Moral Camouflage or Moral Monkeys?

In “The Metaphysician’s Nightmare”, Bertrand Russell described a Hell in which there is a special torment for practitioners of each branch of scholarly inquiry. In the place in Hell reserved for statisticians, for example, a pack of monkeys walk aimlessly and endlessly on typewriters, each time creating a perfect rendition of a Shakespearean sonnet. Our touching human faith in the “Law of Large Numbers” is revealed by laughing Fortune as the illusion it is—blind chance is blind chance, with no concern to balance things out in the long run.

Russell neglected to mention the place in Hell reserved for moral philosophers, where another pack of monkeys, these wearing human masks but following only their native impulses, ceaselessly enacts a perfect pantomime of the most genteel human morality. Why is this tormenting? Because a demon with appears every hundred years to say, “This isn’t just the Hell you’ve come to, it’s the hell you left behind.” If he’s right, then our touching human faith in what Immanuel Kant called with awe “the Moral Law within” is an illusion as well. Natural selection is natural selection, with no shred of interest in morality. And we humans are just the most hairless and talkative monkeys it has produced to date.

So is the demon right? Recent years have seen a tremendous increase of interest in the bearing of Darwinian thought on morality. Optimistic Darwinists seek to reconcile evolution with morality, but skeptical Darwinians agree with the demon: what moral philosophers have taken to be human morality is a civilized camouflage for an underlying psychology evolved in response to quite different forces.

This skepticism is not, however, your great-grandfather’s Social Darwinism, which saw all creatures great and small as pitted against one another in a life or death struggle to survive and reproduce—“survival of the fittest”. We now know that such a picture seriously misrepresents both Darwin and the actual process of natural selection. Individuals come and go, but genes can persist for a thousand generations or more. Individual plants and animals are the perishable vehicles that genetic material uses to make its way into the next generation (“A chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg”). From this perspective, relatives, who share genes, are to that extent not really in evolutionary competition; no matter which one survives, the shared genes triumph. Such “inclusive fitness” predicts the survival, not of selfish individuals, but of “selfish” genes, which tend in the normal range of environments to give rise to individuals whose behavior propels those genes into future.

A place is thus made within Darwinian thought for such familiar phenomena as family members sacrificing for one another—helping when there is no prospect of pay-back, or being willing to risk life and limb to protect one’s people or avenge harms done to them.

But what about unrelated individuals? “Sexual selection” occurs whenever one must attract a mate in order to reproduce. Well, what sorts of individuals are attractive partners? Henry Kissinger claimed that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, but for animals who bear a small number of young over a lifetime, each requiring a long gestation and demanding a great deal of nurturance if it is to thrive into maturity, potential mates who behave selfishly, uncaringly, and unreliably can lose their chance. And beyond mating, many social animals depend upon the cooperation of others for protection, foraging and hunting, or rearing the young. Here, too, power can attract partners, but so can a demonstrable tendency behave cooperatively and share benefits and burdens fairly, even when this involves some personal sacrifice—what is sometimes called “reciprocal altruism”. Baboons are notoriously hierarchical, but Joan Silk, a professor of anthropology at UCLA, and colleagues recently reported a long-term study of baboons, in which they found that, among females, maintaining strong, equal, enduring social bonds—even when the individuals were not related—can promote individual longevity more effectively than gaining dominance rank, and enhance the survival of progeny.

A picture thus emerges of selection for “proximal psychological mechanisms”—for example, individual dispositions like parental devotion, loyalty to family, trust and commitment among partners, generosity and gratitude among friends, courage in the face of enemies, intolerance of cheaters—that make individuals into good vehicles, from the gene’s standpoint, for promoting the “distal goal” of enhanced inclusive fitness.

Why would human evolution have selected for such messy, emotionally entangling proximal psychological mechanisms, rather than produce yet more ideally opportunistic vehicles for the transmission of genes—individuals wearing a perfect camouflage of loyalty and reciprocity, but fine-tuned underneath to turn self-sacrifice or cooperation on or off exactly as needed? Because the same evolutionary processes would also be selecting for improved capacities to detect, pre-empt and defend against such opportunistic tendencies in other individuals—just as evolution cannot produce a perfect immune system, since it is equally busily at work improving the effectiveness of viral invaders. Devotion, loyalty, honesty, empathy, gratitude, and a sense of fairness are credible signs of value as a partner or friend precisely because they are messy and emotionally entangling, and so cannot simply be turned on and off by the individual to capture each marginal advantage. And keep in mind the small scale of early human societies, and Abraham Lincoln’s point about our power to deceive.

Why, then, aren’t we better—more honest, more committed, more loyal? There will always be circumstances in which fooling some of the people some of the time is enough, for example, when society is unstable or individuals mobile. So we should expect a capacity for opportunism and betrayal to remain an important part of the mix that makes humans into monkeys worth writing novels about.

How close does all this take us to morality? Not all the way, certainly. An individual psychology primarily disposed to consider the interests of all equally, without fear or favor, even in the teeth of social ostracism, might be morally admirable, but simply wouldn’t cut it as a vehicle for reliable replication. Such pure altruism would not be favored in natural selection over an impure altruism that conferred benefits and took on burdens and risks more selectively—for “my kind” or “our kind”. This puts us well beyond pure selfishness, but only as far as an impure us-ishness. Worse, us-ish individuals can be a greater threat than purely selfish ones, since they can gang up so effectively against those outside their group. Certainly greater atrocities have been committed in the name of “us vs. them” than “me vs. the world”.

So, are the optimistic Darwinians wrong, and impartial morality beyond the reach of those monkeys we call humans? Does thoroughly logical evolutionary thinking force us to the conclusion that our love, loyalty, commitment, empathy, and concern for justice and fairness are always at bottom a mixture of selfish opportunism and us-ish clannishness? Indeed, is it only a sign of the effectiveness of the moral camouflage that we ourselves are so often taken in by it?

Speaking of what “thoroughly logical evolutionary thinking” might “force” us to conclude provides a clue to the answer. Think for a moment about science and logic themselves. Natural selection operates on a need-to-know basis. Between two individuals, one disposed to use scarce resources and finite capacities to seek out the most urgent and useful information and the other, heedless of immediate and personal concerns and disposed instead toward pure, disinterested inquiry, following logic wherever it might lead, it is clear which natural selection would tend to favor. And yet, Darwinian skeptics about morality believe, humans somehow have managed to redeploy and leverage their limited, partial, human-scale psychologies to develop shared inquiry, experimental procedures, technologies, and norms of logic and evidence that have resulted in genuine scientific knowledge and responsiveness the force of logic. This distinctively human “cultural evolution” was centuries in the making, and overcoming partiality and bias remains a constant struggle, but the point is that these possibilities were not foreclosed by the imperfections and partiality of the faculties we inherited. As Wittgenstein observed, crude tools can be used to make refined tools. Monkeys, it turns out, can come surprisingly near to objective science.

We can see a similar cultural evolution in human law and morality—a centuries-long process of overcoming arbitrary distinctions, developing wider communities, and seeking more inclusive shared standards, such as the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Humans Rights. Empathy might induce sympathy more readily when it is directed toward kith and kin, but we rely upon it to understand the thoughts and feelings of enemies and outsiders as well. And the human capacity for learning and following rules might have evolved to enable us to speak a native language or find our place in the social hierarchy, but it can be put into service understanding different languages and cultures, and developing more cosmopolitan or egalitarian norms that cut across differences. Consider the way that empathy and the pressure of consistency have led to widespread recognition that animals, our fellow monkeys included, should receive humane treatment. We still must struggle continuously to see to it that our widened empathy is not lost, our sympathies engaged, our understandings enlarged, and our moral principles followed. But the point is that we have done this with our imperfect, partial, us-ish native endowment. In our best moments, we can come surprisingly close to being moral monkeys.

13 comments to Moral Camouflage or Moral Monkeys?


    One can no more have an intelligent discussion of evolutionary theory with Peter Railton, whose field is “moral psychology,” than one could with a religious fundamentalist or politician. In each case, the existence of their respective fields would be at risk if they accepted evolutionary theory without distortion.

    In a nutshell, there is no better example of selfish behavior than in the promulgation of man-made laws. These laws are and have always been written to serve the selfish interests of those by and for whom they are made — the wealthy ruling class. (Just ask Noam Chomsky.) While laws can and do change, they do so only to better serve these private interests.

    However, in some cases, the law does this by appearing to serve public rather than private ends. But this appearance is largely false. For example, those who have the ability to recognize that Obama represents a continuation of Bush’s policies rather than a true break with the past can see this. However, most of you monkeys will be fooled by the subtleties because you prefer sweet lies (about religion, law, Obama, etc.) to the bitter truth.

    While I respect Dr. Railton’s ideas in other areas, he is simply not trained in the fields of law or evolutionary biology (as I am). As a result, he gets both of them quite wrong and should never have been asked to contribute this essay (unless, of course, fooling the monkeys was its purpose). — Jonathan Zell (real name)

  • Professor Railton echoes Darwin’s comments in The Descent of Man:

    “As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger
    communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he
    ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members
    of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point
    being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his
    sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed,
    such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance
    or habits, experience unfortunately shews us how long it is, before we
    look at them as our fellow-creatures. Sympathy beyond the confines
    of man, that is, humanity to the lower animals, seems to be one of the
    latest moral acquisitions.”

    For Darwin it is the growth of human communities and the “simplest reason” that will press us to extend our “social instincts and sympathies.” For Railton, “the human capacity for learning and following rules might have evolved to enable us to speak a native language or find our place in the social hierarchy, but it can be put into service understanding different languages and cultures, and developing more cosmopolitan or egalitarian norms that can be shared across our differences.”

    Railton is supplying (some) necessary conditions for the development of impartiality and “cosmopolitanism,” not sufficient ones. Of course I don’t expect Railton to develop an entire social philosophy in a short column for the Times. Nevertheless, the main task at hand seems to be laying down the necessary conditions for the emergence of the possibility of morality, which in many respects is the easy part. What we want to know is what are the sociological and historical conditions that have led to the development of this “deeper” moral sensibility. Otherwise we end up where Darwin left us, with the notion that the advancement of civilization will somehow take care of this for us. Railton appears to care about culture but I fear that it may be culture in the abstract.

  • Ted Strom

    It seems to me that there’s an aspect of evolutionary theory which needs more emphasis here: that which survives, survives. If it is the case that shared moral values contribute to the survival of the group that shares them, then it follows that what we call morality is just the shared values which promoted our tribe’s survival. Treating one’s captured enemies as slaves, for example, is probably quite functional in many environments, but a little less so in those in which we in the 21st century currently find ourselves. It is not just that morals CAN evolve, it is that they seem to HAVE evolved in ways we can objectively study. And yes, that suggests that no set of morals has any greater absolute validity than any other. If the samurai code were more effective at enhancing survival than the alternatives that overthrew it, we’d live under it now. I’m sorry if the theory’s implications are troubling, but it seems more important to recognize that this is not just a matter of weighing the intrinsic attractiveness of one theory against another. The notion that moral systems evolve is subject to empirical validation, evidence can be sought to support or invalidate it.
    And we may be evolving a shared set of values which gives greater standing to that type of questioning than to unquestioning adherence to other traditions. Or not.

  • A great deal depends on the metaphors and models one uses to conceptualize the relationship between our biological and our cultural heritage. For example, Peter Richerson and Joseph Carroll recently had a conversation on that issue that took place under the metaphorical aegis of E. O. Wilson’s familiar metaphor of the leash in which biology has culture on a leash. Both seemed to agree on the technical framework of gene-culture co-evolution, to whicvh Richerson has been a major contributor. While Richerson clearly wanted to give culture a measure of autonomy that Carroll wanted to deny, it seemed to me that discussion was fruitless precisely because the leash metaphor afforded no useful way of differentiating their positions.

    In commenting on this impasse at my blog, New Savanna, I suggested a different metaphor, that of a game, such as chess. In this metaphor biology provides the game board, the pieces, and the basic moves. But culture provides the tactics and strategy that govern long-term game play. This metaphor gives considerably more scope to culture while at the same time recognizing an irreducible primacy to biology: you can’t play the game without the board and the pieces. I suggest that this metaphor can accommodate a real human morality that is, nonetheless, grounded in biologically given behavioral equipment.

    The trick, of course, is to move from metaphor to model. Some years ago John Bowlby (1969) reconstructed psychoanalytic object relations theory using primate ethology and some simple systems concepts. The result was the now familiar account of infant attachment. In 1982 Peter Marris published an essay, “Attachment and Society,” in which he discussed utopian religious communities and suggested (p. 199):

    So those who try to live without exclusive ties of relationship, like the people of Oneida or the members of a monastic order, have to create a surrogate that will fulfill for them the same structural need for some ordering of priorities of concern. Characteristically, they find it in a symbolic relationship with the same emotional connotations as a personal pond; they are brides of Christ, children of a supernatural father.

    That is to say, the attachment system is being “repurposed” by having attachment focus on symbolic beings rather than real ones. Much of ritual and story-telling, I submit, seems to serve such a purpose.

    In 1973 the late David Hays, a computational linguist, proposed that abstract concepts are grounded in concrete realities through stories. He chose ‘charity’ as his prime example: ‘Charity is when someone does something nice for someone else without thought of reward.’ The definiens is a general pattern of relationships that defines charity, making charity an abstract pattern. Any particular story that has that pattern would be an instance of charity. Some years later Hays (1981) went on to ground his cognitive system in sensorimotor schemas, thus bringing it in range of neurobiological reality.

    I suggest, then, that human morality consists in abstract patterns over behavioral sequences executed by our innate biological endowment. The mechanisms of abstraction are fragile and so abstract patterns subject to degradation and collapse. They are nonetheless real, and not to be discounted. They are what allow us to, among other things, conduct such discussions, but which I mean to indicate not simply the abstruse subject matter under consideration, but the ethical behavior that sustains the intellectual community though veridical reporting of observations and results and proper citation of precedent and sources.

    Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss. Vol. 1: Attachment. New York, Basic Books.

    Hays, D. G. (1973). “The Meaning of a Term is a Function of the Theory in Which It Occurs.” SIGLASH Newsletter 6: 8-11.

    Hays, D. G. (1981). Cognitive Structures. New Haven, HRAF Press.

    Marris, P. (1982). Attachment and Society. The Place of Attachment in Human Behavior. C. M. Parkes and J. Stevenson-Hinde. New York, Basic Books: 185-201.

  • Bob Fancher

    Whatever else may be the case, we can be sure of one thing: natural selection did not select for the values of the urbane, educated twenty-first century cognoscenti. By no stretch of the imagination did any such group exist in the environment of evolutionary adativeness. We can make a tendentious argument that whatever natural selection did select for allows for something general enough to entail such values under the conditions prevailing today; but that would be an argument after the fact, and–since obviously those values are shared by only a small subset of humans–hardly persuasive even on its face.

  • Peter Railton, given the focus of your studies, it comes as no surprise that your narrative would suffer from the ubiquitous problem of psychological reduction. Although you include many of the necessary narrative ingredients for deriving a moral creature, you have threaded them together from reductionist perspective. In other words, you have much that is upside down. Rather than attempt a full critique, allow me to point out a few salient points that might steer your analysis in a somewhat different direction.

    Point: The “selfish-gene” proposition misleads. Selfishness is an property of intention but the crux of the Darwinian model is that what comes to be expressed as the physical and behavioral characteristics of an organism does so solely because it works in here and now conditions of a given time, place, and circumstance.

    Point: Genetic evolution, occurs intergenerationally, through a process of random genetic variation in which some few accidents work better in some time and place, but in any given time and place the whole creature, as a behaving entity is not determined genetically but is rather, behaviorally bounded, more or less, by its genetic characteristics. Within these bounds, behavior varies infinitely.

    Point: The evolutionary emergence of what we call human beings occurred over a period of 50,000 to 100,000 years. The principal characteristic selected for among these creatures was the capacity for predictive-collaborative action through symbolic behavior. This behavioral constellation is predicated on empathy and entails the emergence and thereafter, cultural development of theoretic intention.

    Point: Conditions favored the emergence of the empathic-predictive naked ape because the overall conditions favored a nomadic-tribal creature in which the social group operated as an altruistic whole. The nomadic condition was favored because the oppositional characteristic of symbolic behavior (we-they) had a limited carrying capacity. For this reason, the success of the human species was marked less by an increase in numbers and more by an increase in range. Once the carrying capacity of a tribal unit (we) approached the breaking point, a new tribe was spun off and moved into another range. See patterns and rapidity of pre-historic human migrations.

    Point: In relatively small nomadic tribes, theoretic intentionality was bound up in a mythic “we”. The “we” was not, on the whole, involved in mortal combat with other tribal “we’s” because others moved into new ranges. Mortal combat between one “we” and other “we’s” would have caused the human evolutionary experiment to collapse had it not been for this nomadic disposition that eschewed the permanence of property and location in favor of evermore tribal ranges.

    Point: Only 5000 years ago, give or take, the products of the theoretic-intentional mind enabled technological innovations that permitted some tribes to stop wandering through agricultural practices. This recent development was within the bounds of the human genome, but produced a behavioral-cultural shift from relations of empathic altruism to relations of property, wealth, and individual self-interest.

    Point: From a genetic standpoint, the propensity of human beings for theoretic-intentionality is very well suited to the tribal-nomadic relations that gave rise to the faculties of human consciousness. From a genetic standpoint, the relatively recent development of non-nomadic, property-centered culture has produced a new self-created situation in which the workability of the evolved genetic faculties of the theoretic-intentional creature are being tested by a new here and now post-tribal technological and economic circumstance.

    Point: Endemic and deadly intra-species conflict among members of the human species is a product, not of evolution, but of cultural changes wrought by the “successes” of human technological innovation in which the nomadic lifestyle came to be supplanted by a sedentary property-centered existence.

    What “worked” during the bulk of the period during which consciousness evolved, may not be “working” now. Ask any dinosaur. Five thousand years is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to tests of what works.

  • Frans de Waal

    The moral camouflage alluded to here is what I have described as Veneer Theory in “Primates & Philosophers,” i.e. the belief that deep down we are amoral and selfish. This position goes back to Thomas Henry Huxley, and is supported by contemporary writers such as Robert Wright and Richard Dawkins. It was emphatically *not* supported by Charles Darwin himself, hence the characterization “Darwinian skeptics” should be replaced with Huxleyan skeptics. Darwin believed in the evolution of a moral sense, wrote about sympathy among animals, and considered human morality as an outgrowth of the social instincts that we share with other animals. It was Huxley who had trouble seeing the continuities.

    Veneer Theory reflects a confusion between the process of evolution (which is harsh and merciless) and its possible outcomes, which can be quite social, even prosocial. Empathy definitely falls under its many products given that we now even have evidence for this capacity in rodents.

    This is what Ernst Mayr (1997: 250) had to say about the unfortunate Huxleyan legacy: “Huxley, who believed in final causes, rejected natural selection and did not represent genuine Darwinian thought in any way … It is unfortunate, considering how confused Huxley was, that his essay [on ethics] is often referred to even today as if it were authoritative.”

    It should be pointed out, though, that in Huxley’s time there was already fierce opposition to his ideas, some of which came from Russian biologists, such as Petr Kropotkin. Given the harsh climate of Siberia, Russian scientists traditionally were far more impressed by the battle of animals against the elements than against each other, resulting in an emphasis on cooperation and solidarity that contrasted with Huxley’s dog-eat-dog perspective. Kropotkin’s (1902) “Mutual Aid” was an elaborate attack on Huxley, but written with great deference for Darwin.

    At any rate, I just wanted to clarify that Darwinian thought is quite different from the card-board version advocated by some popularizers, and that has reached many nonbiologists as the Darwinian view. Darwin himself had no trouble placing morality in an evolutionary context. Since primate behavior contains many elements that we, humans, have built into our moral systems, it is hard to disagree with the idea of a fundamental continuity between primate sociality and human morality, even though differences remain.

    Desmond, A. 1994. Huxley: From Devil’s Disciple to Evolution’s High Priest. New York: Perseus.
    de Waal, F. B. M. 2006. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Bruce W. Morlan

    As a mathematician and an analyst I have seen the power of the genetic algorithm. I have actually coded it and applied it to problems and watched as the simulated population converged on the best solution. I have not a single doubt about its ability to solve, given time, incredibly difficult problems such as how to convert ambient solar energy into useful energy (photosynthesis), how to convert stored energy into motion (muscles), and how to best take advantage of less well-developed species to avoid having to do all the work of living (predation).

    As a mathematician I have also seen the game theory solutions of the prisoner’s dilemma and have seen the absolute dominance of the tit-for-tat, eye for an eye strategy in maximizing long run outcomes. The selfish gene presents a behind the scenes explanation for what we might otherwise have liked to have claimed as a sign of our humanity, the altruistic impulse, effectively removing the claim of altruism as a marker of our humanity.

    As a decision scientist I have learned that rationality is behavior that is consistent with our personal utility functions. While others may not share the same values as we, when we are allowed to make decisions freely, then it is tautological that we will do so in a utility maximizing manner because our actions define the utility function that we maximize.

    Finally, as an atheist, I cannot turn to a higher power to claim any sort of special place for my own species.

    In spite of all this reducto ad nihilism I still find that we may be most human when we step outside the mathematics of these forcing algorithms to do what is suboptimal as measured by those algorithms. While charity does represent one possible such behavior, it suffers from the intrusion of the economic man concept, which is that all behavior is mathematically rational under the right utility function. Charity provides a sense of self-worth that has value in a way that is distinguished from simple selfish behavior only by the measurement metric used to measure that benefit.

    So, I would suggest that art might be the uniquely moral human activity. To make this claim requires that we define true art as that activity upon which we expend energy without the expectation of gain (in the genetic, game theoretic or utility argument sense). Filtering out art done for reproductive success (say, decorating one’s home), art done for competitive advantage (social camouflage) and art done for self-gratification (economic man) could leave us with the best indicator of whether we have risen above the mathematics of our material existence. But then we have to ask why such a rising is laudable, desirable or even necessary. Acting so as to please one or more gods provides only the briefest of escapes from the bonds of rationality and it does so at the price of that very rationality. Perhaps it is such “rising above the mathematics of the algorithms that drive our existence” that is a possible indicator of our humanity.

  • On the assumption that normal blog decorum obtains (someone please correct me if I’m wrong), I’d like to make a comment to Bruce Morlan as part of his remark seems directed at my comment above.

    In talking of charity I wasn’t so much interested in charity as such, but as an illustration of a technique of abstract definition whereby new concepts can be introduced into the nervous system that are outside the repertoire of our direct biological endowment. I’ve used that technique, for example, to examine the overall semantic structure of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 and to ground the concept of lying in a pattern of sensorimotor activity.

    And it’s not clear to me what art gets you. Yes, you’ve defined it in such a way that it is outside “the mathematics of the algorithms that drive our existence.” That leaves an empirical question: does such an activity exist at all? Last year in this venue, for example, Joseph Carroll argued that art is biologically adaptive. Over the last year or two I’ve been developing a line of thought that builds on Steven Pinker’s game theoretic analysis of indirect speech in the final chapter of The Stuff of Thought (Viking 2007). My suggestion is that canonical works of art (literature, music, painting, dance, whatever) play the role of the “focal point” in population-wide coordination games about norms and values. When asked to give an interpretation of these works, people may very well disagree, but that’s not the point. The point is that they’re disagreeing about a canonical work, which implies that they’re agreeing that those are the important issues, and that that embodiment of them is a good one. Michael Chwe has taken a similar line in Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge (Princeton 2001).

    The question, it seems to me, is not whether or not we have “risen above” the algorithms, but rather whether or not we realize versions of those algorithms that are beyond our “raw” biological capacity. If so, how?

  • Sally Haslanger

    As I see it, the respondents so far don’t sufficiently appreciate the analogy with logic and math that Prof. Railton employs. We have evolved to appreciate the force of valid arguments, even though we don’t always make them. We’ve evolved to appreciate the correctness of arithmetical calculations even though we make mistakes. The fact that we appreciate the normative force of such systems allows us to use our intellect to explore their structure, to develop them in new ways, and to aspire to conform our behavior to them. If we are prepared to grant that logic and math are objective and that we have evolved not only to grasp them but to take them as constraints on our behavior, then I see Prof. Railton’s argument to be shifting the burden of proof: Why think that morality is any different? Simplistic relativism is not a sufficient answer.

  • Peter Railton

    I’d like to thank those who have participated thus far for their substantive and thought-provoking comments.

    A number of the comments stand on their own as contribution—sometimes complementary, sometimes contrastive—to the continuing debate over the bearing of evolution on morality. Several also point to what my own brief piece left out, or passed over too quickly. While I cannot respond at length, I hope that a few comments on my part might help the discussion along.

    First of all, Frans de Waal is certainly right in observing how very distant Huxley’s perspective was from Darwin’s. And we agree that the idea that morality is a mere veneer laid over a selfish core finds no real support in Darwinian theory. I thought it might nonetheless be worthwhile discussing the “Veneer Theory”—what I called “moral camouflage”—in my New York Times on-line piece because this idea continues to exercise a strange appeal for many who take themselves to be thinking in Darwinian terms. Perhaps more understandably, the Veneer Theory is also widespread among those who reject Darwinian thinking—‘understandably’ because, if this were the Darwinian view, then they would have good reason to reject it. The comments that piece generated, as well as a few suggestions found in “On the Human”, attest to the continuing vitality of this mistaken idea. A myth, it nonetheless appears to die hard.

    Like de Waal, I believe that empathy has good evolutionary credentials and that our capacity for empathy plays a central role in making morality possible. Mitchell Aboulafia notes, however, that it is a great deal easier to identify capacities that help make morality possible than it is to give a bona fide explanation of the emergence of morality among us naked apes. For that, much greater attention to cultural processes is required—not simply in the abstract, or at such a high level of generality that real history is left behind. Philosophers of biology used to contrast “how possibly” explanations with “actual process” explanations in evolutionary theory, and in truth it is very difficult in the case of cultural evolution to give the kind of process-rich genealogical reconstruction possible in physical evolution. So we should not kid ourselves about this, or think that we are being more scientific than we are. Concepts do not leave good fossils and archaeological evidence from early human evolution is scanty and highly inferential. Looking at living hunter-gatherer communities can be very instructive, as can models of cultural evolution, as Bill Benzon observes, or mathematical models, as Bruce Morlan adds. But at some point we have to recognize that the genealogical question will always rest to some degree indeterminate, and that giving it a determinate answer is not essential to answering the question, “What should we make of actual human moral practices?”

    Moreover, in answering this question, as Sally Haslanger points out, it is important to avoid a normative double standard with respect to realms of human inquiry and activity. If creatures of natural selection have found ways to think and regulate their conduct that can promote greater objectivity and rational justification in the sciences, then we should ask with equal seriousness whether we can see such processes at work in moral thought and practice. She is quite right that I had hoped shift some of the burden of proof onto the skeptics.

    She also warns that relativism is too easily invoked at this point in the discussion. (Here, too, as I suspect she’d agree, we often find a double standard: those who invoke the historical and social variation in moral codes against moral objectivity often contrast morality with “hard science”, but seldom note the equally large historical and social variation in views of the cosmos or how to gain evidence.) Ted Strom argues that, even if we think of human societies and moral practices as part of the way in which our species has solved the problem of survival, this still will result in different norms prevailing at different times and in different environments. He believes we can study this diversity objectively, but also that this diversity calls into question whether any one set of morals has “greater absolute validity”.

    This he finds a troubling implication, as would I. But I do not think the implication holds. For example, as Marc Hersch explains, different norms of mutual aid and property tend to prevail in nomadic vs. settled populations. But if we think of moral requirements as embodying a kind of generalized respect for others and concern for their well-being, then we can see both normative systems as having—in some measure—a recognizably moral character, whether this plays out through more communal or individualistic social relations. Hersch himself contrasts the “empathic altruism” of nomads with the “relations of property, wealth, and individual self-interest” of settled populations, but is also notable that settled human societies have given us ideals of impartial (rather than familial or “tribal”) justice, charity toward strangers, and human equality “before God”. Indeed, the role of religion in the cultural evolution of morality deserves, I think, much greater attention than I gave it in my original piece.

    Bob Fancher notes another problem with overly-simple evolutionary accounts. After all, “natural selection did not select for the values of the urbane, educated, twenty-first century cognoscenti”, who remain “a small subset of humans” in any event. It is obviously true, as he points out, that natural selection left humans with capacities “general enough” to make the adoption of such values possible—after all, we do find such people, and what is actual is surely possible! But this seems to make appeals to evolution rather uninformative if we want to think carefully about what to make of morality. Hersch, likewise, thinks I have things “upside-down” in terms of trying to understand the sources of morality—my speculations about (what is sometimes called) “evolutionary psychology” are too “reductionist”, as he puts it, to capture the social-historical processes that are at the heart of the explanation. And Bruce Morlan’s interesting suggestion is, if I understand him, that we should look to art as the truest form of unself-interested moral endeavor—and in such creativity, certainly, we are “rising above the mathematics of the algorithms that drive our existence”.

    My own sense is that evolution is important in trying to understand how our brain and body are built, and that humans managed to reach morality not by “rising above” our organic nature, but by realizing various potentials within it. These include our capacities for cultural innovation, normative self-governance, reciprocal altruism, and generalized empathy. The prevalence and influence of the Veneer Theory—among friends and foes of Darwinian science, and its tendency to resurface even in very erudite discussions—is enough, I think, to show that there is still a purpose to be served by asking which “proximate psychological mechanisms” might have emerged under selection pressure, and how they might give us insight into the workings of human morality.

  • FWIW, here’s a thought experiment I’ve played with over the years that’s about “realizing various potentials within” the human nervous system: Talking Chimps and UFOs.

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