Work starting with Darwin

The following listing of relevant work since Darwin may seem idiosyncratic to people familiar with the field of evolutionary morality. It is just a personal list of the published work I felt resonated with mine. That is not to say I agree with everything these scholars have proposed, but each is important for understanding the universal function of morality as defined by enforced cultural norms and our moral emotions. The descriptions provided are mostly in the form of published reviews or the author’s own words. For David Sloan Wilson and Phillip Kitcher, I did point out where our conclusions differed and I thought it might be useful to the reader.  In Wilson’s case,  we differ as to what is the most useful definition of altruism in discussions of evolutionary morality. In Kitcher’s case, we differ as to what the function of morality is as a matter of science (and how that is best determined as empirical fact) and if that function has been constant throughout human history.

Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, 1871, Chapter V

“Turning now to the social and moral faculties. In order that primeval men, or the apelike progenitors of man, should become social, they must have acquired the same instinctive feelings, which impel other animals to live in a body; and they no doubt exhibited the same general disposition. They would have felt uneasy when separated from their comrades, for whom they would have felt some degree of love; they would have warned each other of danger, and have given mutual aid in attack or defence. All this implies some degree of sympathy, fidelity, and courage. Such social qualities, the paramount importance of which to the lower animals is disputed by no one, were no doubt acquired by the progenitors of man in a similar manner, namely, through natural selection, aided by inherited habit. When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other.”

E.O. Wilson Sociobiology: The New Synthesis 1975

Michael McGoodwin paraphrasing and quoting Wilson (pp. 16 and 222) on sociobiology[14]

Sociobiology is defined as the scientific or systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior, in all kinds of organisms including man, and incorporating knowledge from ethology, ecology, and genetics, in order to derive general principles concerning the biological properties of entire societies. “If humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection, genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species.” “The brain [and the mind] exists because it promotes the survival and multiplication of the genes that direct its assembly.” The two apparent dilemmas we face therefore are: (1) We lack any goal external to our biological nature (for even religions evolve to enhance the persistence and influence of their practitioners). Will the transcendental goals of societies dissolve, and will our post-ideological societies regress steadily toward self-indulgence? (2) Morality evolved as instinct. “Which of the censors and motivators should be obeyed and which ones might better be curtailed or sublimated?”

Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation 1985

“The Evolution of Cooperation provides valuable insights into the age-old question of whether unforced cooperation is ever possible. Widely praised and much-discussed, this classic book explores how cooperation can emerge in a world of self-seeking egoists-whether superpowers, businesses, or individuals- when there is no central authority to police their actions. The problem of cooperation is central to many different fields. Robert Axelrod recounts the famous computer tournaments in which the “cooperative” program Tit for Tat recorded its stunning victories, explains its application to a broad spectrum of subjects, and suggests how readers can both apply cooperative principles to their own lives and teach cooperative principles to others.”

Martin Nowak

Mathematics of Evolutionary Biology

Nowak MA (2006). Five rules for the evolution of cooperation. Science 314 (5805): 1560-1563.

If you are likely to read just one academic paper on game theory, read  “Five rules for the evolution of cooperation”


David Sloan Wilson

Evolution for Everyone 2007

Evolution is far more than just dinosaurs and fossils, Wilson says, and he enthusiastically explains, with a clear and pleasing style, how it affects our everyday lives. This is Wilson’s fourth book on evolution (Darwin’s Cathedral, etc.) and is by far the most accessible account of evolution for a general audience, as well as the farthest ranging. Building on diverse examples, Wilson demonstrates that evolution is completely relevant to modern human affairs, including how we use language, create culture and define morality. The discussion is as entertaining as it is easy to follow, covering topics as seemingly unrelated as why the burying beetle commits infanticide and why so many domestic animals have floppy ears. For readers seeking a more technical presentation, Wilson offers both a complete bibliography and list of Web sites for reference. Readers who’ve grown weary of the usual treatment of evolution as a deadly foe to religion will find Wilson’s book a cheerful antidote, breaking new ground in its sweeping breadth and offering much to think about.

And in Wilson’s own words:

“There is no single definition of the word “altruism,” any more than there is for the word “selfish.” The implication of self-sacrifice is foreign to the religious imagination, as we saw in Chapter 29. For the purposes of my study, I focused on the other-oriented dimension of altruism, including anything that contributes to the welfare of others or society as a whole. I often use the word “prosocial” rather than “altruistic” to avoid the implication of necessary self-sacrifice.”

“Chapter 17: Love Thy Neighbor Microbe The quote from Evans-Pritchard is from page 64 of Theories of Primitive Religion (1965). Gregory Velicer (2003) provides an excellent review of altruism and selfishness in microbes in his article titled “Social Strife in the Microbial World.” Paul Rainey’s experiments on the mat-forming bacteria are described in Rainey and Rainey (2003). Joan Strassman and David Queller (2004) study cooperation and conflict in Dicty the cellular slime mold. All of them maintain informative Web sites with downloadable articles that you can access by typing their names into a search engine such as Google.”

“The conflict that we frame in terms of good and evil exists in all creatures that interact with their neighbors. It doesn’t depend upon the complexity or mental activity of the organism, and by now you should be questioning what these terms even mean. I could have regaled you with stories of saints and sinners in lions, elephants, and chimpanzees, but it was unnecessary. The microbes offer hundreds of unseen stories, in and all around us.”

Wilson, David Sloan (2007-03-27). Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives ‘. Random House, Inc..

A point on which we differ: Wilson says above that “I often use the word ‘prosocial’ rather than ‘altruistic’ to avoid the implication of necessary self-sacrifice”. I read this to imply that the function of morality is to increase “prosocial” behavior. Consider self-interested economic cooperation under rule of law.  Such self-interested cooperation can be, as Adam Smith pointed out, highly beneficial to a society or “prosocial” as I understand the word. Will it really be the most useful choice to define purely self interested behavior as morally admirable? That is, should cultures enforce norms that punish people who are not acting according to their self-interested motivations?. That seems to me a waste of enforcement resources and the reason that, as empirical fact, such enforced cultural norms (enforced moral standards) do not appear to exist.

Herbert Gentis

A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution, With Samuel Bowles 2011

“Why do humans, uniquely among animals, cooperate in large numbers to advance projects for the common good? Contrary to the conventional wisdom in biology and economics, this generous and civic-minded behavior is widespread and cannot be explained simply by far-sighted self-interest or a desire to help close genealogical kin.

In A Cooperative Species, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis–pioneers in the new experimental and evolutionary science of human behavior–show that the central issue is not why selfish people act generously, but instead how genetic and cultural evolution has produced a species in which substantial numbers make sacrifices to uphold ethical norms and to help even total strangers.

The authors describe how, for thousands of generations, cooperation with fellow group members has been essential to survival. Groups that created institutions to protect the civic-minded from exploitation by the selfish flourished and prevailed in conflicts with less cooperative groups. Key to this process was the evolution of social emotions such as shame and guilt, and our capacity to internalize social norms so that acting ethically became a personal goal rather than simply a prudent way to avoid punishment.

Using experimental, archaeological, genetic, and ethnographic data to calibrate models of the coevolution of genes and culture as well as prehistoric warfare and other forms of group competition, A Cooperative Species provides a compelling and novel account of how humans came to be moral and cooperative.”

Phillip Kitcher

The Ethical Project 2011

“In a revolutionary approach to the problems of moral philosophy, Philip Kitcher makes a provocative proposal: Instead of conceiving ethical commands as divine revelations or as the discoveries of brilliant thinkers, we should see our ethical practices as evolving over tens of thousands of years, as members of our species have worked out how to live together and prosper. Elaborating this radical new vision, Kitcher shows how the limited altruistic tendencies of our ancestors enabled a fragile social life, how our forebears learned to regulate their interactions with one another, and how human societies eventually grew into forms of previously unimaginable complexity. The most successful of the many millennia-old experiments in how to live, he contends, survive in our values today.”

I was delighted to read Kitcher’s new book. It gives a context for philosophical credibility to functionalist moralities such as Altruistic Cooperation morality. Now, it is with great relief that when attempting to address people who are knowledgeable concerning moral philosophy, I can say: “I am proposing a functionalist social morality consistent with Phillip Kitcher’s approach in his 2011 book The Ethics Project” and have some hope of providing a respectable context for my position.

However, Kitcher and I differ on critical points:

Kitcher’s proposal: “the (original overall) function of morality was to ‘remedy those altruism failures provoking social conflict’” (p223) plus the idea that the function of moral behavior has changed over time.

My proposal: “The universal function of enforced cultural norms is to advocate altruism that increases the benefits of cooperation in groups” plus the idea that the function of moral behavior has been constant for all of human history (and far beyond that stretching in both directions) but the dominant benefits of moral behavior have had radical shifts (such as during the emergence of culture and invention of money economies under rule of law) and semi-random local changes over time depending on circumstances people found themselves in.

I favor my proposal because I can argue that my definition of the function of morality is, first, an empirical fact that is provisionally true in the normal sense in science. Second, and more culturally relevant, it defines a moral principle that is a better instrumental choice for groups wishing to define enforced norms and for individuals looking for rational justification for when to conform to enforced norms.  Further, it is a better instrumental choice in part because, if true, it was the force that shaped human moral aspects and largely shaped our experience of durable well-being, a standard overriding goal of instrumental oughts.

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