Date Thesis Awarded


Access Type

Honors Thesis -- Open Access

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)




Paul S. Davies

Committee Members

Philip J. Swenson

Margaret Saha


Evolution by natural selection, though developed as a view to explain the diversity of life and its many adaptations, is, at a fundamental level, a process which occurs in any system with the right conditions to support it. This idea, called universal darwinism, is founded on the realization that the fundamental claims of evolutionary theory are not rooted in anything particular to biology. In particular, culture has been a focus of the universal darwinist project, with views such as memetics and more recently Cumulative Cultural Evolution arguing that in our cultures we find another darwinian realm, and that thus to understand culture we must view it through an evolutionary lens. If true though, cultural evolution has some worrying implications. Evolutionary processes are “algorithms” which are directed towards the maximization of certain specific ends. These ends are not directly aligned with those ends that humans typically value, and thus we should expect that the evolutionary processes responsible for both our biology and culture will result in systems which are ill aligned with the ends we value. In this paper, I explore the mechanisms that biologists use to explore biology which fits better with human ends than evolutionary ones, and apply these methods to culture. I will argue that the task of the ethicist ought then to be much like the task of the synthetic biologist, not to compare what happens to have occurred and been created by the evolutionary history of our culture, but rather to find unexplored possibilities in the realm of norms and culture and determine which of these are best aligned with those ends that humans value.