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Evolutionary Origins of MoralityReview - Evolutionary Origins of Morality
Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives
by Leonard D. Katz (Editor)
Imprint Academic, 2000
Review by Maria Trochatos
Nov 19th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 47)

Evolutionary Origins of Morality: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives (EOM), edited by Leonard Katz, contains a collection of papers originally published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (vol. 7, no. 1-2, 2000). EOM is divided into four sections, each taking a different approach to explaining the possible contribution of evolution to our understanding of human moral behaviour -- primate ethology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, and game theory (dynamic systems modelling). Each section includes a target article, a number of commentaries on the paper, and the author's reply to these commentaries.

In soliciting papers for this volume, Katz did not specify a firm definition of 'morality', and this is clear from the distinct approaches to the concept of morality adopted by each author. For example, for Brian Skyrms, it is the idea of fairness; for Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson, it is psychological altruism; for Christopher Boehm it is the social management of conflict. Perhaps Jessica Flack's and Frans de Waal's paper comes closest to our everyday understanding of moral behaviour - the basic idea of having concern for others.

This collection is a welcome addition to the literature on morality, since it offers a perspective that differs considerably from our commonsense intuitions about the nature of morality. We all (I hope) have intuitions about what is good and bad, and about the rightness or wrongness of certain acts. But we do not often consider what underlies or gives rise to these intuitions. EOM offers an evolutionary response to this question. However, many believe that Darwinian evolution, with its catch-cry of 'survival of the fittest', is a poor basis for a moral system, since it suggests that our primary concern is to advance our own interests and needs at the expense of others. In contrast, the papers in EOM demonstrate how evolution is implicated in the establishment, development and maintenance of moral systems.

Since there are too many papers to comment on individually in such a short review, I shall focus on the first two, and comment only briefly on the latter two. Jessica Flack's and Frans de Waal's target paper, 'Any Animal Whatever: Darwinian Building Blocks of Morality in Monkeys and Apes', addresses the relationships and continuities between primate and human moral behaviour. Flack and de Waal provide evidence for what they believe is proto-moral behaviour in the social interactions of both monkeys and apes, our closest evolutionary 'relatives'. These behaviours, they suggest, are 'building blocks' for the evolution of human morality. Underlying these behaviours are a number of psychological traits, sentiments and capacities that primates seem to share with humans. Flack and de Waal describe four broad categories of behaviour that are significant to primate 'moral' systems (p. 22). Firstly, there is sympathy related behaviour, such as succourance, emotional contagion, special treatment of the disabled and injured, and cognitive empathy (the ability to 'trade places' with others). Secondly, there is norm related behaviour. This includes evidence of prescriptive social rules, the internalisation of these rules and the anticipation of punishment, a sense of social regularity, and expectations about how one ought to be treated. Reciprocity is central to primate groups, involving the concepts of giving, trading and revenge, as well as moralistic aggression against violators of reciprocity rules. Lastly, primates demonstrate 'getting along' behaviours, such as peacemaking and the avoidance of conflict, community concern and maintenance of good relationships, and negotiation to accommodate conflicting interests. Notice that, in one form or another, these behaviours are also manifest in human moral and social systems (especially empathy, the internalisation of rules, a sense of justice, and community concern).

The commentaries on this paper vary in their focus. For example, Bernstein (p. 31) discusses the difficulty of identifying the motivations underlying primate behaviour. How does one provide sound evidence of the traits, sentiments and capacities that Flack and de Waal note? Call (p. 34) highlights the difference between the use and the perception of social norms. Humans use and perceive social norms, but it is not clear that primates do. Gruter and Morhenn (p. 38) claim that the social norms regulating primate behaviour parallel norms found in human legal systems (e.g. compare conflict resolution mechanisms in primates, and dispute resolution in law). Kagan (p. 46) claims that primates lack essential elements of moral competence -- the concepts of good, bad, guilt; or acting from conscious intention -- that humans possess.

For me, this is the most interesting and revealing of all the papers. The evidence provided is compelling, suggesting that the difference between human moral systems and primate 'moral' systems is not one of kind, but of degree (or complexity, reflecting the complexity of social/living arrangements, perhaps). A common intuition associated with morality is a sense of universality or objectivity - acts are either just good or bad simpliciter. But philosophers have yet to definitively identify the property (or process, quality, substance, object, deity…) that grounds such judgements. However, the evolutionary approach may actually provide a basis for this sense of universality, and how better to demonstrate it than to show that the basic elements of moral behaviour are not only found in humans, but also in our non-human relatives? Yes, humans may be highly rational animals, but this does not mean that there aren't elements of human morality that are shared with other creatures. As Flack and de Waal comment, 'while there is no denying that we are creatures of intellect, it is also clear that we are born with powerful inclinations and emotions that bias our thinking and behavior. It is in this area that many of the continuities with other animals lie' (p. 23).

Anthropologist Christopher Boehm's paper 'Conflict and the Evolution of Social Control' addresses the question 'How, When and Why Did the Unique Aspects of Human Morality Arise?' He believes that the early identification and collective suppression of within-group conflict (resulting from 'deviance' against social norms) may provide a basis for the emergence of human moral systems. Thus, his paper focuses on within-group conflict and the social control of that conflict. Moral systems are driven by considerations of power (both of deviants to hurt others, and of the social collective to eliminate deviant behaviour), as well as the 'common agreement as to which behaviours are unacceptable…it also involves a group's overall conception of a satisfactory quality of social and political life' (p. 80).

Boehm's evidence is based on data from studies of the two Pan species (chimpanzees and bonobos) and Homo (anatomically modern humans). Boehm assumes that features shared by all three species are 'likely to have been present in the ancestor shared by Homo and Pan, who lived five million years ago…' (p. 81). Common behaviours include a foraging lifestyle, territoriality, community living, proneness to status rivalry and competition, and the forming of political coalitions. These features all lead to conflict, thus all three species need to (and do) engage in deliberate conflict resolution and management of deviant behaviour. Conflict, then, becomes a stimulus for moral behaviour. Social control mechanisms, Boehm claims, are found in modern-day nomadic, foraging or hunter-gatherer groups, who are also uniform in their social, moral and political structure. They uphold values by applying sanctions to deviants, and they are uniformly egalitarian by suppressing undue competition and pre-empting domination or controlling behaviour by individuals.

In effect, Boehm is providing a hypothesis about how social contracts emerge. His approach is reminiscent of Thomas Hobbes' account of morality based on the social contract. According to Hobbes, morality is a solution to a practical problem arising from human self-interest - morality incorporates those rules that individuals must abide by in order to gain the benefits of living in a social collective. Humans are primarily self-interested. However, if individuals are completely egoistic or selfish, there would be no community, only a 'state of nature' (individuals compete for the resources to satisfy their own needs, and cannot rely on the help of others). However, under the social contract, everyone agrees to abide by moral rules and to co-operate. The rules are also enforced by the state, to minimise cheating. Group members occasionally forego their individual needs but, overall, they (and everyone) will benefit by being a co-operating member of the social group.

This sounds like a plausible theory. Boehm seems to provide anthropological, historical and other evidence for how such a social contract may have arisen. But there is a problem with his hypothesis - it is not empirically testable (this point is highlighted by Bernstein, p. 105). Boehm's paper reads like a 'just-so' story, based on what appears to be quite diverse (and sometimes quite weak) evidence. Both Hobbes and Boehm offer descriptions of the circumstances that seem to be logically required for a moral community to arise, but it does not follow that this is what actually occurred. It would be difficult to devise a method of demonstrating Boehm's hypothesis, especially since much of that evidence is out of reach, in human pre-history and in the 'minds' of non-human creatures. Dentan (p. 123) also agrees that Boehm's metaphysical speculations are not either scientifically testable or falsifiable.

But Boehm's interpretation and presentation of the evidence is also problematic. Black (p. 107) cites counter-evidence to Boehm's view that the group as a collective suppresses the deviant behaviour of individuals: hunter-gather societies rarely handle conflict in a law-like way, and society as a whole is rarely the agent of social control. In fact, there is considerable variability between social groups in how offences are defined and dealt with depending, for example, on the social distance and level of inequality between the relevant parties - and this applies to both humans and non-humans (p. 108). Gardner (p. 128) notes that mobile, egalitarian foraging groups may not be representative of our past. Thierry (p. 144) claims that in the simple hunter-gatherer societies on which Boehm focuses, there are more prohibited behaviours than those relating to domination behaviour. Knauft (p. 130) criticises the implicitly patriarchal nature of Boehm's hypothesis, claiming that the role of females needs greater emphasis (Flack and de Waal's paper, for example, provides evidence regarding the role of female chimpanzees in facilitating conflict-resolutions).

The evolutionary biology perspective is presented in the third section, 'Are We Really Altruists?' Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson provide a summary of their 1998 book Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Their project is a descriptive one - to determine whether evolutionary altruism exists in nature, and whether our motives involve an irreducible concern for the welfare of others. While evolutionary altruism is defined as behaviour that involves a fitness cost to the donor, and fitness benefits to the recipient (e.g. reproductive success), psychological altruism concerns the underlying motives for behaviour. Sober and Wilson suggest that the evolution of psychological altruism is facilitated by the mechanism of group selection. They suggest that group selection is a conceptually coherent concept, that it is empirically well-documented, and that it is particularly relevant to human evolution. 'We propose an evolutionary argument for the claim that human beings have altruistic ultimate motives' (p. 185).

The final paper by Brian Skyrms, 'Game Theory, Rationality and Evolution of the Social Contract' is a response to the question 'Can Fairness Evolve?' Game theory provides a mathematical or symbolic representation of the rational strategies of a number of individuals in game-like human interactions. In this paper, Skyrms compares two types of game theory - the classic version, based on rational choice, and an alternative based on evolutionary or adaptive dynamics. He illustrates the differences by discussing a number of 'games' that model interactions common to any 'social contract'.

These last two papers are both difficult - particularly for the reader (like myself) not overly familiar with the subject-matter. The use of probabilistic formulae may also deter some readers uncomfortable with this methodology. For example, from Sober and Wilson, the table below sets out the fitness payoffs for altruistic and selfish individuals when they interact (group size: two). The formulae determine the fitness of the two traits, Altruism and Selfishness (p. 189-190):
the other
player is
Fitness of a
x + b - c
x - c
player who is
x + b

w(A) = p(x+b+c) + (1-p)(x-c) = pb + x - c

w(S) = (q)(x+b) + (1-q)(x) = qb + x

Or, from Skyrms: 'U(A|B)' represents the playoff of strategy A when played against strategy B. Thus, the 'expected Fitness for a strategy is an average of its payoffs against alternative strategies weighted by the population proportions of other strategies' (p. 273):

U(A) = SUMi U(A|Bi) P(Bi)

This symbolic notation is not explained clearly enough for the non-expert to follow. This is disappointing, since the material presented not only provides an insightful perspective on, but is clearly relevant to, our understanding of the basic 'calculus' of moral behaviour. But we must allow for the fact that these are concisely written journal articles, which typically focus very closely on their subject-matter, and allow little room for scene-setting.

Nevertheless, as I said earlier, this volume is a welcome addition to the literature on morality. The mainly descriptive approach taken by the principal authors and their commentators provides a number of alternative answers concerning the influences or motivations underlying human moral behaviour. And for those still wary of Darwinian evolution, note that morality can still be a result of evolutionary processes, without being directly selected itself. The evolutionary approach still leaves room for the effects of social, cultural and other dynamic processes, as these papers admirably demonstrate.

© 2001 Maria Trochatos

Maria Trochatos is a philosophy postgraduate student at Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia). Her general field of interest is philosophy of mind and cognitive science. Her specific research focuses on folk theories, and their relation to 'formal' theories of mind, biology and physics.


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