I’ll interpret the question “Is there a universal morality?” in both a conventional and unconventional manner.

First, briefly, a more conventional response (conventional from the perspective of behavioral biology, anyway) would be “yes and no.” Because there is an evolved human nature, the same behavioral patterns tend to crop up repeatedly across cultures (and in some cases, across species). These include behaviors we’d categorize as “moral”, such as reciprocal altruism, free-rider punishment, kin altruism, incest avoidance, and cooperative signaling. Even though these behaviors can be considered universal, however, the psychological adaptations that regulate them may be facultatively evoked and prioritized in some environments more than others. We, therefore, observe cross-cultural variation in the extent to which these behaviors are expressed. For instance, although all cultures have some restrictions on the permissibility of sex between genetic kin1, some cultures regard sex between first cousins as taboo while others encourage it. Another example is cooperative signaling2: although the signaling of moral virtue and cooperative disposition appears to be a universal behavior, there is cultural diversity in the specific signals used (e.g., whether abstinence from a particular food is regarded as virtuous or not).

Now for a more unconventional interpretation. Could morality be “universal” in the sense that there is some transcendent moral purpose to human existence itself? The conventional interpretation offered above assumes that morality emanates ultimately from human nature, which itself evolved ultimately to enable genetic survival and reproduction. But could morality have some larger purpose, that transcends and subsumes biologically-evolved human interests? 

There is one way in which transcendent naturalistic purpose could in fact exist.

This is a tricky question because natural selection is the only process known to science that can ultimately engineer “purpose” (moral or otherwise). It does so by generating “function,” which is essentially synonymous with “purpose”: the function/purpose of an eye, for example, is to see. And if selection is the only natural source of purpose, it is hard to see how morality could ultimately serve any larger kind of purpose. Conventional religions sidestep this problem, of course, by positing a supernatural purpose provider. But that’s an unsatisfactory solution if you wish to maintain a naturalistic worldview.

To most people with a naturalistic worldview, the issue ends here. There can be no transcendent purpose because no widely-understood natural process can generate such purpose. Transcendent purpose is a subject for religion, and maybe for philosophy, but not for science. That’s the standard naturalistic conclusion.

The standard naturalistic conclusion is premature, however. There is one way in which transcendent, naturalistic moral purpose could, in fact, exist.

If selection is the only natural source of purpose, then transcendent moral purpose could exist if selection were operating at some level more fundamental than the biological. Specifically, transcendent purpose would require a process of cosmological natural selection, with universes being selected from a multiverse based on their reproductive ability, and intelligence emerging (as a subroutine of cosmological evolution) as a higher-level adaptation for universe reproduction. From this perspective, intelligent life (including its moral systems) would have a transcendent purpose: to eventually develop the sociopolitical and technical expertise that would enable it to cooperatively create new universes. This creation process would enable universe reproduction, because these new universes would need to be governed by the same physical laws and parameters as the original universe, in order for intelligent life to be able to exist in them. 

Importantly, this idea of “cosmological natural selection with intelligence”3-8 does not dispute that morality is ultimately explicable in terms of biological (including biocultural) evolution alone. It suggests, rather, that biological/biocultural evolution is itself a subroutine of a larger evolutionary process.

These ideas are highly speculative and may seem strange, especially if you haven’t heard them before. But notions of cosmological natural selection, and of life as a mechanism of universe reproduction, are not so new or radical. They have been under development for decades now3-11, and are reasonably consilient with existing bodies of scientific knowledge.

At any rate, my goal here is not to argue that these ideas are likely to be true, nor that they are likely to be false. I simply want to point out that if they’re false, then it seems like it must also be false – from a naturalistic perspective, at least – that morality could have any transcendent purpose.


  1. Lieberman, D., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2007). The architecture of human kin detection. Nature445: 727-731.
  2. Bulbulia, J., & Sosis, R. (2011). Signalling theory and the evolution of religious cooperation. Religion41: 363-388.
  3. Crane, L. (1994/2010). Possible implications of the quantum theory of gravity: an introduction to the meduso-anthropic principle. arXiv:hep-th/9402104v1. Reprinted in Crane, L. (2010). Foundations of Science15: 369-373.
  4. Gardner, J. N. (2000). The selfish biocosm. Complexity5: 34-45.
  5. Smart, J. M. (2009). Evo devo universe? A framework for speculations on cosmic culture. In Cosmos and Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context, S. J. Dick and M. L. Lupisella, Eds., pp. 201–295, Government Printing Office, NASA SP-2009-4802, Washington, DC.
  6. Vidal, C. (2014). The Beginning and the End: The Meaning of Life in a Cosmological Perspective. Springer.
  7. Price, M. E. (2017). Entropy and selection: Life as an adaptation for universe replication. Complexity, vol. 2017, Article ID 4745379, 4 pages, 2017. doi:10.1155/2017/4745379
  8. Price, M.E. (Forthcoming). Cosmological natural selection and the function of life. In Evolution, Development and Complexity: Multiscale Evolutionary Models of Complex Adaptive Systems, edited by G. Georgiev, C. L. F. Martinez, M. E. Price, & J. Smart. Springer.
  9. Smolin, L. (1992). Did the universe evolve? Classical and Quantum Gravity9: 173–191.
  10. Smolin, L. (1997). The Life of the Cosmos. New York: Oxford University Press.
  11. Gardner, A. & Conlon, J. P. (2013). Cosmological natural selection and the purpose of the universe. Complexity18: 48–56.

This article is from TVOL’s project titled “This View of Morality: Can an Evolutionary Perspective Reveal a Universal Morality?” You can download a PDF of the project [here], comment on this article below, or comment on the project as a whole in the Summary and Overview.

Published On: May 17, 2018

Michael Price

Michael Price

Michael E. Price is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, and co-Director of the Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology, at Brunel University London. He has a BA from Duke University and a PhD from the UC Santa Barbara Center for Evolutionary Psychology, and he has conducted studies among both Westerners and indigenous Amazonians. His research focuses mainly on the evolutionary origins of moral beliefs, especially those related to cooperation, punishment, egalitarianism, leadership, and sexual behavior.




  • Mark Sloan says:


    The idea that “natural selection is the only process known to science that can ultimately engineer “purpose” (moral or otherwise)” is interesting from the standpoint of bringing insights for what morality’s purpose (goal?) ‘is’ as a scientific fact.

    Regarding your main argument, is the following roughly right?

    If it exists, the product of cosmological evolution is increased cosmological fitness (a universe which will produce, relative to other universes, more offspring). And because morality increases the benefits of cooperation which increases the technological capability of civilizations including their ability to create new universes, morality increases cosmological fitness. Then the naturalistic purpose of morality is to increase cosmological fitness?

    If so, it brings to mind an old similar line of thought that “the naturalistic purpose of morality is to increase reproductive fitness” which I doubt you support as socially useful. We also might consider, using the same line of thought about evolution operating on a different substrate, “the naturalistic purpose of morality is to increase cultural fitness” which might be a more socially useful concept of morality’s purpose than either reproductive fitness or cosmological fitness.

    Do you see any of these three alternatives having any innate bindingness (what all people ought to do regardless of their needs and preferences) and, if not, how might we best choose which one to emphasize?

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks for this bold commentary. Readers should consult some of your other TVOL articles for more on cosmological evolution. I am skeptical and think it is important to make a rather conventional distinction between living and non-living processes, confining evolution to living processes. However, I do think that evolution can become a conscious process and therefore acquire a purpose beyond “blind” adaptation to immediate environments. In fact, the whole concept of evolution as a blind process can be seen as an artifact of confining the study of evolution to genetic evolution and leaving out individual learning and cultural evolution, which obviously have strong directed components..As soon as we acknowledge that “purposeless” evolution can result in “purposeful” agents, then their purposes can feed back to affect the evolutionary process. Now we know that this is true not only for learning and cultural change, where it is obvious (in retrospect), but it can also be true for genetic evolution (e.g., patterns of mutation triggered by environmental change).

    I’m sufficiently intrigued by the concept of conscious evolution that I have initiated a whole set of commentaries similar to this one on morality! My own thoughts were piqued by reading Teilhard de Chardin write about consciousness as “evolution reflecting upon itself” in his book The Phenomenon of Man. That’s pretty heady stuff, even before we get to cosmological evolution.

  • MK Austin, PA, MPH says:

    Greetings from Chapel Hill, NC, Michael ~
    My comment isn’t directly connected to your current question, but came to me when viewing a skeleton at the Smithsonian NMNH/human origins exhibit. This skeleton, near the Homo floresiensis sculpture (“Meet your ancestors” section of exhibit), shows some intriguing features.
    The skull had been fractured on the left, but the person continued to live until ~age 40. However, the right side of the skeleton had “withered”, implying a contralateral disability as a result of left-sided brain trauma. It is possible that this person survived polio, but I assumed that the brain trauma and contralateral “withering” were connected.
    It seemed that this person, though very physically disabled and unable to hunt or gather effectively, was cared for by her tribe for many years.
    Which leads to the question of altruism and moral behavior …
    I was quite struck by this skeleton, and the care she may have received from her tribe/family.
    Many thanks for your work.

  • Noé SAEZ BRAVO says:

    “Is there a universal morality?”
    I am neither essayist nor philosopher but interested for a decade in the question of morality and its link to ethics.
    To put it simply, it appeared to me that the universal motive for the movement of morality is the perception of others’ pain, so empathy, then the recognition of that pain as being identical to my own.
    Morality is engendered by the question of the Common Cause of Evil (shared suffering).
    Morality is linked to cooperation because, suffering, the evil, being common, it pushes to the mutualization of the means of fight to stop this evil.
    On the other hand, if the sufferings felt by one or the other are not recognized by individuals as equivalent, or the causes of these sufferings are perceived as different or even opposed, then no universal morality exists. Instead, there are as many community morals that appear as common suffering.
    That is why I wish with all my heart that each man contemplates life and suffers to imagine to see it disappear one day, so that men come together by a universal morality of the safeguard of life against Chaos, by conquest space and the safeguarding of biodiversity and human cultures.
    (Excuse me for that bad english, vu google traduction)
    “Existe t’il une moralité universelle ?”
    Je ne suis ni essayiste ni philosophe mais intéressé depuis une décennie à la question de la morale et de son lien à l’éthique.
    Pour le dire simplement, il m’est apparue que le moteur universelle de mise en mouvement de la moralité c’est la perception de la douleur d’autrui, donc empathie, puis la reconnaissance de cette douleur comme étant identique à la mienne propre.
    La moralité est engendrée par la question de la Cause du Mal commun (de la souffrance partagée).
    La moralité est liée à la coopération car, la souffrance, le mal, étant commun, il pousse à la mutualisation des moyens de combat pour faire cesser ce mal.
    Par contre, si les souffrances ressenties par les uns et les autres ne sont pas reconnues par les individus comme equivalentes, ou encore, que les causes de ces souffrances sont perçues comme différentes, voires opposées, alors aucune moralité universelle n’existe. A la place, ce sont autant de morales communautaires qui apparaissent que de souffrances communes.
    Voilà pourquoi je souhaite de tout mon coeur que l’homme contemple la vie chaque et souffre d’imaginer la voir disparaître un jour, afin que les hommes se réunissent par une moralité universelle de la sauvegarde de la vie contre le Chaos, par la conquête spatiale et la sauvegarde de la biodiversité et des cultures humaines.

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