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An Introduction to Evolutionary EthicsReview - An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics
by Scott M. James
Wiley-Blackwell, 2010
Review by Davide Vecchi, Ph.D.
Feb 28th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 9)

"He who understands baboon does more towards metaphysics than Locke." Darwin's famous quote is a cry for the naturalization of philosophy. Even though Darwin's position is not universally shared by philosophers, it is rather uncontroversial to believe that biology might have something to teach philosophy. E.O. Wilson argued on the same lines back in 1975 in his famous book "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis": "…time has come for ethics to be removed from the hands of philosophers and biologicized". Wilson defended a strong position, namely the eliminative reduction of ethics to biology. However, ethics and biology could be related in many other ways. This book explores in detail the nature of this relationship. As such it is largely successful. It is well-structured and complete. Furthermore, it manages to convey the complexity of the ethical and meta-ethical issues involved in the attempt to naturalized ethics via evolutionary biology. However, while the book is refined enough when it deals with the analysis of the moral issues (the second part of the book), it could be argued that its possible limitation concerns the one-dimensional conception of biology it endorses.

The first part of the book concerns the evolution of morality. It starts with the explanation of the theory of natural selection, the classic evolutionary story, then it continues with the evolution of cooperation and primitive human morality, finally touching the rich literature on game theory, primatology and developmental psychology. I found this part of the book interesting but perhaps too one-sided and uncritical. The author explains the argument from natural selection, explains that natural selection does not optimize but is a tinkerer, that adaptedness cannot be confused with adaptiveness etc. These are all necessary steps in a book of this kind that tries to review the state of the affairs concerning the status of "evolutionary" ethics. However, the author also introduces, perhaps unnecessarily, the evolutionary psychology perspective, accepts too uncritically the orthodox argument against group selection, does not fully explain the crucial relationships between biological and psychological altruism etc. In many ways I found the first part of the book too flimsy. If group selection is such a weak force, as the author accepts, then why do we see cooperative phenomena at all levels of biological organization? The argument that egoists will inevitably exploit any cooperative endeavor has possibly been overstretched. Attention to a wider variety of biological phenomena might minimize the theoretical weight of the subversion from within argument. What is a multicellular organism after all? An ecological community with a substantial degree of robust cooperation between varieties of biological entities pertaining to different species. Cell and microbiology tell a story about cooperation that is quite different from the classic story the author accepts.

A second example of unnecessary orthodoxy is the uncritical acceptance of the evolutionary argument according to which we are descended from those early humans who possessed the genetic mutation that disposed them to care for and assist relatives. Why should we believe this neo-Darwinian just-so-story? Why should we believe that it was mutation the process that led to the emergence of the caring for trait? Why should we believe that there is a modular psychological mechanism whose function is to recognize kin? All these concessions to the evolutionary psychology stance are biologically problematic and, above all, unnecessary in the context of this book.

I think the second part of the book (starting from chapter 7) is much more structured. It starts with the analysis of the so-called naturalistic fallacy, deals with the important contributions to the debate concerning the nature of ethics brought by Hume and Moore, and then moves to meta-ethical questions concerning the debate between realism and anti-realism in evolutionary ethics. One would assume that an evolutionary account of ethics should be anti-realist and relativist. Let us consider, for instance, one of the traditional arguments presented in the literature, the argument from idiosyncrasy by Wilson and Ruse. The argument states that our moral values are products of cognitive processes, where the latter in turn are the idiosyncratic product of the genetic history of our species, that is, of a contingent process of adaptation to a particular environmental context. This means that, changing the biological context, we could have had different moral values. In brief, what is natural is only idiosyncratically but not necessarily good, as it could have been otherwise. Ergo, morality is just species-relative and not objective. Biologically speaking this argument is criticizable. It assumes that we possess, as a species, a universal moral code; it assumes that genes determine our moral code; it assumes that natural selection is the process that produced our moral code; it assumes that the morally-relevant environmental factors that natural selection supposedly "tracks down" are not fixed but changeable. The author makes it clear that the above argument is also philosophically criticizable. This means, as a corollary, that a thriving and multi-faceted evolutionary realist position exists. The author himself seems to favor the moral constructivist position. I think it is an appealing position, even though it is also problematic. The position, as the author reconstructs it, can be summarized as follows: moral facts are real though mind-dependent, and they also are objective and not relative. I think the author is justified in favoring a tracking account and thinking that our minds evolved as to detect and uncover "moral facts" (whatever they are). After all, the whole book is aimed at defending this sort of argument: selection favored individuals with a disposition to care about their neighbors' responses to their actions because doing so enhanced their fitness via more cooperative exchanges with trustworthy partners. In this sense ethical realism is absolutely compatible with an orthodox evolutionary account.

However, I have reservations about the coherence of this position. Constructivism could mean many different things. It generally means that a "natural" (including social) process leads to the construction of a shared ethics, but it does not need to be based on the usual selection story: cultural selection might be a much more likely candidate to track this hypothetical moral realm. Secondly, the author flirts with seemingly incompatible views when he stresses that moral constructivism is both compatible with the mind-dependency of moral facts (p. 198) and the mind-independence of some moral truths (p. 202). At least he does not explain how these views could be consistent. Third, the author suggests that moral constructivism might be labeled transcendental relativism, whereby moral facts are objective while at the same time relative to facts about human nature. The author admits it is hard to wrap one's mind around this possibility. Indeed. The position looks suspiciously similar to the standard kind of evolutionary anti-realism and relativism Wilson and Ruse advocate. The reason being that human nature (assuming the conception has any biological meaning at all) is just an idiosyncratic construct.

In the end, I think this is a valuable book mixing an analytic philosophical approach with some interesting biology. I personally found the book faltering only because it takes, perhaps unnecessarily, a very orthodox adaptationist stance. Evolutionary ethics should take the whole of evolutionary biology seriously into account, not only a biased version of it.


© 2012 Davide Vecchi


Davide Vecchi did his Ph.D. in philosophy of science at the London School of Economics. He has been Research Fellow at the KLI for Evolution and Cognition Research. He is now lecturing at the department of philosophy of the Universidad de Santiago de Chile. His main research interests lie at the interface between biology and philosophy.


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