BOOK: Evolutionary Origins of Morality

From: J. R. Molloy (
Date: Wed Nov 21 2001 - 19:36:40 MST

Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives
by Leonard D. Katz (Editor)
Imprint Academic, 2000
Review by Maria Trochatos on Nov 19th 2001

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

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 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

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

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
  A S
Fitness of a A x + b - c x - c
player who is S x + b x

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.

--- --- --- --- ---

Useless hypotheses, etc.:
 consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia,
analog computing, cultural relativism, GAC, Cyc, Eliza, cryonics, individual
uniqueness, ego, human values, scientific relinquishment, malevolent AI,
non-sensory experience

We move into a better future in proportion as science displaces superstition.

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