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When Evolutionary Psychology Collides With Morality

Casey Luskin

In 2006, the New York Times published an exceedingly long book review titled “An Evolutionary Theory of Right and Wrong,” covering Harvard evolutionary psychologist Marc D. Hauser’s theories of the evolution of human morality. “Religions are not the source of moral codes,” stated the review when describing Hauser’s ideas, further noting that this claim, “if true, would have far-reaching consequences.” The review observed that “[m]atters of right and wrong have long been the province of moral philosophers and ethicists,” but after Hauser’s work, “[m]oral philosophers may not welcome a biologist’s bid to annex their turf.” So who has authority over morality: evolutionary psychologists, or theologians?

In his book, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, Hauser explains that evolutionary psychologists have domain in this field. He argues that morality needs to be divorced from religion:

As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow noted, echoing a majority voice concerning the necessity of religion as a guiding light for morality, “Morality without religion is only a kind of dead reckoning–an endeavor to find our place on a cloudy sea by measuring the distance we have run, but without any observation of the heavenly bodies.” I will argue that this marriage between morality and religion is not only forced but unnecessary, crying out for a divorce.3

Hauser views evolutionary accounts of morality as directly opposing traditional religious accounts of the origin of morality: “Either a divine power created our universal moral sense or evolution did.”2 He further contends that “universal incidence of [certain moral judgments] is derived from some source other than the divine. Biology would be the logical candidate.”3

When seeking to explain the origin of morality, Hauser holds that it is “dangerous” and even “irrational” to believe it comes from religion. He therefore “prefer[s] the Darwinian pulpit”:

What is dangerous is not the idea that we are endowed with a moral instinct–a biologically evolved faculty for delivering universal verdicts of right and wrong that is immune to religion and other cultural phenomena. What is dangerous is holding to an irrational position that starts by equating morality with religion and then moves to an inference that a divine power fuels religious doctrine. This step forces religious people to concede that religious doctrine provides an incoherent account of people’s moral judgments. It’s a conclusion that ought to lead people to search for inspiration outside the church. I personally prefer the Darwinian pulpit.4

I have always found explanations of the evolution of morality issued from atop the Darwinian pulpit to be as boring as they are unconvincing. Evolutionary psychology is a deceptively simple game: All you have to do is identify some survival-advantage conferred upon an individual exhibiting the observed behavior. If you can do that, your ideas are taken seriously, no matter many inherent contradictions they contain. National Academy of Sciences member Philip Skell eloquently explains in The Scientist why evolutionary psychology is not a robust theory:

Darwinian explanations for such things are often too supple: Natural selection makes humans self-centered and aggressive — except when it makes them altruistic and peaceable. Or natural selection produces virile men who eagerly spread their seed — except when it prefers men who are faithful protectors and providers. When an explanation is so supple that it can explain any behavior, it is difficult to test it experimentally, much less use it as a catalyst for scientific discovery.5

Hauser is currently writing a book titled Evilicious: explaining our evolved taste for being bad. I don’t think it will be hard to guess what Hauser’s book will say: There are many opportunities for Darwinian survival advantages to be conferred upon the occasional cheater. Having read a few books on Darwinian psychology, I’ve found it dreadfully predictable; I think I know what Hauser’s forthcoming book will say without having read it.

But if bad behavior is so useful to survival, why do we humans have moral codes that punish it? Marc Hauser is presently finding out the answer to that question. According to news reports, Hauser himself has been cheating at the game of evolutionary psychology.

An article in USA Today explains that Hauser has recently been found guilty of “eight instances of scientific misconduct”:

In a letter sent to Harvard faculty today, dean Michael Smith confirms a university investigation found “eight instances of scientific misconduct” by Hauser. A research paper has been retracted as a result of the finding, another corrected, and a Science paper has a correction under discussion; “five other cases” were also investigated, according to the letter.

An article in Chronicle of Higher Education recounts what happened:

According to the document that was provided to The Chronicle, the experiment in question was coded by Mr. Hauser and a research assistant in his laboratory. A second research assistant was asked by Mr. Hauser to analyze the results. When the second research assistant analyzed the first research assistant’s codes, he found that the monkeys didn’t seem to notice the change in pattern. In fact, they looked at the speaker more often when the pattern was the same. In other words, the experiment was a bust.

But Mr. Hauser’s coding showed something else entirely: He found that the monkeys did notice the change in pattern–and, according to his numbers, the results were statistically significant. If his coding was right, the experiment was a big success.

Apparently this was not an isolated incident:

As word of the problem with the experiment spread, several other lab members revealed they had had similar run-ins with Mr. Hauser, the former research assistant says. This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. There was, several researchers in the lab believed, a pattern in which Mr. Hauser reported false data and then insisted that it be used.

According to the letter from Hauser’s dean, “I confirm that Professor Marc Hauser was found solely responsible, after a thorough investigation by a faculty investigating committee, for eight instances of scientific misconduct.”

Leading primatologist Frans de Waal had the following to say about the implications of this tragedy:

[I]t leaves open whether we in the field of animal behavior should just worry about those three articles or about many more, and then there are also publications related to language and morality that include data that are now in question. From my reading of the dean’s letter, it seems that all data produced by this lab over the years are potentially in question.

Intellectual fraud is a serious barrier to all who seek the truth, and no one–myself very much included–rejoices when a scientist of any persuasion is found guilty of academic misconduct.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that evolutionary psychology has now failed doubly: The behavior modeled by evolutionary psychology’s most brash, anti-religious proponents is as uncompelling as their Darwinian explanations for that behavior.

Hauser gave a forced apology stating: “I am deeply sorry for the problems this case has caused to my students, my colleagues, and my university.”

This incident raises simple questions that strike at the heart of evolutionary psychology: If bad behavior is so advantageous to survival, why do we humans endorse a universal moral code that seeks to ferret it out? Is there something greater at work here which transcends the mere demands of survival and reproduction?

References Cited:
[1.] Marc D. Hauser, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong xx (HarperCollins, 2006).
[2.] Marc D. Hauser, “Our Universal Moral Grammar’s Immunity to Religion,” in What Is Your Dangerous Idea? 60 (John Brockman, ed., Harper Perennial 2007).
[3.] Id. at 60-61.
[4.] Id. at 61.
[5.] Philip Skell, “Why Do We Invoke Darwin? Evolutionary theory contributes little to experimental biology,” The Scientist (August 29, 2005).


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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