The moral of the story of how we came to be – 1

Tom Clark

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 28-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 17-May-2015.

From our one short lifetime, we look back and wonder “How did we get here?” This matters because we also want to know “What are we doing here?”  Our imaginations squint to make out answers.

Looking back to the way we got here, we try to imagine the magnitude of time and the qualities of changes that made up the past. Our views are limited not only by the shortness of our lifetimes, but also by the stories we tell about the view backwards through the keyhole of our lives.

We have portrayed the past in our own image, assigning nature’s varied powers to a single human-like God who put us here for a reason and authorized our dominion over life. Exaggerating how much purpose has been a part of our story, how much the past anticipated our own local purposes, these stories mislead us because they are too much about us. We are not all that.

Making sense of our lives by placing them within a scientific story of how we got here, we struggle to keep in mind that every moment of life’s deep past was intricately inhabited by lives-in-progress. It is so hard to imagine all those moments in all those lives, we settle for making them redundant, folding them into formulas of lawfulness and randomness, necessity and chance.

Nature took its course, we have imagined, indifferent to our ancestors’ purposeful efforts. Exaggerating the absence of purpose in our past, we threw out the baby of responsibility with the bathwater of a punishing God. We naturalized our dominion by different means but with similar ends. Shrinking our lives into molecular algorithms, these stories have done a different kind of disservice. We are more than this.

To get a clear view of how we got here and what we are doing here, we must hold in our mind’s eye a deep past of richly engaged lives (Shryock and Smail 2011). This is no easy matter. We will have to tolerate a lot of tickling of our imaginations.

Origin myths and human nature

When we talk about the role of our ancestors’ activities, which is to say animal behavior, in how we came to be, scientific theory becomes human nature mythology. Myth not as falsehood, but as “vital ingredient of human civilization … not an idle tale, but a hard-worked active force” (Malinowski 1948: 79).

Origin myths shape the kinds of people we become, by expressing a shared sense of who we are, in the telling of how we came to be. Telling of the past, they are aimed at the future.

By tradition the factual details of myths have been cooked up, knowingly, to get the story “right” in a moral sense. Intended to be forces of history more than sources of history, origin myths function as moral rudders, not archival records.

This is why literal readings of the Bible’s Genesis story, among believers and skeptics alike, miss the point. The story’s intent being allegorical, debating its historical accuracy does more to freeze moral rudders than to move them. We sway rudders better by contesting the messages within the allegory, for example: “… thy husband … shall rule over thee” (King James Bible).

Scientists aim to get the facts right, but can avoid neither social influences on their work nor social influences of their work. “Culture seeps into science unbidden” (de Waal 2001: 46). Intended or not, scientific origin theories also carry out cultural functions as origin myths, goading and curbing our moral imaginations.

So when Richard Leakey (2010) tells us that natural laws and chance are all we need to explain life’s evolution, this is an article of faith – more curb than goad – maintained in the secular culture within and around science, not a scientific finding of fact.

Whether allegory or science, we see ourselves in origin stories, the tellings of which are moral acts of historic significance (Bock 1994).

We tell two broad kinds of origin myths, presenting open or closed images of humanity. Open stories tell us that we are by nature free and therefore obliged to commit ourselves to courses of action for which we are responsible. According to these stories, history was made in part by the wits, determination and cooperation of our ancestors. The differences we make are partly of our own doing. It is possible to fail. We can also rise to challenges. Open stories remind us that we play a part on life’s stage.

Closed origin myths tell us we are born with good or bad moral qualities in our souls, hearts, bones, or more recently, genes. The past unfolded as a sequence of events caused by prior events or higher powers. When we make a difference, it is not our doing. Inevitability makes moral failings more likely but less painful, even less noticeable. Lulling our moral imaginations, these stories place us in balcony seats watching life play out (except those telling the story).

Evolution and ethics

Open versions of scientific origin myths are at home with Gould’s maxim “Moral inquiry is our struggle, not nature’s display” (1990: 12), or Simpson’s view that “ethics cannot be independent of evolution, but neither can it be derived from evolution” (1969: 142).

Closed versions channel Ruse’s view that belief in moral principles is “a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes” (1986: 253). By assuming that ethics can be derived from evolutionary theory, these stories degrade what they are attempting to understand.

We can expect ethics to inform our understanding of life because ethics are part of human life.

For biology to inform our ethics without degrading it, we need a view of life that is also informed by ethics. We can expect ethics to inform our understanding of life because ethics are part of human life with beginnings in mammalian life. The moral imaginations of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and their contemporaries were imaginary in the sense that they were of the imagination, fantastic in the sense of extraordinary goodness, and neither in the sense of being not real (Bromwich 2014).

And what does morality tell us about how we got here? Morality indicates a deeper history of its building blocks than is usually told. A short sketch of this history goes something like this (from Rosslenbroich 2014).

Life is inherently semi-autonomous

For 3.6 billion years, life has been an emergent and open process harnessing the reliabilities of physics and chemistry, in constant tension between its self-directed inside and dependence on what is outside. Living its freedom by degrees, life is semi-autonomous.

As a fundamental characteristic of life, autonomy is a mainspring of evolution, not a residue. Biology does not merely constrain autonomy. Biology – life – sustains autonomy, as it has from its beginning.

Autonomy has evolved

Capacities for self-direction and relative independence from the immediate surroundings have increased in some lines of descent. For two billion years, cells with special parts to make and store energy, keep the inside organized, and control give-and-take with the outside (eukaryotes) have been more autonomous than cells without these parts (prokaryotes).

It took eukaryotic cells a billion years to come together into multicellular organisms, each cell losing a measure of individual autonomy to gain greater overall autonomy. Exploiting the advantages of size and specialization, multicellular life (animals more so than plants) moved vital functions like breathing, digesting and eliminating waste from their surface to their inside, thus gaining further control of give-and-take with the outside.

The story of autonomy’s evolution will continue in Part 2 of this article.


Bock, K. 1994. Human Nature Mythology. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Bromwich, D. 2014. Moral Imagination. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

De Waal, F. 2001. Without walls. New Scientist 172: 46-49.

Gould, S. J. 1990. Darwin and Paley meet the invisible hand. Natural History 99 (11): 8-12.

King James Bible Online.

Leakey, R. E. 2010. Why Our Origins Matter. Origins ’10 public lecture series, Florida State University, April 1.

Malinowski, B. 1948. Magic, Science and Religion. Glencoe, Il: The Free Press.

Rosslenbroich, B. 2014. On the Origin of Autonomy. Cham: Springer.

Ruse, M. 1986. Taking Darwin Seriously. Oxford: Blackwell.

Shryock, A. and D. L. Smail. 2011. Deep History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Simpson, G. G. 1969. Biology and Man. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Tom Clark is a psychologist who has been interested in the role of behavior in evolution since his graduate training at the University of South Florida.

© 2015, Thomas L. Clark. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

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