“The Evolution of Morality” and Innate Human Behavior

There has been an incredible (and gratifying) sea change in attitudes towards and acceptance of the idea that our behavior is profoundly influenced by innate predispositions that are genetically programmed in our brains since the 60’s and 70’s. In those days, proponents of the idea were relentlessly attacked by so-called “scientists” who were actually ideologues defending Marxism and related secular religions. These attacks generally included vilification and demonization via slanderous accusations of “racism,” “fascism,” or some similar right wing sin. At the time, academics in such related fields as anthropology, psychology, etc., either cheered on the ideologues, or stood discretely aside, collaborating in a secular variant of religious obscurantism. In the meantime, there have been great advances in our knowledge of the inner workings of the brain. The proponents of innate behavior have been vindicated, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the basic truth of their arguments, and maintain any claim to scientific respectability at the same time. It would be difficult for anyone who hasn’t been around long enough to have witnessed these changes to appreciate their magnitude or significance.

A recently published book entitled “The Evolution of Morality,” by the philosopher Richard Joyce, is one more striking example of the change, among many others. In it one finds the remarkable passage,

There is one traditional complaint against sociobiology and evolutionary psychology that has, thankfully, receded in recent years: that the program would, if pursued, lead to unpleasant political ends. It shouldn’t be forgotten that much of the tone-setting early invective against these research programs was politically motivated. In their withering and influential attack on sociobiology, “Not in Our Genes,” Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin are, if nothing else refreshingly honest about this, admitting that they share a commitment to socialism, and that they regard their “critical science as an integral part of the struggle to create that society” (1984: ix). Elsewhere, Lewontin and Richard Levins proudly made this declaration: “…we have been attempting with some success to guide our research by a conscious application of Marxist philosophy” (Levins and Lewontin 1985: 165). It is not these disturbing confessions of political motivation that I mean to highlight here – intellectually repugnant thought they are (and should be even to Marxists) – but rather the bizarre presupposition that a Darwinian approach to human psychology and behavior should have any obvious political ramifications.

There is much else of interest in Joyce’ book, not the least of which is a quote of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus regarding innate ideas of good and evil at the start of the introduction. I highly recommend it to the interested reader. The fact that it, and many other writings in both the popular and scientific literature, now treat the idea of innate behavior as commonplace and generally accepted, except by such latter day Trofim Lysenkos as Lewontin, Levins, and Kamin, et.al., would surely seem bizarre to a Rip van Winkle ethologist of the late 60’s who suddenly woke up 50 years later. It is encouraging evidence that the obscurantism of the high priests of secular religions like Marxism is as vulnerable to the advance of human knowledge as the obscurantism of the fanatical devotees of the Book of Genesis.

All this begs the question, however, of how it is that such supposedly “scientific” fields as psychology and anthropology are so often hijacked by the purveyors of ideological snake oil and pseudo-scientific fads, to the point that they develop an immune response to new ideas that happen to be in conflict with the prevailing sacred cows. It seems to me that shame would be an appropriate response, but I’m not holding my breath. However, perhaps a little self-criticism wouldn’t be too much to ask before we charge ahead to the next fad. I would suggest that, for starters, those active in fields relating to something as complex as the human brain refrain from promoting their theories as established scientific truths until we understand the brain well enough to support such claims.

Take, for example, the theories of Sigmund Freud. Without a thorough knowledge of the detailed functioning of the brain, the idea that such theories should have the status of established facts is absurd. No such knowledge, or anything close to it was available at the time they were proposed, yet those theories were, for many decades, treated by many as established truths that only the ignorant would question.

If there is insufficient evidence to support a given hypothesis, would it not be reasonable to continue to identify it as such, until such evidence is forthcoming? Would it not be wise to refrain from claiming that we perfectly understand this or that phenomenon, and admit that there are some things that we just don’t know, until the facts are forthcoming to support such claims? When new ideas are proposed that are both plausible and supported by the available evidence, would it not be wise to allow discussion and investigation of those ideas without vilifying those who propose them?

Realistically, I suppose human beings will always be subject to such shortcomings. We prefer the comfortable illusion that we know to the humbling admission that we don’t yet understand. It is in our nature, so to speak. Happily, as is now so apparent in the field of evolutionary psychology, the problem will tend to be self-correcting as long as human knowledge continues to expand. The only thing we need to fear is that the paths to greater knowledge and understanding will be obstructed. Let us see to it that they remain open.