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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 326-330 ( 20 August )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/levy.html

Book Review

Evolutionary Origins of Morality
Edited by Leonard D. Katz
Imprint Academic, 2000

Reviewed by Neil Levy, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria 3010, Australia.

On the face of it, and as Darwin himself seems to have noticed, evolution appears to be incompatible with morality. Natural selection inevitably favors organisms which behave in self-serving manners, for it will be these organisms who leave the most descendants. In contrast, altruistic organisms, animals (for instance) which behave in ways which benefit others at some cost to themselves, will leave fewer offspring. Eventually, we might expect, such altruism will go extinct.

Yet the natural world is full of examples of behaviors which seem to be altruistic, in the technical sense that they lower the fitness of the organism whose behaviour it is, while raising that of other organisms. Many animals give alarm calls, for instance, and thereby risk drawing the attention of predators to them. How is this apparent altruism to be explained? How might it have evolved? This publication, a reissue in book form of a double volume of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, gathers together four different approaches to this important question.

The format is a familiar one: four ‘target articles’ by leading figures in their fields, followed by an impressive range of cross-disciplinary responses to the articles, and rounded off by the principal authors’ replies to their critics. The authors of the four principal papers come from very different fields, and have very different approaches, but are united by the firm conviction that the existence of morality is compatible with the truth of natural selection.

The first principal paper is by Jessica Flack and Frans de Waal, a psychobiologist and a primate ethologist respectively. This paper develops ideas which will be familiar to readers of de Waal’s earlier work on primate ‘politics’ and proto-morality. Flack and de Waal argue that the universality of human morality suggests that it is part of human nature. If it is innate in us, however, we ought to expect to find its ‘building blocks’ in our close relatives, especially the chimpanzees. And in fact we find that the higher primates do indeed exhibit methods of managing intragroup conflicts which parallel our own. Monkeys and apes are concerned that their groups be relatively harmonious, because such harmony is usually in each member’s interests. For this reason, they engage in activities designed to forestall and resolve conflicts. Flack and de Waal identify several mechanisms which work to this end: food sharing, reconciliation of combatants, direct intervention in conflicts, and others besides.

For this behaviour to count as moral, even proto-moral, however, it needs to have the right kind of motivation. In particular, the proximate mechanism upon which those who intervene in conflicts act must, at least sometimes, have as part of their content a concern with the well-being of the group, or of the combatants. If intervention is motivated entirely by self-interested concerns, it will not count as proto-moral, any more than does a wasp’s behavior in stinging and paralyzing a spider counts as altruistic toward the flies the spider might have gone on to kill. Flack and de Waal suggest that monkeys and apes at least sometimes act on the appropriate kinds of proximate mechanisms: their behaviour seems ‘to require or make use of traits such as the capacity for empathy, sympathy, and sometimes even community concern’ (3). Very early on in the life of a primate, they suggest, the animal acquires the capacity to care about the suffering of others. Indeed, chimpanzees may even go further, acquiring a ‘rudimentary form of justice’ (12), which leads them to intervene in conflicts disinterestedly, and to show more concern for victims of aggression than for those who initiate conflicts.

Flack and de Waal’s critics attempt to call into question the claim that the behavior described by them qualifies as moral. Some of them, for instance, object to their attribution of emotional and cognitive states to the animals they observed. These critics suggest that the kinds of apparently altruistic behaviour in question should be defined functionally, not in terms of the motivations (if any) of the animals. Flack and de Waal respond by asking why the burden of proof falls upon them to demonstrate that the higher primates share some cognitive and emotional abilities with us, rather than on upon those who deny these abilities. Isn’t it at least as parsimonious to suggest that similar actions are motivated by similar proximate mechanisms, as to give a bare behaviorist account of these actions in one species, but not another? I am inclined to suggest that the dispute is both intractable and irrelevant to the principal concern of the volume. The long history of the so-called problem of other minds in philosophy ought to remind us of the difficulty of discovering sufficient evidence to convince skeptics that other humans are conscious beings, never mind languageless animals. But that very fact ought to help convince us of the irrelevance of the question to the main game. Whatever the mechanisms which underlie primate proto-morality, they are the product of natural selection, and close enough to our own moral practices to constitute powerful evidence for continuity between the two.

The second principal paper is by an anthropologist, Christopher Boehm. Boehm is near unique among anthropologists in that, in addition to the more usual kinds of fieldwork, he has conducted sustained research on non-human primates. Accordingly, Boehm’s approach is cladistic: he assumes that those traits shared by modern hunter-gatherers (who live in conditions which are probably very much like those in which the ancestors of human beings lived), and the two species of chimpanzees must have been possessed by the common ancestor of all three groups. Cladistic analysis thus allows us to infer the characteristics of the first human beings, including the characteristics of the groups in which they lived. So doing will allow us to identify the conditions in which morality would have emerged from the proto-morality of the other primates, and to speculate as to the content of that morality.

Boehm suggests that human beings are innately a hierarchical species, in the sense that we hate to be dominated by others. For that very reason, he suggests, early human bands would have been egalitarian: every time a member of the band tried to set himself up above the others, they would have grouped together against the upstart. The control of bullying behavior, Boehm suggests, was the prime impetus to the emergence of morality. Once the mechanisms were in place for securing this end, including the emotions characteristic of a sense of fairness, the apparatus could be adapted - or perhaps exapted - to the other ends characteristic of morality.

Boehm’s speculations are fascinating, but if ever a reconstruction of evolutionary history deserved the appellation ‘just so story’, it is surely this one. Inspired guess work is required at every step: in inferring the characteristics of the common ancestor from those (allegedly) possessed by chimpanzees and ourselves today, in sketching the conditions prevailing in the environment of evolutionary adaptation, and in reconstructing the morality which might have emerged from this environment. As Boehm himself notes, chimpanzees themselves have far more potential for coalition-building than they usually exhibit; it is only in the controlled environments of zoos, in which they are released from the necessity to forage constantly, that this potential becomes actualized. It is at least possible that early humans were unable to exercise their own such capacity for similar reasons. As the ease with which such scenarios are constructed suggests, this kind of speculation is likely to remain no more than that. Since it is unverifiable, indeed unfalsifiable, we do well to place little weight upon its conclusions.

The third principal paper is a summary, by Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson, of their book, Unto Others. Sober and Wilson’s main purpose is to defend the notion that altruism could be favored by natural selection. Darwin himself had attempted to explain altruism as a product of group selection. Altruistic groups will outperform selfish ones, he argued and therefore altruism will be favored by evolution. However, as George Williams famously showed, altruistic groups are vulnerable to subversion from within, in which cheats take advantage of the cooperative tendencies of their fellows. As a result of Williams’ work, the hypothesis of group selection was largely rejected by evolutionary biologists. Instead, they looked to kin-selection and indirect reciprocity to explain apparent altruism - apparent, because the adoption of these hypotheses entailed that aid was given only insofar as it tended ultimately to rebound to the benefit of the “altruist”.

Sober and Wilson, a philosopher of biology and an evolutionary biologist respectively, aim to rehabilitate the notion of group selection against the criticisms of Williams and others. Group selection, they claim, can give rise to altruism proper: behavior that increases the fitness of recipients at the expense of the fitness of donors. The key to the evolution of altruism is correlation: if altruistic individuals prefer to interact with one another, rather than with selfish individuals, then their payoffs from each interaction will, on average, exceed those of the selfish individuals. So long as selfish individuals are forced to interact with one another, and cannot reap the rewards available from exploiting cooperators, they will be driven to extinction within the groups, at the same time as the group as a whole outperforms others who lack the virtue of altruism. From this perspective, kin selection is revealed to be an instance of group selection, rather than an alternative to it, in which kinship functions as the marker of those individuals with whom preferentially to interact.

To the effects of preferential interaction can be added those of social norms, Sober and Wilson claim. Social norms, such as those involving the punishment of cheaters, can lower the costs of altruism and raise the costs of selfishness, so that cooperation itself becomes selfish. However, this fact does not render the group selectionist hypothesis otiose, for it remains necessary to explain the evolution of the norms themselves. Enforcement of these norms imposes costs on those who carry out the punishment, and therefore is itself technically altruistic. Social norms may therefore require preferential interaction to get started. Since, however, the cost of enforcing the norms is relatively low, only a small degree of correlation might be required to get the altruistic apparatus off the ground. Norms amplify the effects of a quite low rate of correlation.

Sober and Wilson then turn from altruism in the evolutionary sense to psychological altruism. An act is psychologically altruistic if it is performed for the sake of another. Psychological altruism is theoretically possible in the absence of evolutionary altruism, and vice versa, since the motivations for an act do not necessarily coincide with the objective effects of the act in terms of fitness. However, the belief that psychological altruism is non-existent in animals, including human beings, is often given an evolutionary explanation. We are psychological egoists, the argument goes, because animals who were concerned for the good of others would soon be out-competed by more selfish conspecifics.

But this is confused, Sober and Wilson argue, the more so since psychological altruism might confer selective benefits. Parents who care for their offspring for their own sake, and not because so doing maximizes their pleasure, are likely to do a better job at nurturing their offspring. At least in this case, psychological altruism is likely to be more reliable than egoism, and could easily be carried to fixation.

Sober and Wilson’s critics grant the theoretical possibility of the evolution of altruism through the kind of mechanisms they describe, but are sceptical as to how often the conditions under which it can develop are met with. In addition, they accuse the group selectionists of overlooking the dark side of their theory: if altruism develops as a result of preferential interaction within the group, we should expect its products to exhibit strong xenophobic reactions to members of other groups.

The last principal paper, by the philosopher Brian Skyrms, continues this debate on the territory of game theory. Skyrms’s aim here is to show that the kinds of strategies which can become widespread in a population as a result of evolution come decisively apart from those which rational choice theory would predict. Even strongly dominated strategies, strategies which lead to a smaller payoff no matter what other strategy is employed by other players, can, under the right conditions, persist indefinitely. Once again, the key to such counterintuitive outcomes is correlation; cooperators preferring to play against one another then against defectors.

Skyrms’s commentators are, in general, quite supportive of his approach. Indeed, several of them amplify his remarks suggestively, exploring how evolutionary game theory might lead, for instance, to the emotions characteristic of morality. In addition, several remark on the experimental literature in psychology, which demonstrates that people have the kinds of dispositions characteristic of cooperators, rather than defectors, even when defecting is in their interests.

This is a fascinating set of essays, but it suffers from the limitations of its format. The principal papers are summaries of large and complex bodies of work, yet since they are written for a scholarly audience, the authors cannot merely provide an overview of their approach, but must present it in enough detail to avoid at least the more obvious mistakes. Certain approaches are better suited to this kind of summary than others. De Waal’s work suffers least from the summary approach, the others fare less well. In addition, the commentary format is open to abuse, with a number of critics taking the opportunity to present their own views, rather then discuss those upon which they are alleged to be commenting.

All in all, though there is a great deal to admire and learn from here, these essays do not add up to a coherent book. Certainly, this is not a book for a general reader: anyone who does not have at least some acquaintance with game theory, and the debates among evolutionists which have dominated the last thirty years, will be lost. Specialists will certainly want to read some of these essays, but few will be interested in the entire range. Admirable journal issues do not necessarily make good books. All the principal authors have presented their ideas at greater length elsewhere; all have received a great deal of critical attention in other forums. For those interested in the evolutionary origins of morality, there are far better places to start the exploration.

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© Neil Levy.


Levy, N. (2002). Review of Evolutionary Origins of Morality edited by Leonard D. Katz. Human Nature Review. 2: 326-330.

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