10.13 Understanding the naturalistic fallacy

Many things in our world are natural, but are not necessarily good. For example, arsenic is naturally occurring, but if you ingest this substance you will gravely suffer and you might die. In the same vein, many animals pose a threat to human survival and should not be approached. Assuming that something that is natural is “right” or “good” is referred to as “the naturalistic fallacy”.

We discuss the naturalistic fallacy here because it is important in our discussion of human evolution, specifically when we discuss sexual coercion in humans. The biggest problems with discussing human evolution arises when we begin to think that explaining why a particularly behavior evolved amounts to justifying that behavior. For example, a person researching cancer wants to gain a greater understanding of the illness, in an effort to stop the disease progression, and ultimately prevent the disease altogether. No person researching cancer is thereby justifying or promoting cancer.

It is important however, that we as evolutionary biologists, take special care of topics related to human behavior. It is critical that we do not use our science to confirm our pre-existing biases, as we have seen this play out many times in history, in which ideas about evolution have been co-opted to justify inhumane practices like eugenics, racism, sexism, and xenophobia.

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The Evolution and Biology of Sex by Sehoya Cotner and Deena Wassenberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.