Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ethics, morals, religion, and swarms of breeding squid.

Ok, not much time today--tests to make, papers to grade, that sort of thing. So I am simply putting a comment from last week on Pharyngula into some context.

A recent Pew report on religion in the US was one of the lead stories on all the networks last night. On CBS, they spoke of a "secular, morally void America", implying that morals come from religion.

I would (as would many others--I am not unique in this by any stretch) argue that morals have evolved with our culture (through selection by consequences, though not through genes), and that religion springs from morality, rather than the popular reverse. The customs, habits, rituals and mores that help a culture to survive in the long run are selected for, and the ones that do not promote long-term survival, no matter how religious, are selected against. (The easy example is the Jonestown cult, which was not conducive to long term cultural survival, but the more mainstream example is the Shaker sect, whose long-term cultural survival was doomed by a very moral prohibition against sex.) The things we see as virtues are the things that worked for our ancestors. Other cultures might have had vastly different cultural selection pressures, leading to very different moral virtues, and perhaps religions with very different sets of commandments.

Of course, Ogden Nash put it much better than I ever could--and used people instead of squid as his example...

Why does the Pygmy
Indulge in polygmy?
His tribal dogma
Frowns on monogma.
Monogma's a stigma
For any Pygma.
If he sticks to monogmy
A Pygmy's a hogmy. (Ogden Nash, "The Third Jungle Book")

My own verse was a comment on the Friday Cephalopod: breeding swarm! post on Pharyngula...

For squid or starfish, perch or porgy,
There's nothing like an ocean orgy
Where, unlike silly human rules,
Of course we want more sex in schools
Monogamy's against the norms
For those who have their sex in swarms!
Indeed, were there some fishy prude--
Who found such conduct simply rude,
And lectured others on their morals,
Preached of Sodom in the corals--
This Jerry Falwell of the waves
Would be the one who misbehaves!
The squid who do their moral duty
Join the swarm and shake their booty!
It's good, and not just glamorous,
When squid are polyamorous,
For in the moral code of shellfish,
Rule number one is "Don't be selfish".


R N B said...

Genius. As always.

I don't think I've commented directly here, but I do visit, and I'm one of the many who suggested you for one of PZ Molly awards.

On the right side of the page is a request to let you know who has you on the blogroll. I do, and occasionally share your strange connections of science and poetry, but I can't see a cuttlefish contact address. Hence comment here.

Keep it up.


Cuttlefish said...


My apologies--I honestly had thought you were already up there! Fixed now, anyway, and thanks!

Metro said...

I've just found your place, and I'm blogrolling you too.

As to morality, Robert Heinlein once wrote in his fiction that moral behaviour is that which promotes the survival of the species.

Hence, the sacrifice of a mother cat for her kittens' survival is moral. Likewise a man sacrificing his life in war so that his society may get on with things.

Religiosity seems to me to just be the saccharine icing thrown on a rather bitter cake. It gussies up moral decisions that may be good for society yet unpalatable to the individual by conferring individual benefits.

Of course, this idea seems to raise the question of whether it really is better, from an evolutionary standpoint, to be a live jackal than a dead lion.