International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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FRIDAY, JULY 10  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-M280
Individual papers
Moral Niches and Natives: Gene/Culture Evolution

Patterns and processes in gene-culture evolution

Michael Bradie (Bowling Green State University, United States)

One of the motivations behind the move to 'Darwinize' culture is that it will provide a unification of the human sciences in much the sense that Darwin's theory provided a basis for unifying the biological sciences (Dobzhansky, Mesoudi, Blute et al.). Peter Godfrey-Smith has recently argued that no such unification is forthcoming given the fact that much cultural change at what he calls the 'meso' and 'micro' levels proceeds by significantly non-Darwinian processes. Here I review some of the relevant stances on process and patterns in cultural evolution and suggest an alternative additional reason for being skeptical about the ability of a Darwinian approach to produce a unification of the human sciences.

Some controversies around moral nativism

Roger Rex (Universidade de Brasília, Brazil); Paulo Abrantes (Universidade de Brasília, Brazil)

The theory of evolution sparked a series of questions about the origins of moral judgments and the underpinning principles. In particular, it reinforced the debate about moral nativism. In this paper we scrutinize two research programs that advocate respectively the existence of an innate ability to judge morally and a predisposition to moralize behaviors with certain contents. The best-known version of moral nativism argues for the existence of a moral grammar, by analogy with the Chomskyan model of principles and parameters in linguistics (Universal Moral Grammar). The second program argues for the existence of a moral domain, i.e., of a small set of moral intuitions found in all societies (Moral Domain Theory). We critically evaluate the arguments commonly used to ground both theories: ease of learning even in face of poverty of stimulus; the pre-established order of moral development in individuals; universality and antiquity of the moral phenomenon; distinction between moral norms and conventional norms; the principle of double effect. We are concerned with how they fare at relevant contemporary research in Cognitive Science and meet constructivist arguments proposed by Jesse Prinz and Kim Sterelny, among others. We found out that there is little evidence that our moral judgments follow the model of principles and parameters, although it can be useful as a heuristic device for guiding future research. At the same time, ease of learning suggests that the human brain is somehow prepared to learn moral rules and that the types of rule we adopt are constrained by our biology. Furthermore, the fact that the capacity to make moral judgments develops according to a similar schedule in different cultures indicates that it is an endogenous one. Although it depends, for sure, on the existence of culture, it is not reducible to cultural phenomena.

Constructing the moral niche

Joeri Witteveen (Universiteit Utrecht, Netherlands)

In a series of recent publications, Nicolas Baumard and colleagues have argued that humans possess an innate ‘moral sense’ – a domain-specific cognitive system for making moral judgments. They contend that this cognitive system evolved through natural selection in ‘biological markets’ that were present in late Pleistocene hominid environments (André & Baumard, 2011; Baumard et al., 2013; Sperber & Baumard, 2012; Baumard, forthcoming). Baumard et al.'s account is pitted against influential cultural group-selectionist explanations for the evolution of morality, which typically deny that humans evolved a specialized cognitive moral subsystem (Boyd et al., 2003; Chudek et al., 2010; Gintis et al., 2003). I will argue that although Baumard et al. are right to be skeptical about group-selectionist models of the evolution of morality, their market-based (individual-selectionist) alternative is itself problematic, for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, I will argue that for the specified biological market configuration to have come about, a transition from ancestral primate social configurations was needed which relies on a capacity for (proto-)morality having evolved already. In consequence, Baumard et al.’s market-based account for the evolution of morality becomes superfluous (and is therefore likely false). In the second part of my talk, I will take cues from recent synthetic accounts of human evolution (e.g. Boehm, 2012; Dubreuil, 2010; Sterelny 2012, 2014) to sketch an alternative account of the evolution of the capacity for morality. I will argue that the evolution of morality began with humans niche constructing each others' ecological, reproductive and informational environments in the early Pleistocene. The evolution of mutualism could only get started when trust – itself rooted in an evolved capacity for positive affect and collective intentionality – allowed humans to cooperate in situations with immediate, automatic playoffs. Only after evolving a basic capacity to trust one another in these simple cooperative ventures, could late Pleistocene hominids establish and support the inverse dominance hierarchies that would then form the bedrock for the elaboration of the human capacity for morality.  The full evolutionary account that I will present casts doubt on the hypothesis that human capacity for morality (in the context of mutualistic interactions) forms a psychological natural kind. Instead, it suggests that the human capacity for moral judgment relies on a multitude of capacities with different, partially overlapping functions, and with different evolutionary trajectories.