laws of the community. This law is taken to be a moral law, one that applied not only to humans and the society to which they belong, but also to nature, and indeed, to the Cosmos.

The French Catholic Priest, Father Placide Tempels, in his celebrated book on Bantu philosophy, noted, "Moral behaviour for the Bantu is behaviour that serves to maintain the order of the Cosmos and hence that maximizes human welfare. Immoral behaviour is that which reduces its order, thereby threatening human welfare."

This statement could apply to all indigenous societies in all parts of the world. In many of these societies, the pattern of behaviour that is judged to be ethical, is referred to by a word that both denotes the order of the cosmos and, at the same time, the 'path' or 'way' that must be followed in order to maintain it.

Among the ancient Greeks, the word used was 'Dike', which also meant 'righteousness' or 'justice'. The Chinese 'Tao' is a very similar concept which refers to the daily and yearly "revolution of the heavens". According to de Groot, Tao "represents all that is correct, normal or right in the universe, it does indeed never deviate from its course. It consequently includes all correct and righteous dealings of men and spirits, which alone promote universal happiness and life." All other acts, as they oppose the Tao, are "incorrect, abnormal, unnatural" and they must "bring misfortune on the bad".

The Buddhist notion of "Dharma", the Persian "Asha" and the Vedic "Rita" are very similar concepts: all refer to the Way that must be followed, to maintain the order of the Cosmos, to assure the welfare of the world of living things. To divert from it can only cause disasters like floods, droughts, epidemics and wars.

Although many indigenous peoples may not have formulated the explicit notion of the Way, their idea of morality remains the same. Moral behaviour is still that which conforms to the traditional law and which, at the same time, serves to maintain cosmic order; immoral behaviour is "taboo". "An act is taboo," the French philosopher Roger Caillois wrote, "if it disrupts the universal order which is at once that of nature and society….as a result the Earth might no longer yield a harvest, the cattle might be struck with infertility, the stars might no longer follow their appointed course, death and disease would stalk the land."


There can be no more truly immoral enterprise than that to which our modern society is so totally committed: namely, economic development or 'progress', which involves the systematic substitution of the technosphere for the biosphere. Such "progress" must inevitably lead to the destruction, indeed the annihilation, of the world of living things. Indeed, the floods, droughts, epidemics and other massive discontinuities, whose seriousness is increasingly every year, are but the symptoms of this destruction: they are the price to be paid for the immorality of the economic policies to which we are committed by institutions like the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

We must abandon these policies and seek to reconstitute, to the extent that this is still possible, the natural world that we have so irresponsibly destroyed. Indeed, if we want to survive on this planet for more than a few decades, we have no alternative but to return to the Way - and hence adopt once more the biospheric ethic that it so faithfully reflects.

Article first published 27/01/03

Sources and references

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  2. Waddington CH. The Ethical Animal, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1960.
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  11. Kropotkin P. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Extending Horizon, Boston, 1914.
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  14. Radcliff Brown AR. Structure and Function in Primitive Societies, Cohen and West, London, 1965.
  15. Father Placide Tempels, La Philosophie Bantoue, Presence Africaine, Paris, 1948.
  16. de Groot H. The Religion of the Chinese, London, 1910.
  17. Caillois R. L'Homme et le Sacre, Gallimard, Paris, 1952.

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