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Three Evolutionary Precursors to Morality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 March 2010

Joseph Heath*
University of Toronto


ABSTRACT: Recent evolutionary thinking suggests that morality may have three distinct roots, corresponding to the three “master concepts” in the history of philosophical ethics: sympathy, virtue, and duty. Evolutionary biologists are nearly unanimous in the view that there are two distinct mechanisms that can generate altruism in other animal species, and there is increasing recognition that there must be a third mechanism at work among humans. Altruism in the biological sense is not the same thing as morality, but it is a precursor to morality. An examination of such precursors can help us gain a deeper understanding of morality proper.

RÉSUMÉ: Les travaux récents sur l’évolution suggèrent que la morale pourrait avoir trois racines distinctes, correspondant aux trois «concepts maîtres» dans l’histoire de la philosophie éthique : la sympathie, la vertu et le devoir. Les biologistes évolutionnistes s’accordent presque unanimement pour dire qu’il existe deux mécanismes distincts qui peuvent générer l’altruisme chez les autres espèces animales et l’on reconnaît de plus en plus qu’il doit y avoir un troisième mécanisme en jeu chez les humains. L’altruisme au sens biologique n’est pas la même chose que la morale, mais il en est un précurseur. Une étude de tels précurseurs peut nous aider à mieux comprendre la morale en tant que telle.

Copyright © Canadian Philosophical Association 2009

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1 Stephen Darwall, Allan Gibbard, and Peter Railton write: “Too many moral philosophers and commentators on moral philosophy — we do not exempt ourselves — have been content to invent their psychology and anthropology from scratch.” In “Toward Fin de Siècle Ethics: Some Trends,” Philosophical Review 101 (1992): 115–89, at 189.

2 Recent neurological research is certainly pointing in this direction. In the same way that “memory” has been shown to be not a single phenomenon but rather the joint product of several quite different systems, moral judgment also appears to be a neurologically complex phenomenon. See Joshua Greene and Jonathan Haidt, “How (and Where) Does Moral Judgment Work?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 6 (2002): 517–23.

3 Keith Stanovich, The Robot’s Rebellion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 34–6.

4 See Stanovich, 38. Also see Timothy D. Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 49. Note that this is not the Fodorian definition of modularity, and that the characteristics listed are only those typically associated with modular processes (they are not necessary and sufficient conditions). See H. Clark Barrett and Robert Kurzban, “Modularity in Cognition: Framing the Debate,” Psychological Review 113 (2006): 628–47.

5 Robyn Carston, “The Architecture of the Mind: Modularity and Modularization,” in David. W. Green, ed., Cognitive Science (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 73–5; Barrett and Kurzban, “Modularity in Cognition: Framing the Debate,” 629–30.

6 Richard Samuels, “Is the Human Mind Massively Modular?” in Robert Stainton, ed., Contemporary Debates in Cognitive Science (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 48–52.

7 Wilson, 23–35.

8 Stanovich, 37.

9 Robert Brandom, Making It Explicit (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 5. I take the “intentional planning system” to be essentially equivalent, as well, to what Norman and Shallice refer to as the “supervisory attentional system,” see Donald A. Norman and Tim Shallice, “Attention to Action: Willed and Automatic Control of Behaviour,” in R. J. Davidson, G. E. Schwartz, and D. Shapiro, eds., Consciousness and Self-Regulation, Vol. 4 (New York: Plenum, 1986).

10 Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little, Brown and Company., 1991), 218.

11 Stanovich, 35–36.

12 Dennett, 218.

13 Dennett, 190. On exaptation, see Stephen J. Gould and Elisabeth S. Vrba, “Exaptation — A Missing Term in the Science of Form,” Paleobiology 8 (1982): 4–15.

14 Joseph Heath, Following the Rules (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

15 Andy Clark, “Magic Words: How Language Augments Computation,” in Peter Carruthers and Jill Boucher, eds., Language And Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 164.

16 On language as the “vehicle of thought” see Michael Dummett, “Language and Communication,” in The Seas of Language (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 166–87. I am, of course, implicitly rejecting the view that language is innate. I am not, however, denying the suggestion that language acquisition is facilitated by various innate learning heuristics, or that grammar is constrained by various innate structural features of the brain. These hypotheses often are not adequately distinguished in the literature.

17 Marc D. Hauser and Elizabeth Spelke, “Evolutionary and Developmental Foundations of Human Knowledge: A Case Study of Mathematics,” in Michael Gazzaniga, The Cognitive Neurosciences, vol. 3 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004).

18 For an example of the “one more module” view, see Cosmides and Tooby, “The Psychological Foundations of Culture.” In Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, eds., The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 19–136.They describe the brain as “an intricate network of functionally dedicated computers, each activated by different classes of content or problem, with some more general-purpose computers embedded in the architecture as well,” (p. 94). The somewhat “tacked on” feel of this final clause reflects the central weakness of the theory.

19 See Daniel Kahnemann, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, eds., Judgment Under Uncertainty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). For a useful survey, see Stanovich, pp.110–13.

20 Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability,” Cognitive Psychology 5 (1973): 207–32.

21 Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd, Not by Genes Alone (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 127–9. See also Gary Marcus, Kluge (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 161–4.

22 Stanovich, 131–46.

23 Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

24 Anyone uncomfortable with this use of the term “morality” should feel free to use the term “pro-social action,” instead. There are in fact certain advantages to doing so, since “morality” as the term is usually used includes a variety of norms, such as prohibitions on incest, that have no obvious benefit for others.

25 See Vero Copner Wynne-Edwards, Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behavior (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1962).

26 Lee Dugatkin, Cheating Monkeys and Citizen Bees (New York: Free Press, 1998), 17–8.

27 George C. Williams, Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of Some Current Evolutionary Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966).

28 Ronald Fisher, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (Oxford: Clarendon, 1930).

29 W. D. Hamilton, “The Evolution of Altruistic Behavior,” The American Naturalist 97 (1963): 354–6; also J. Maynard Smith, “Group Selection and Kin Selection,” Nature 201 (1964): 1145–7.

30 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 19.

31 Ibid., 2.

32 M. Soler, J. J Soler, J. G. Martínez, T. Pérez-Contreras and A. P. Møller, “Micro-Evolutionary Change and Population Dynamics of a Brood Parasite and Its Primary Host: The Intermittent Arms Race Hypothesis,” Oecologia 117 (1998): 381–90.

33 Scott Woodcock and Joseph Heath, “The Robustness of Altruism as an Evolutionary Strategy,” Biology and Philosophy 17 (2002): 567–90.

34 Robert L. Trivers, “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism,” Quarterly Review of Biology 46 (1971): 35–57. For a useful recent survey, see Rajiv Sethi and E. Somanathan, “Understanding Reciprocity,” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 50 (2003): 1–27.

35 Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

36 See Woodcock and Heath, also Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, “The Evolution of Reciprocity in Sizable Groups,” in The Origin and Evolution of Cultures (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 152–8.

37 Richard Alexander, Darwinism and Human Affairs (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979); also Richard Alexander, The Biology of Moral Systems (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1987); Martin A. Nowak and Karl Sigmund, “The Dynamics of Indirect Reciprocity,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 134 (1998): 561–74.

38 See Olaf Leimar and Richard C. Connor, “By-product Benefits, Reciprocity, and Pseudoreciprocity in Mutualism,” in Peter Hammerstein, ed., Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 203–22.

39 Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson, “Why Culture is Common but Cultural Evolution is Rare,” Proceedings of the British Academy 88 (1996): 73–93.

40 Allan Rogers, “Does Biology Constrain Culture?” American Anthropologist 90 (1989): 819–31.

41 Richerson and Boyd, Not By Genes Alone, 120–4.

42 Joseph Soltis, Robert Boyd, and Peter J. Richerson, “Can Group-functional Behaviors Evolve by Cultural Group Selection? An Empirical Test,” Current Anthropology 63 (1995): 473–94.

43 Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, “The Evolution of Human Ultrasociality,” in Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Frank Kemp Salter, eds., Indoctrinability, Ideology, and Warfare: Evolutionary Perspectives (New York: Berghahn, 1998), 71–95.

44 E. O. Wilson, “Kin Selection as the Key to Altruism: Its Rise and Fall,” Social Research 72 (2005): 159–168.

45 Pace Trivers, who in “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism” uses humans as his third example of reciprocal altruism.

46 For example, see the interesting study conducted by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, “Altruistic Helping in Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees,” Science 311 (March 3, 2006): 1301–3.

47 Richerson and Boyd, “The Evolution of Human Ultrasociality,” 72.

48 Sarah Hall Sternglanz, James L. Gray, and Melvin Murakami, “Adult Preferences for Infantile Facial Features: An Ethological Approach,” Animal Behavior 25 (1977): 108–15.

49 This hypothesis was first advanced by Konrad Lorenz. See C. F. Zachariah Boukydis, “Adult Perception of Infant Appearance: A Review,” Child Psychiatry and Human Development 11 (1981): 241–54, at 245.

50 Boukydis, 247.

51 Sternglanz et al.

52 Anne Fernald, “Human Maternal Vocalizations to Infants as Biologically Relevant Signals: An Evolutionary Perspective,” in Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby, 398–401.

53 Dugatkin, 18.

54 Boukydis, 242.

55 See discussion in Leslie A. Zebrowitz and Susan M. McDonald, “The Impact of Litigants’ Baby-Facedness and Attractiveness on Adjudications in Small Claims Court,” Law and Human Behavior 15 (1991): 603–23.

56 Douglas M. Jones, “An Evolutionary Perspective on Physical Attractiveness,” Evolutionary Anthropology 5 (1996): 97–109.

57 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 2nd ed., L. A. Selby-Bigge, ed., (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978), 483–4.

58 Martin L. Hoffman, “Sex Differences in Empathy and Related Behaviors,” Psychological Bulletin 84 (1977): 712–22; Mark H. Davis, Empathy: A Social Psychological Approach (Colorado: Westview Press, 1994). There is also, unsurprisingly, evidence that women show a stronger response to babies and toddlers. See Katherine A. Hildebrandt and Hiram E. Fitzgerald, “Adults’ Response to Infants Varying in Perceived Cuteness,” Behavioral Processes 3 (1978): 159–72, at 169.

59 A claim first made by Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).

60 Lawrence J. Walker, “A Longitudinal Study of Moral Reasoning,” Child Development 60 (1989): 157–66. See also Lawrence J. Walker, “Sex Differences in the Development of Moral Reasoning: A Critical Review,” Child Development 55 (1984): 677–91.

61 Philip Kitcher, “Games Social Animals Play,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 59 (1999): 221–8 at 225.

62 David P. Watts, “Reciprocity and Interchange in the Social Relationships of Wild Male Chimpanzees,” Behaviour 139 (2002): 343–70.

63 Joan Silk, “The Evolution of Cooperation in Primate Groups,” in Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, R. Boyd, and E. Fehr, eds., Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: On the Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 17.

64 Trivers moots this friendship hypothesis in “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism,” 48. See also Michael Argyle and Monika Henderson, “The Rules of Friendship,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 1 (1984): 211–237.

65 Philip Kitcher, “Psychological Altruism, Evolutionary Origins and Moral Rules,” at 298–99, Philosophical Studies, 89, 2–3 (1998): 283–316.

66 Joan Silk, “Cooperation Without Counting: The Puzzle of Friendship,” in Hammerstein, ed., Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation, 50–1.

67 Frans de Waal, Chimpanzee Politics, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 201.

68 Michael Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 159.

69 Bennett G. Galef, Jr., “Imitation in Animals: History, Definition and Interpretation of Data from the Psychological Laboratory,” in Thomas R. Zentall and Bennett G. Galef, Jr., eds., Social Learning: Psychological and Biological Perspectives (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1988).

70 Kathy Nagell, Kelly Olguin, and Michael Tomasello, “Processes of Social Learning in the Tool Use of Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and Human Children (Homo sapiens),” Journal of Comparative Psychology 107 (1993): 174–86. See also Michael Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, 29–30.

71 Andrew Meltzoff has demonstrated a similar phenomenon; see “Infant Imitation After a One-Week Delay: Long-term Memory for Novel Acts and Multiple Stimuli,” Developmental Psychology, 24 (1988): 470–6. This view of imitation contradicts the “classic” view of Neal J. Miller and John Dollard, Social Learning and Imitation (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1941), who claim that imitation involves simply observation, instrumental reasoning, and reinforcement.

72 Ap Dijksterhuis and John A. Bargh, “The Perceptual-Behavior Expressway: Automatic Effects of Social Perception and Social Behavior,” in M. Zanna, ed., Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 30 (New York: Academic Press, 2001), 1–40. See also John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand, “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being,” American Psychologist 54 (1999): 462–79 at 467–8.

73 Dijksterhuis and Bargh, 15. After a survey of the evidence, they write that “in the experiments reviewed above, people did not imitate because they wanted to imitate. They imitated for no other reason than that they are designed to do so.”

74 Ap Djiksterhuis, “Why We Are Social Animals: The High Road to Imitation as Social Glue,” in Susan Hurley and Nick Chater, eds., Perspectives on Imitation: From Neuroscience to Social Science, vol. 2 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005), 218–9.

75 Ibid., 217.

76 For a general survey, see Andrew N. Meltzoff and Jean Decety, “What Imitation Tells Us About Social Cognition: A Rapprochement Between Developmental Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences 358 (2003): 491–500.

77 Shaun Nichols, Sentimental Rules (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 100.

78 Ibid., 119.

79 Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Bjorklund, “Social Intuitionists Answer Six Questions about Moral Psychology,” in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, ed., Moral Psychology, vol. 2 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 205–6.

80 Chandra Sekhar Sripada, “Nativism and Moral Psychology,” in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, ed., Moral Psychology, vol. 1 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 335.

81 Ian Brockington, “Maternal Attachment and Bonding Disorders,” in Susan Dowd Stone and Alexis E. Menken, eds., Perinatal and Postpartum Mood Disorders (Dordrecht: Springer, 2008), 24.

82 Ibid., 33–36.

83 Jesse Prinz, The Emotional Construction of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 284–5.

84 Others have noticed this. See Joshua Greene, “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul,” in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, 76–7.

85 Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species (New York: Norton, 1998), 244.

86 Stanovich.

87 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 2nd ed., P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978), 489. See also David Gauthier, “David Hume: Contractarian,” in Moral Dealing (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 45–76.

88 Hume, Treatise, 484.

89 John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, ed. George Sher (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1979), 32.

90 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983).

91 Brandom, Making It Explicit (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), also Heath, Following the Rules, 217.

92 Joseph Heath, “The Transcendental Necessity of Morality,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 67 (2003): 378–95.

93 See Christine Korsgaard, “Skepticism About Practical Reason,” in Creating the Kingdom of Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

94 For example, see Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 222.

95 See Eric Rasmusen, “Folk Theorems for the Observable Implications of Repeated Games,” Theory and Decision 32 (1992): 147–64 at 161.

96 John Heritage, Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology (London: Polity, 1984).

97 Cass Sunstein, “Moral Heuristics,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28 (2005): 531–42 writes that moral philosophy is “inadvertently and even comically replicating the early work of Kahneman and Tversky, by uncovering situations in which intuitions, normally quite sensible, turn out to misfire.” See also John M. Doris and Steven Stich, “As a Matter of Fact: Empirical Perspectives on Ethics,” in Frank Jackson and Michael Smith, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 138–46.