Friday, April 18, 2008

Evolution and Ethics: Is Morality Natural?

ANNOUNCEMENT: Seminar in History of Biology

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill

First the announcement, followed by a brief commentary:

I am very excited to announce the following course, to be offered this summer in the six-week summer session at Cornell University:

COURSE LISTING: BioEE 467/B&Soc 447/Hist 415/S&TS 447 Seminar in History of Biology

SEMESTER: Cornell Six-Week Summer Session, 06/24/08 to 07/31/08

COURSE TITLE: Evolution and Ethics: Is Morality Natural?

COURSE INSTRUCTOR: Allen MacNeill, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University

COURSE DESCRIPTION: This seminar addresses, in historical perspective, controversies about the cultural, philosophical, and scientific implications of evolutionary biology. Discussions focus upon questions about gods, free will, foundations for ethics, meaning in life, and life after death. Readings range from Charles Darwin to the present (see reading list, below).

In 1871, Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man "…the first foundation of the moral sense lies in the social instincts…and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained…through natural selection.” A century later, Edward O. Wilson, in
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis
, wrote “The biologist…realizes that self-knowledge is constrained and shaped by…natural selection. This simple statement must be pursued to explain ethics and ethical philosophers….”

And so it has: in the past few years the publication of hypotheses for the evolution of ethics and “the moral sense” has become an explosive growth industry and a hot topic of debate. In this seminar course, we will take up this debate by considering two alternative hypotheses:

(1) that ethics can be derived directly from human evolutionary biology, or

(2) that ethics can only be derived from philosophical principles, which are not directly derivable from evolutionary biology.

Included in this debate will be an extended consideration of the hypothesis that the capacity for ethical behavior is an evolutionary adaptation that has evolved by natural selection among our primate ancestors. We will read from some of the leading authors on the subject, including Frans de Waal, Paul Farber, Marc Hauser, T. H. Huxley, Richard Joyce, Elliott Sober, and David Sloan Wilson. Our intent will be to sort out the various issues at play, and to come to clarity on how those issues can be integrated into a perspective of the interplay between philosophy and the natural sciences.

In addition to in-class discussions, course participants will have the opportunity to participate in online debates and discussions via the instructor's weblog. Students registered for the course will also have an opportunity to present their original research paper(s) to the class and to the general public via publication on the course weblog and via THE EVOLUTION LIST.

INTENDED AUDIENCE: This course is intended primarily for students in biology, history, philosophy, and science & technology studies. The approach will be interdisciplinary, and the format will consist of in-depth readings across the disciplines and discussion of the issues raised by such readings.

PREREQUISITES: None, although a knowledge of philosophical ethics, evolutionary psychology, and general evolutionary theory would be helpful.

DAYS, TIMES, & PLACES: The course will meet on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6:00 to 9:00 PM in Mudd Hall, Room 409 (The Whittaker Seminar Room), beginning on Tuesday 24 June 2008 and ending on Thursday 31 July 2008. We will also have an end-of-course picnic on Friday 25 July 2008.

CREDIT & GRADES: The course will be offered for 4 hours of credit, regardless of which course listing students choose to register for. Unless otherwise noted, course credit in BioEE 467/B&Soc 447 can be used to fulfill biology/science distribution requirements and Hist 415/S&TS 447 can be used to fulfill humanities distribution requirements (check with your college registrar's office for more information). Letter grades for this course will be based on the quality of written work on original research papers written by students, plus participation in class discussion.

COURSE ENROLLMENT & REGISTRATION: All participants must be registered in the Cornell Six-Week Summer Session to attend class meetings and receive credit for the course (click here for for more information and to enroll for this course). Registration will be limited to the first 18 students who enroll for credit.

REQUIRED TEXTS (all texts will be available at The Cornell Store):

de Waal, Frans (2006) Primates and philosophers: How morality evolved. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, ISBN #0691124477, $22.95 (hardcover), 230 pages.

Farber, Paul (1998) The temptations of evolutionary ethics. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, ISBN # 0520213696, $25.00 (paperback). 224 pages.

Hauser, Marc (2006) Moral minds: How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong. Ecco/Harper Collins, New York NY, ISBN #0060780703, $27.95 (hardcover), 512 pages.

Huxley, T. H. (2004). Evolution and ethics & science and morals. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, ISBN #159102126X, $13.00 (paperback), 151 pages. Available free online here.

Joyce, Richard (2007) The evolution of morality. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, ISBN #0262600722, $18.00 (paperback), 288 pages.

Sober, Elliot and Wilson, David Sloan (1999) Unto others: The evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, ISBN #0674930479, $22.50 (paperback), 416 pages.

(all texts will be available at The Cornell Store)

Darwin, Charles (E. O. Wilson, ed.) (2006) From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books. W. W. Norton, New York, NY, ISBN #0393061345, $39.95 (hardcover), 1,706 pages.

Dawkins, Richard (2006) The selfish gene: Thirtieth anniversary edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, ISBN # 0199291152, $16.95 (paperback), 384 pages.

Dennett, Daniel (1996) Darwin's dangerous idea: Evolution and the meanings of life. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, ISBN #068482471X, $16.00 (paperback), 586 pages.

Katz, Leonard (ed.) (2000). Evolutionary origins of morality. Imprint Academic, Charlottesville, VA, ISBN # 090784507X, $29.90 (paperback). 352 pages.

MacKinnon, Barbara (2006) Ethics: Theory and contemporary issues. Wadsworth, Boston , MA, ISBN #0495007161, $95.95 (paperback), 504 pages.

Ridley, Matt (1998) The origins of virtue: Human instincts and the evolution of cooperation. Penguin, New York, NY, ISBN #0140264450, $15.00 (paperback), 304 pages.

Wright, Robert (1995) The moral animal: Why we are the way we are: The new science of evolutionary psychology. Vintage, New York, NY, ISBN #0679763996, $15.95 (paperback), 496 pages.


Perhaps the most common fallacy in philosophy and science is the tendency to assume that because something is “natural” (whatever that means) it must, ipso facto, be “good” (whatever that means) as well. In
last summer’s evolution and history of biology seminar, we talked about this tendency at some length. This summer I intend to make it the primary focus of our discussions.

From a historical standpoint, the tendency to conflate “is” and “ought” statements has been one of the ongoing arguments about the implications of evolution ever since Darwin first proposed his theory in 1859. Indeed, Darwin himself wrote much on the subject, especially in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, his second most popular (and controversial) book. It has also been one of the sources of both confusion and controversy about evolution today. In particular, evolutionary psychologists (among whom I number myself) have struggled with this problem, not always successfully.

Like last summer and the summer before, this is a fascinating topic and I hope that enough people will sign up for the course with opposing viewpoints on this subject to make for a very interesting and stimulating summer seminar.

So, watch this space; when the course blog goes up, I will announce it here and provide links to all and sundry. And remember:

"… the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating [nature], still less in running away from it, but in combating it." – T. H. Huxley, Evolution and Ethics (1893)


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At 4/24/2008 08:41:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Sound like this will be a great class. Since I attended my Peace Psychology class I am very interested in the issues this class will be addressing.
I hope you'll make enough information available online for outsiders like myself.

At 4/29/2008 02:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Allen,

SteveB here. I posted a question to you a while back on UncommonDescent, namely:

I wonder though if you’d be willing to follow up on what you said in post #29, namely that "...all forms of negative eugenics are morally wrong."


I’m particularly interested in your views in light of the following:
As evolutionists, we see that no [ethical] justification of the traditional kind is possible. Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends. Hence the basis of ethics does not lie in God’s will…. In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding. (Wilson and Ruse, “The Evolution of Ethics,” 1991)

If W&R are correct, the ethic that supports the argument you made earlier has no basis in reality at all. Sorry–but I see no other way to interpret their statement.

If they’re not correct, what other basis is there in the evolutionary framework to make the kind of absolute argument you made above–namely that all forms of xyz are morally wrong?

Your answer to me was as follows:


steveB (in #39) asked about the E. O. Wilson’s statements vis-a-vis ethics. I completely disagree with Wilson’s ideas, and have said so on many occasions. Indeed, I am leading a seminar on precisely this subject this summer at Cornell: “Evolution and Ethics: Is Morality Natural?” See:
My answer to that question is most definitely NO. Morality isn’t “natural”, if by “natural” one means something that does not require both rational judgment and contradicts what “natural” processes (such as natural selection) produce as a result of their action.
T. H. Huxley’s essay, “Evolution and Ethics”, is one of the required readings for the seminar. Let me quote what is perhaps the central assertion that Huxley makes in this essay:
“…the practice of that which is ethically best–what we call goodness or virtue–involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows; its influence is directed, not so much to the survival of the fittest, as to the fitting of as many as possible to survive. It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence. It demands that each man who enters into the enjoyment of the advantages of a polity shall be mindful of his debt to those who have laboriously constructed it; and shall take heed that no act of his weakens the fabric in which he has been permitted to live. Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process and reminding the individual of his duty to the community, to the protection and influence of which he owes, if not existence itself, at least the life of something better than a brutal savage…..Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it. [emphasis added]
The entire essay is available here:
But, of course, Huxley was “Darwin’s bulldog” and an evolutionary biologist, so he (like all of us deluded atheist scientists) is just another amoral hedonist, right?

That's the context so far. If this is the right forum to continue, lemme know.



At 7/06/2008 10:16:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Allen,
It seems to me that you are missing the most important alternative: that ethics can be derived from "social evolution", as recently very clearly exposited in Ken Binmore's "Natural Justice", described as, "... an ambitious attempt to lay the foundations for a genuine science of morals using the theory of games...since human morality is no less a product of evolution than any other human characteristic". []. Your two alternatives of: (i) bilogy; or (ii)philosophical principles, narrow the field to a degree that seems likely to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Justin Dylan


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