Every day in every way things are getting better and better. Well, all right, maybe that’s a stretch, but now and then, things actually do take a turn for the better, at least from my point of view. Take this interview of Oliver Scott Curry at the This View of Life website, for example. Here’s a young guy who gets human nature, and gets morality, and isn’t in the least bit afraid to talk about them as matter-of-factly as if he were discussing the weather. Have a look at some of the things this guy says:
MICHAEL PRICE (Interviewer): What can evolutionary approaches tell us about human moral systems that other approaches cannot tell us? That is, what unique and novel insights about morality does an evolutionary approach provide?
OLIVER SCOTT CURRY: Well, everything. It can tell us what morality is, where it comes from, and how it works. No other approach can do that. The evolutionary approach tells us that morality is a set of biological and cultural strategies for solving problems of cooperation and conflict. We have a range of moral instincts that are natural selection’s attempts to solve these problems. They are sophisticated versions of the kind of social instincts seen in other species…Above all, the evolutionary approach demystifies morality and brings it down to earth. It tells us that morality is just another adaptation that can be studied in the same way as any other aspect of our biology or psychology.
PRICE: The ordinary view in biology is that adaptations evolve primarily to promote individual fitness (survival and reproduction of self/kin). Do you believe that this view is correct with regard to the human biological adaptations that generate moral rules? Does this view imply that individuals moralize primarily to promote their own fitness interests (as opposed to promoting, e.g., group welfare)? (TVOL editor David Sloan Wilson is one of the foremost advocates of group selection, ed.)
CURRY: No. Adaptations evolve to promote the replication of genes; natural selection cannot work any other way. Genes replicate by means of the effects that they have on the world; these effects include the formation of things like chromosomes, multicellular individuals, and groups. (My understanding is that everyone agrees about this, although there is some debate about whether groups are sufficiently coherent to constitute vehicles .)
PRICE: What work by others on the evolution of morality (or just on morality in general) have you found most enlightening?
CURRY: David Hume’s work has been particularly inspiring. In many ways he is the great-great-great granddaddy of evolutionary psychology. He almost stumbled upon the theory of evolution. He undertook a comparative “anatomy of the mind” that showed “the correspondence of passions in men and animals.” His “bundle theory of the self” hints at massive modularity. His A Treatise of Human Nature  introduced “the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects,” and discusses relatedness, certainty of paternity, coordination and convention, reciprocal exchange, costly signals, dominance and submission, and the origins of property. He even anticipated by-product theories of religion, describing religious ideas as “the playsome whimsies of monkies in human shape” . Remarkable.
Remarkable, indeed! Curry just rattles off stuff that’s been hidden in plain sight for the last 100 years, but that would have brought his career to a screeching halt not that long ago. Beginning in the 1920’s, the obscurantists of the Blank Slate controlled the message about human nature in both the scientific and popular media for more than 50 years. They imposed a stifling orthodoxy on the behavioral sciences that rendered much of the work in those fields as useless and irrelevant as the thousands of tomes about Marxism that were published during the heyday of the Soviet Union. Their grip was only broken when a few brave authors stood up to them, and it became obvious to any 10-year-old that their “science” was absurd. This should never, ever be forgotten in our hubris over the triumphs of science. When the “men of science” start declaring that they have a monopoly on the truth, and that anyone who disagrees with them is not only wrong, but evil, it’s reasonable to suspect that what they’re promoting isn’t the truth, but an ideological narrative.
It’s refreshing, indeed, to hear from someone who, in spite of the fact that he clearly understands where morality comes from, doesn’t immediately contradict that knowledge by spouting nonsense about moral “truths.” At least in this interview, I find nothing like Sam Harris’ delusions about “scientific moral truths,” or Jonathan Haidt’s delusions about “anthropocentric moral truths, or Joshua Greene’s delusions about “utilitarian moral truths.” I can but hope that Curry will never join them in their wild goose chase after the will-o’-the-wisp of “human flourishing.”
At the end of the interview, Curry reveals that he’s also aware of another aspect of human morality that makes many otherwise sober evolutionary psychologists squirm; our tendency to see the world in terms of ingroups and outgroups. When Price questions him about the most important unsolved scientific puzzles in evolutionary moral psychology he replies that one of the questions that keeps him up at night is, “Why are people so quick to divide the world into ‘us and them’? Why not just have a bigger us? (I’d like to see an answer rooted in three-player game theory.)”
Hey, three-player game theory is fine with me, as long as we finally realize that the ingroup-outgroup thing is a fundamental aspect of human moral behavior, and one that it would behoove us to deal with rationally assuming we entertain hopes for the survival of our species. As it happens, that’s easier said than done. The academic milieu that is home to so many of the moral theorists and philosophers of our day has long been steeped in an extremely moralistic culture; basically a secular version of the Puritanism of the 16th and 17th centuries, accompanied by all the manifestations of self-righteous piety familiar to historians of that era. It is arguably more difficult for such people to give up any rational basis for their addiction to virtuous indignation and the striking of highly ostentatious pious poses than it is for them to give up sex. For them, the “real” Good must prevail. As a result we have such gaudy and delusional “solutions” to the problem as Joshua Greene’s proposal that we simply stifle our moral emotions in favor of his “real” utilitarian morality, Sam Harris’ more practical approach of simply dumping everyone who doesn’t accept his “scientific” morality into a brand new outgroup, and various schemes for “expanding” our ingroup to include all mankind.
Sorry, it won’t work. Ingroups and outgroups ain’t goin’ nowhere. Stifle racism, and religious bigotry will take its place. Stifle religious bigotry, and homophobia will jump in to take over. Stifle all those things, and there will always be a few deluded souls around who dare to disagree with you. They, in their turn, will become your new outgroup. The outgroup have ye always with you. Better understand the problem than pretend it’s not there.
As for Curry’s suggestion that we declare Hume the father of evolutionary psychology, nothing could please me more.