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"Good and evil" - from a Darwinic point of view?

"Good and evil" - from a Darwinic1 point of view?

Ulrich Leinhos-Heinke

 

Summary

One possible cause of psychosomatic complaints are conflicts between moral norms and their individual realization or feasibility. "Good and evil" are such basic ethical categories, which primarily refer to human behavior and originate from human culture. In recent years, however, under the heading of "biology of prosocial behavior," among other things, there has been discussion about the extent to which biological findings from the animal kingdom can contribute to the clarification and delimitation of such ethical categories and their genesis.

In this article, the expressions "good" and "evil" are first related to behavioral terms such as agonism, aggression, and violence on the one hand, and cooperation and altruism on the other, on the basis of current findings in behavioral biology and evolutionary genetics. The concept of behavior as such is critically examined and the difficulty of definitional determinations for the transfer to human scientific questions is pointed out. The problems of expressions such as "selfish gene" (Richard Dawkins) or "cooperative gene" (Joachim Bauer) are discussed. It is made clear what risks arise from the uncritical metaphorical use of anthropomorphic terms and concepts and to what extent this promotes hidden teleological views that feed the illusion of common terms and concepts between human sciences on the one hand and biology on the other and contradict scientific thinking. 

In summary, the article concludes that there are no convincing arguments derived from biology that could help clarify ethical categories such as "good" and "evil."

 

Keywords:

Aggression, agonism, altruism, genetic fitness, prosocial behavior, behavioral biology.

 

1) "Darwinic", German “darwinisch”, is a formulation based on the title of Volker Sommer (2008) "Darwinisch denken. Horizons in Evolutionary Biology." The term "Darwinic / darwinisch" deliberately sets itself apart from the term "Darwinian" (German: darwinistisch) which has a far-reaching ideological overlay.

 

In this article at first the expressions "good" and "bad" are referred to terms of behavior biology like agonism, aggression and violence on the one hand and cooperation and altruism on the other hand obtained on the basis of current biology of behavior and the synthesis of genetics and evolution theory. The "behavior" concept as such is examined and the difficulty of specification and definition for a transfer to the human sciences is clarified. The difficulties of terms like "Selfish Gene" (Richard Dawkins) or "Cooperative Gene" (Joachim Bauer) are gone into. 

It is shown which risks result from the uncritical metaphorical use of anthropomorphisms for terms and concepts and how far hidden teleological positions are promoted by this way, which support the illusion of common ideas and concepts of human sciences on the one hand and biology on the other hand and conflict with natural scientific intellect. 

The article arrives summarizing at the conclusion that there are no convincing arguments derived from biology which contribute to the clarification of ethical categories as "good" and "bad".

 

1 Introduction: Are there scientific explanations for the ethical categories "good and evil"?

One possible cause for psychosomatic complaints are conflicts between moral norms and their individual realization or practicability. "Good and evil" are such basic ethical categories that relate primarily to human behavior and stem from human culture. In recent years, however, under the keyword "biology of prosocial behavior", there has been discussion about the extent to which biological findings from the animal kingdom can contribute to the clarification and delimitation of such ethical categories and their possible evolutionary-biological genesis.

Xxx Recently, the daily newspaper "Frankfurter Rundschau" published the results of a small social science study on the "susceptibility to fascism" of its readers (Widmann 2009).  Under the ironizing title "Lauter gute Menschen," the author notes with relief that the statistically average reader is "non-authoritarian submissive, non-authoritarian aggressive" and "non-destructive," among some other recorded characteristics, and then asks rhetorically "A good person? [...] Not a single truly authoritarian character, not a single overtly evil person."

The pair of terms "good and evil" is used here with a serious background, despite the ironic connotation of the quotation. Are the attributes "submissive," "aggressive," "destructive," "authoritarian" cited by the author, then, adequate descriptions of what can or should be called evil or, in its negation, good in a modern sociologically and psychologically enlightened society? Can biology, by examining these attributes behaviorally, contribute scientific arguments for the clarification and delineation of such ethical categories and thus provide assistance to clinical psychology and psychosomatics?  

2 Lorenz' xxx so-called evil

"Good and evil" seen from a natural scientific, especially biological point of view, immediately provokes the question whether these are categories that can be grasped by natural science at all. In any case, it seems necessary in a first step to arrive at a clarification of terms that satisfies the terminological demands of the natural sciences. 

At first it seems easier to approach "evil", because at least since Konrad Lorenz' "Das sogenannte Böse" (1974) the attempt to grasp "evil" in terms of behavioral and evolutionary biology is familiar. Thus, if one looks for a terminological sharpening here, one quickly arrives at an equation of "evil" and "aggressive" already in Lorenz's preface, and even more precisely: "The book is about aggression, that is, about the fighting instinct of animals and humans directed at conspecifics." (Lorenz 1974: 7). If one leaves Lorenz's actual argumentative goal, namely the proof of an "aggression drive," out of consideration here, the terminological clarification results, according to Lorenz, that "evil" is, biologically speaking, intraspecific aggression.

3 Evil as Intraspecific Aggression?

The remark is permitted: While for the human scientist aggression per se presents itself as intraspecific, for the biologist it is a quite decisive difference whether it is intra- or interspecific aggression. The predator (in ecological terminology: the "2nd order consumer", i.e. the animal that eats animals of other species) is, after all, aggressive towards its animal food, as far as living animals are concerned, i.e., according to the Latin word origin, "attacking". Surprisingly, however, the killing of animals by humans for the purpose of acquiring food, quite contrary to the terminology of behavioral biology, is not usually referred to as "aggressive" in the local culture, probably not even associated with the term in most cases.

This could be a first indication that "evil", now more precisely, "aggression", in the human scientific sense, in sociology, psychology and human medicine, under the same designation, is a somewhat different term than the one commonly used in biology. This would mean that animal "aggressive behavior" and human "aggressive behavior" are not only evidently different, but actually also analytically different.

In further consideration, "evil" is to be understood explicitly as "aggressive behavior" in the terminology of behavioral biology. Accordingly, it is a behavior of an individual with the observable behavioral goal of killing or injuring or threatening (e.g., hissing, baring teeth) or locomotor displacement (moving out of the way, pushing away) of another animal individual of its own species (intraspecific) or of another species (interspecific aggression) as well as various ritualized and intermediate forms.

It may become clear: As intuitively understandable as the presence of "aggressive behavior" seems to us, even in animals, it is difficult to describe it exactly and to distinguish it from other behaviors in a definitional way. When wasps use their sting, this intuitively appears to us as aggressive behavior, but it is more difficult for our intuition to describe the nettling of corals in this way. But even if the consideration is narrowed down to the seemingly easier variant of intraspecific behavior, definitional questions arise: Can the marking of a territory, which is after all very common in the animal kingdom and yet serves the "rejecting influence" of other individuals of one's own species, already be called aggressive behavior? The concept of aggression, which was hoped to be able to specify the very "humanoid" concept of "evil", is obviously also problematic from a biological point of view. 

4 Evil as agonistic behavior?

It has to be examined whether the same applies to the term agonistic behavior used in behavioral biology.

behavior. Agonism refers to the totality of all intraspecific "combative" behaviors.

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tions that are in contrast to "cooperative" behavior. Apart from the obvious aggression in the anthropological sense of offensive threat and attack and active physical defense (whereby the latter as "defensive behavior" in the human-ethical understanding is generally already again delimited against offensively aggressive human behavior, which again questions the transferability of the terms), defensive behaviors such as social avoidance (evasion), appeasement and submission, but also flight belong to it. But also pure "imposing behavior" is usually already counted among the agonistic behaviors, which does not facilitate the sharpening of the term, since the demarcation from other behaviors is not always clear, if the exact function of this behavior is not asked for under evolutionary-biological aspects. The fact that also the so-called jumping actions can be counted to the agonistic behaviors complicates the delimitation as well as the fact that agonistic behavior in animals is often strongly ritualized with the effect of avoiding injury or killing of conspecifics.  

5 The ambiguity of the concept of behavior

Even the concept of behavior itself is comparatively fuzzy. If we disregard for a moment the metaphorical but quite common use of the term in the natural sciences in the sense of "a river, a chemical substance, a virus, an enzyme, a gene 'behave'"; "the 'behavior' of DNA under enzyme influence is described" etc. (but like all metaphorical representations of scientific facts, especially in interdisciplinary discourse, is quite capable of leading to misunderstandings, as will be shown later), we can still identify two fields of meaning of "behavior", which tend to be different. In a more general biological and physiopsychological meaning, behavior is first of all the totality of all observable, detectable or measurable activities of an organism as reactions to certain stimuli or stimulus constellations, i.e. (motor) movements, actions (movement sequences), physiological changes and secretions, but often all (also hidden) physiological reactive processes are also included. It quickly becomes clear: In this latter sense, "behavior" also applies to plants and is simply equivalent to "physiological" and thus does not provide any discrimination of meaning for our question. In a more restricted sense under primarily behavioral and human psychological (then also sociobiological to sociological) aspects, behavior can be understood as any behavior of a human or an animal that aims at reactions and/or actions of other group members. Between these two poles of meaning, the concept of behavior can be defined in a relatively wide variety of ways. 

According to an operationalization more midway between these two poles, "animal behavior [...] refers to the control and exercise of movements or signals by which an organism interacts with conspecifics or other components of its animate and inanimate environment [,] as well as [to] activities that serve the homeostasis of an individual. [...] Behavior is thus a central mechanism for the adaptation of an organism to its habitat." (Kappeler 2009: 4f) According to this definition, however, plants would not be excluded from the concept of behavior, although Kappeler says so (Kappeler 2009: V). And phenomena such as mimicry, in which harmless and edible species passively "imitate" conspicuous warning colorations of other species that have evolved these warning colorations in parallel with genuine passive (e.g., inedibility) or active defense mechanisms (e.g., defensibility by venomous spines) (aposematism), would also fall under the behavioral concept; although Kappeler is not entirely consistent in this.  However, if from a human point of view the stinging attack of a wasp is intuitively called "aggressive", the question arises whether (a) the aposematism of this wasp as a whole can be called "aggressive" behavior, and if so, then not also (b) the mimicry of a fly "imitating" a wasp can also be called "aggressive". The example is meant to illustrate that the fuzziness of the concept of behavior compounds the problem of the fuzziness of the concept of aggression.

6 The Darwinian view on aggression and agonism

Interspecific aggression between animals (following behavioral traditions, we will not speak of plants here) is essentially a concomitant of predation, i.e., of "eating and being eaten." It is trivial that predators, if they are living prey, have a massive effect on their "freedom of will". It is difficult for the enlightened scientifically educated person to see an "act of evil" in this, as was the case in earlier cultural epochs with their idealizing depictions of paradise, in which lions and lambs live peacefully and "well" side by side.  A parallelization of the cultural concept of "evil" and the biological concept of aggression must therefore be limited to the intraspecific dimension (and because, as already mentioned above, human aggressive behavior is mostly expressed as intraspecific aggression).

To further examine to what extent the biological category of intraspecific aggression or agonism can contribute to the understanding or at least to the definition of "evil," it is worthwhile to take a closer look at what forms and what extent agonism and aggression take in animal populations. Thereby, it quickly turns out that Konrad Lorenz, after all, only opened a first, quite concise insight into "aggressiveness" in animal populations. In his eyes aggression had quite essentially a function for the organization and demarcation of territories: "The danger that in one part of the available biotope an all too dense population of an animal species exhausts all food sources and suffers hunger, while another part remains unused, is most simply averted by the animals of one species repelling each other. This is, in arid words, the most important species-preserving achievement of intraspecific aggression." (Lorenz 1974: 37) Modern behavioral biology, however, now knows a variety of different intraspecific aggressive and agonistic behaviors and, on the whole, successfully interprets them against the background of evolutionary biological findings and theories. 

These include behaviors such as infanticide, i.e., the killing of young by males of the same species; sexual coercion, in which females are induced by males to behave adversely to them in terms of their own genetic fitness, but this benefits the fitness of the acting males; siblicide, in which siblings optionally or even obligatorily kill each other according to certain rules. But also less obviously aggressive behaviors are agonistic such as intraspecific brood parasitism, where parents have their young raised by other parents of the same species, but this reduces their genetic fitness due to the resources required, the Bruce effect, where an alien male induces embryo resorption or abortion after the disappearance of the previous reproductive partner, or reproductive suppression of physiological fertility of subordinate males by dominant males. (Kappeler 2009: 279 f, 292 ff, 386 ff, 437 f, 441 f)

Although many of these behaviors are highly destructive to other individuals of the same species, all of these phenomena are not pathological, i.e., a consequence of unnatural laboratory conditions or certain natural stress situations such as overpopulation, but are part of the regular behavioral repertoire of the species concerned. They are to be explained consistently and without contradiction evolution-genetically "Darwinian", in that they contribute to the total fitness (inclusive fitness) of the acting individuals, whereby these conflict as a rule evenly among themselves. Only in the case of monogamous reproductive pairs are there coinciding reproductive interests in the evolutionary genetic sense, and only here (i.e., in a very small number of species) is "prosocial" reproductive behavior (in an anthropomorphic sense) evolutionarily "meaningful" at all (Kappeler 2009:389).

7 The good as cooperation?

In the intraspecific (i.e., "social") behavior of animals, just as this is true for the agonistic and aggressive behaviors, there exists an enormous variety of behaviors that can be called "cooperative" and thus perhaps "prosocial." Cooperation is defined in behavioral biology as a behavior that provides an advantage to another individual of the same species (and in this way contributes to its overall fitness). Especially in recent years, there have been important findings demonstrating the tremendous achievements in cooperative behavior for different groups of animals. Some examples may be cited:

Chimpanzees and bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) have been shown to be able to communicate flexibly and purposefully by gesture, with the meaning of gestures differing both in different situations and between different groups, i.e., not being genetically determined (Pollick, de Waal 2007). Orangutans can also communicate flexibly and abstractly semantically gesturally (Cartmill, Byrne 2007) and it is assumed that the animals, at least to some extent, make the selection of their communication signs dependent on their own interpretation of the "knowledge" of their social counterpart, i.e. they must have an idea of this, which speaks for a high development of cooperative behavior.

Another important aspect for the study of cooperative behavior is the combination of tool use and communication. Dolphins and orcas (killer whales) can show social and cultural learning in tool use: Dolphins can learn from each other to protect their noses with sponges while foraging on the seafloor, which is not part of their innate behavioral repertoire (Kr√ľtzen et al. 2005). Orcas are able to imitate new hunting techniques while preying on gulls within a few months among conspecifics in the social group, indicating the link between hunting technique and sociality as a form of cultural learning (Mason 2005). Dogs can exhibit selective social imitation in tool use, as they are able to decide whether a behavior observed in other individuals in the group is useful to imitate (selective imitation) during their social learning (Range, Viranyi, Huber 2007). Chimpanzees can solve problems in a socially cooperative manner (Melis, Hare, Tomasello 2006). In a somewhat limited way, social cooperation in problem solving has also been shown for crows using an analogous experimental design (Seed, Clayton, Emery 2008). That living in groups presumably favors problem solving has recently been shown for house sparrows (Liker, B√≥kony 2009).

As impressive as these examples are, however, the highly developed communication and cooperation between animals should not obscure the fact that these are not teleological principles and ends in themselves, but that they too have evolved in the course of optimizing the genetic fitness of the individual, otherwise the corresponding cooperative behaviors would not have prevailed over solitary life forms in evolutionary biology. 

8 Altruism in animals?

In 2007, observations on chimpanzees were reported, which can be interpreted as a kind of altruism (Warneken et al. 2007). The willingness of chimpanzees to pick up an object and pass it on to an unfamiliar person was investigated. Conditions were varied by the person unsuccessfully trying or not trying to reach the object, and by rewarding or not rewarding the help. It was found that the chimpanzees helped the person when the person unsuccessfully tried to reach the object, regardless of whether a reward was expected. This did not change even when the object could only be reached by the animals themselves with greater effort. Since this behavior occurred without direct benefit to themselves, it can be described as "altruistic," whereas previously it had been assumed that the familiar social behavior in higher primates (sharing food, giving comfort, reciprocal grooming) involved direct or indirect benefit to themselves. 

On the other hand, an important difference between chimpanzees and humans regarding social cooperation was also reported in 2007 (Jensen, Call, Tomasello 2007). In the experimental arrangement with two partners known as the "ultimatum game", in humans the second partner usually accepts an offer from the first partner only (evaluates the offer as "fair") if he is offered 4050%, a chimpanzee accepted the offer in any case; only in the case of an empty offer he reacted with rejection. Thus, there was no inducement for the first animal to make a "fair" offer. This was interpreted in the sense that it is neither part of the social competence of chimpanzees to make "fair" offers in their own interest, nor to reject "unfair" ones, i.e. to include the benefit for another animal in their own behavioral planning.

9 Goodness as altruism?

It might be a temptation, against the background of such observations, to use "altruistic" as a category to distinguish it from agonistic behavior, since "altruism" in human cultural understanding is virtually an expression of "good" behavior. So could a real parallel between animal and human behavioral categories be found here? Unfortunately, this is not the case. In contrast to the (human) sociological and psychological category "altruism" (and likewise in comparison to the broader expression "prosocial," see below), "altruism" is in fact relatively sharply defined in behavioral biology terminology: Altruism, in the sense of "biological altruism," refers to animal behavior in which an individual behaves in a way that puts itself at an individual survival disadvantage or risk while conceding survival advantages to another (conspecific) individual (thereby increasing its genetic fitness). A classic example is the alert dwarf mongoose, which warns its conspecifics and thus individually puts itself in danger, thus potentially reducing its own genetic fitness (Storch, Welsch, Wink 2007: 503). Reproductive altruism is also widespread, in which individuals temporarily or permanently forgo their own reproduction and help other individuals raise their young.

It should be noted, however, that "enter", "concede", "renounce", "help" themselves are again to be understood only as anthropomorphic metaphors of a teleonomic description (see below); strictly speaking, only a coincidence of certain behaviors of different individuals can be described, of which a systematic evolutionary-genetic connection is assumed. 

This teleonomic level of description, typical for biology, must not be confused with a teleological claim to explanation; it follows a strictly physicalist-reductive approach, according to which all phenomena of "animate nature", i.e. also "goal-directed behavior" of animal individuals as well as "purposeful properties" of living systems in general, can be explained exclusively causally, if the phylogenetic system level is included (Ros 1982, Vollmer 2002, also Lorenz 1974: 21). "Goal-directedness" is only a metaphorical explanation.

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cation is [...] initially not about information, but about manipulation - cooperation arises secondarily, if individualism offers fewer bottom-line benefits." (Sommer 2009: 28) foreshortening that, for reasons of economy of thought and language, places the starting point and the end point of a causal chain in immediate connection without explicitly naming all causal intermediate steps - which does not mean that these intermediate steps are not known or at least can be investigated. "Goal" in the biological teleonomic sense is thus never the psychological representation of an expectation of action in the human psychological sense (and certainly not in the sense of a "Creator" or Intelligent Designer) - a problematic of biological scientific language that is the source of much interdisciplinary misunderstanding.

This again makes a difference to the human cultural term "altruism", which has a conscious and actually purposeful, i.e. cognitive component: In everyday language, one is not inclined to describe an "unconscious" or even "accidental" human behavior as "altruistic" and morally "good." 

Thus, the "altruism" concept also falls out in order to give a biological foundation to "good vs. evil." However, it becomes clear here again how much technical terms used in biology and borrowed from the human sciences can lead to illusions about real terminological intersections. That this is especially true for metaphorical uses of words has already been mentioned above. 

10 The good as "prosocial behavior"?

Nevertheless, one is naturally inclined to call the high developmental levels of cooperative behavior referred to above from animal experiments and observations at least "prosocial" after all, because if one maps them onto human behavior and human norms, they do indeed intuitively fall more under "social" and thus "good" than under "antisocial" or agonistic and "evil." As unproblematic as this parallelization of highly developed cooperative behaviors of animals with the corresponding categories of human behavior may be, unfortunately, this again appears problematic at second glance, namely when an attempt is made to delimit the term "prosocial" definitionally. 

This problem refers on the one hand to the delimitation of "prosocial" behavior within a species or in relation to single individuals. "Prosocial," after all, always presupposes reference to a particular norm established as "social." "Prosocial" behavior of a nursing female towards her young can be (and often is) at the same time agonistic, often even aggressive behavior towards other males, for example. Thus, the question arises, which social norm the assessment "prosocial" is based on in each case and whether here exactly those anthropomorphic categories are not implicitly used, which actually should be scientifically supported only from the inclusion of behavioral-biological findings. Moreover, "prosocial" always presupposes the reference to a certain group or population. Cross-group agonistic behavior is often intra-group prosocial behavior. And finally, it becomes difficult to grasp the very different forms of sexual behavior with this category: Without a more precise definition, e.g., every animal reproducing after deliberate mate choice is prosocial per se in the broadest sense, namely at least during mating, but it is difficult from an anthropocentric point of view to call "coercion" and "rape" (see above), which in many animals are part of "normal" behavior, i.e., evolved in the species, "prosocial." This also shows the problematic nature of the term, which could only be avoided by calling animal behavior "prosocial" or "antisocial" on the micro level (i.e. in very small units of time) - which would then again bring no gain in knowledge for the parallelization with categories of human behavior.

Second, there is the problem of terminological delimitation in the phylogenetic dimension. "Sociality" is widespread in the animal kingdom, even far back in phylogenesis. Species living in conglobations, i.e., passively formed advantage-free assemblages, relatively primitive animals such as corals, or in aggregations, i.e., anonymous and temporary communities of purpose, live socially in the broadest sense, with numerous transitional forms to groups with reciprocal communication between individuals knowing each other and various levels of division of labor, which we most readily call "social" from a human perspective. Already bacteria and unicellular organisms establish contact with each other in pairs via plasma bridges and exchange genetic information for recombination of their genetic properties (conjugation), which presupposes a physiological minimum level of "communication" and "cooperation". It is difficult to call this already social behavior, but by what criterion should "prosociality" be defined and delimited at the bottom of the evolutionary family tree? The term "prosocial behavior", if it is to be used in an overarching way for both the human and the non-human spheres, obviously requires a very precise terminological specification, which cannot be provided by the top-down orientation to categories of human behavior, even human ethical categories.

11 Good and evil genes?

In recent years, the inclusion of aspects of evolutionary genetics in the popular scientific discussion has opened up yet another level of consideration closely associated with "good and evil." Since Richard Dawkin's standard scientific work on modern evolutionary biology (whose in its basic features Darwinian character has not been seriously questioned in professional science in recent decades), which first appeared in 1976 under the title "The Selfish Gene" (also in the German translation as "Das egoistische Gen") (Dawkins 1976), the expression "selfish gene" has become established in both scientific and popular discussion, whereby one may assume in the former as well as in the author himself that they are aware of the metaphorical character of the expression, whereas this does not always seem to be clear in the popular scientific reception.

In the environment of publications such as Joachim Bauer's "Das kooperative Gen. Abschied vom Darwinismus" (Bauer 2008a), the title of which, after all, expresses a deliberate antithesis to Dawkins (although it can be assumed that the lurid title is not so much the product of a largely soberly scientific author like Bauer as of a publisher's marketing department), there is discussion about a possible paradigm shift in evolutionary biology and theory.

"Selfish gene" versus "cooperative gene." Again, here is a pair of terms closely associated with "good and evil" in the description and evaluation of human behavior. In fact, the "cooperative gene" is also cited as an element of a paradigm that appears as a concept of a "biology of prosocial behavior." Can biological aspects for an approximation and sharpening of "good and evil" really be gained from this? 

That the concept of behavior itself is already fuzzy and therefore should either not be used in interdisciplinary discourse or should only be used in a precisely defined way has already been explained above. But what exactly is to be understood by "prosocial" and to what extent can this category be reduced to biological levels of structure and function such as the "gene"?

It seems problematic when authors attempt to use the term "prosocial" across system levels to demonstrate that "prosociality" is a pervasive property of biological systems and subsystems, including genes, as comes through in Joachim Bauer, for whom, in contrast to Dawkin's "selfish gene," "genes are not 'selfish' but communicators and cooperators." (Bauer 2008b: 24 f). 

Here, from a scientific point of view, a clear objection must be raised against the choice of words: Communication and cooperation are terms that either trivialize physiological facts, like the "behavior of molecules" already mentioned above, or they are terminologically reserved for the behavioral-biological (and, of course, sociological-psychological) level. That Bauer is also concerned with building a bridge to the second system level is implicitly clear from his descriptions again and again; it is not for nothing that he boldly contrasts these terms with Dawkin's attribute "egoistic".  In this somewhat puffery-like battle of attributes and associations, great skepticism in terms of scientific theory is in order.

For it seems evident that in abiotic systems one can neither speak of "egoistic" nor of "cooperative" or "pro-" or "anti-" or even "social": The "sociality hormone" oxytocin, for example, as a biochemical macromolecule is neither pro- nor anti-social. But physiological reactions of the organism are also neither pro- nor antisocial as such. Oxytocin release is a physiological process that influences behavior (in the meaning defined above). Whether this influence on the system level of the whole organism in a group is called "prosocial" or "antisocial" depends, as already explained, among other things on the perspective in the social frame of reference (mother-child vs. mother-father vs. mother-group).

Biological altruism as the core of prosocial behavior in animals can be traced back so far without exception to known evolutionary-biological principles according to which phylogenetic selection finds its starting point not in the individual but in alleles, namely either to the "conceding" of a superior advantage in genetic fitness to other individuals with their own alleles (as far as the survival of biologically related individuals is concerned; kin selection), or to increase one's own genetic fitness by increasing one's own survival advantage as a consequence of increasing another's survival advantage (reciprocal altruism). Biological altruism thus aims at the transmission of alleles, thus contributes together with direct and indirect fitness to the individual overall genetic fitness of an individual and is in this respect in the Darwinian sense a thoroughly "egoistic" behavior. 

Altruistic behavior of animals is subject to the same laws as behavior of animals in general. Thus, altruistic behavior in the biological sense must always be understood as a synthesis of genetic dispositions and ecological (abiotic and biotic) factors, the latter also including social relationships in a population. Even the biological statement that a behavior is innate does not mean that particular genes could monocausally encode particular behaviors, since genes only ever encode proteins and there are a multitude of complicated physiological and ecological steps between the expression of a gene as a protein and the expression of a behavior. It should be recalled that biological research has never been able to uncover all the steps between a gene expression and the occurrence of a particular behavior (Purves at al. 2006: 1255, Kappeler 2009: 460). This, of course, also applies to biological altruistic behavior.

Already from this point of view it seems completely inadmissible to build an "explanatory bridge" between a gene described as "cooperating" on the one hand and such behaviors on the other hand, which at best can be described as "biologically altruistic" (i.e. in a restricted and precisely defined behavioral-biological meaning), at worst identified as "altruistic" in a human-ethical sense. 

The gene term itself is not used in a completely sharp way: A gene in the narrow, "classical" sense is, as a DNA segment encoding the information for the synthesis of a polypeptide or RNA, a part of a biochemical macromolecule. A gene in the broader sense, as a "unit of genetic information," is not a structural unit but a biological functional unit, a complex cascaded biochemical system that controls this synthesis. With both definitions, however, the following is true: neither a biochemical system nor a part of a macromolecule can have attributes that come from an entirely different scientific subject area and an entirely different level of complexity. 

It must be stated very clearly: Attributes such as "competitive" and "egoistic" ("selfish") or "cooperative" and "communicating" (in the sense of being a farmer with the environment, with the psyche) in the context of the gene concept are anthropomorphic metaphors. Scientific explanations are not possible with these attributes. At best, they exercise a heuristic function. For the inner-biological discussion this may be permissible - for the interdisciplinary discourse these metaphors have fatal consequences due to the erroneous associations that are aroused by them.

12 Is there in nature the spirit that always creates the good?

From a scientific point of view, sobriety remains appropriate: biological altruism and "prosocial behavior" are not the goal but the result of an evolutionary process. Of course, it is prevailing linguistic usage also in biology to speak of an animal behaving individually altruistically (here always only in the sense of biological altruism) "in order to be able to pass on its alleles". 

However, it is to be reminded again urgently that it concerns here, as so often with the description of very complex biological circumstances and as already described above, a purely teleonomic (thinking and language-economical) shortening, in order to spare the regular naming of all causal intermediate steps.

Of course, such a behavior is exclusively causally determined like any other biological fact (without wanting to go into the epistemological problems of the concept of causality at this point - scientific biological representations obey the basic assumption of unexceptional causality throughout). Thus, an individual does not behave in a certain way "because he wants to achieve something with it", but because the behavior is the result of a physiological causal chain. In the same way, a certain behavior is not genetically determined "because it is intended to promote altruistic behavior", but because causalities of the evolutionary process have led to the conservation of a correspondingly high allele frequency in the gene pool of a population or a species. 

Thus, when a blue jay helps in the brood care of young of related pairs (the classic example of observed biological altruism by kin selection), "altruism" itself must not be brought in as an explanatory principle. The behavior of single animals must also not be explained from the (assumed) goal of "passing on own alleles" (even if this is, as said, frequent teleonomically shortening biological language use). Rather, this behavior must be explained from the genetic cause by empirically investigating which molecular, macro and population genetic mechanisms have causally led to the conservation of exactly those alleles which, as a result of evolution in the Darwinian sense, cause exactly that behavioral expression via gene expression even in those individuals which themselves individually do not inherit their alleles. This can be described mathematically well, is in complete agreement with the synthetic theory of evolution and completely disenchants the illusion of an "altruistic / prosocial anti-Darwinism", of a "good spirit" of sociality pervading all levels of animate systems, i.e. "nature".

13 Summary:

There are no convincing arguments provided by biology for the distinction between "good" and evil."

Arguments with natural science justifications are tempting throughout the current bioethical debate. On the one hand, they provide non-scientists with the illusion that they can shore up their positions by referring to "clear scientific findings" and escape further discourse. On the other hand, biologists and other natural scientists derive from this the legitimation to be able to express themselves on all kinds of questions even outside their original scientific subject area. "Natural arguments", i.e. arguments derived from "nature" for non-scientific viewpoints, should, however, be consistently avoided by biologists who are grounded in scientific theory, in order to avoid category errors. In my view, this applies to all attempts to justify social, cultural and ethical norms or maxims (e.g. altruism) with references to biological-empirical findings (e.g. the "mirror neurons" that have recently been on everyone's lips). Not only the vague ethical categories "good" and "evil", but also the terms "aggression", "agonism", "cooperation" or "prosociality" seem to be interdisciplinary usable only at first sight, but on closer examination they seem to be rather technical polysemes. 

From the previous remarks it should have become clear that one cannot speak of a "biology of prosocial behavior" as a closed concept. At best, it is a heuristic approach, with which the most diverse observations and investigation goals from behavioral biology, sociobiology, evolutionary biology, genetics of behavior, and psychology can be brought together in a scientific discourse. It is to be hoped that this will lead to new empirical findings; however, there is no indication whatsoever as to why these could not then in turn be inserted into existing biological theories and concepts, especially since the "synthetic theory of evolution" is precisely not a completed theory, but rather assumes the continual expansion of the empirical basis for understanding genetics and evolution. An "anti-Darwinian paradigm shift" can certainly not be derived from this.

Conversely, however, this approach increases the risk that uncritically used anthropomorphisms will hinder scientific understanding, especially in the non-scientific and popular scientific reception, as well as complicate the interdisciplinary scientific discourse by metaphorically glossing over gaps in understanding and lead to category errors in the philosophy and epistemology accompanying the reception.

For the initial question this means that biology may only be used with extreme caution to clarify and delimit ethical categories such as "good" and "evil" and thus can only provide very limited assistance to clinical psychology and psychosomatics as well as to philosophy on this point. 

14 References

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WhatsApp Image 2018-07-13 at 13.34.20a‚óŹ  Academic education in biology, psychology, linguistics and pedagogy
‚óŹ  Dr rer nat (PhD) in biophysics /
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‚óŹ  Professional experience in biotechnology and as head of unit in a state school ministry for natural sciences
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‚óŹ  Temporarily honorary university lecturer for
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