Grasping the Nettle

In Daniel Dennett’s most important book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, he makes with brilliant clarity the case that Darwin’s great insight — arguably, I think, the greatest ever had by anyone, so far at least — is, as Dennett calls it, a “universal acid”, eating at the foundations of many of Man’s smugly cherished notions about himself. I believe he is right about this, but I have also thought for some time now that even Dennett, arch-naturalist that he is, has stopped short of acknowledging what is perhaps the most unsettling conclusion of Darwinism:

There are no objective moral truths.

As I have argued in these pages, Darwinian theory appears fully capable of answering questions about why we have the moral intuitions we do, why they shape our behavior so forcefully, and why these apparent moral “facts” are so deeply rooted in our cognitive foundation that we imagine them to have an objective, mind-independent existence. But if you accept an evolutionary and naturalistic account of human origins — a view that is, in light of the enormous body of evidence upon which it rests, on a par with accepting that the Earth goes round the Sun — then the stark and simple fact that our moral dispositions stand on no ontological bedrock whatsoever becomes, I believe, inescapable.

I have much more to say about this — indeed, I still owe the estimable Deogolwulf a response on this topic — and I will be taking it up again shortly. But it’s late, so for tonight I am going to leave you with an academic paper to read, by Tamler Sommers and Alex Rose of Duke University: twenty pages, and worth your time. You can find it here.

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  1. bob koepp says

    I don’t know much about ontological bedrock, but I do know that moral “intuitions” about the universality of moral “oughts” pose an obstacle, or at least suggest a lacuna in extant evolutionary stories about morality. My own guess is that nature provided us with a set of social-behavioral dispositions (primitive versions of some moral sentiments), _and_ with some rudimentary abilities to reflect on hypotheticals (a sort of primitive reason). But I don’t think nature (in the guise of evolution by natural selection) is responsible for how these factors interact to produce recognizable moral systems.

    Posted December 5, 2007 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Actually, a great deal of productive work has been done on this, and whether a particular spokesman for the evolutionary-theory community sees lingering problems or not depends more than anything else upon whether he or she is willing to accept group-level selection as a viable model.

    The level at which selection operates has been a contentious area for many decades, with proponents of anything other than organism-level selection having spent a very long time “in the wilderness”. Dawkins extended the charmed circle downward in the 70’s with his persuasive accounts of gene-level selection, and throughout the 90’s there was a substantial reassessment of inter-group selection being a major factor in the evolution of social species.

    It is still hotly debated, and Dawkins, for one, is not convinced, and is characteristically unshy about saying so. But one might imagine that he is not entirely impartial on this topic.

    I’ll be writing more about this shortly, but I think that the world’s complexity depends in no small part upon what Douglas Hofstadter calls “strange loops” and “tangled hierarchies”, and the natural selection is no exception. David Sloan Wilson, in particular, makes a very compelling case for multi-level selection, and that in turn provides a clear path to the emergence of highly designed moral systems, as well as religions.

    Posted December 5, 2007 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I’ll wait to see how you relate this to considereations about the level of organization on which selection operates. (I tend to think that the “levels debates” are confused and confusing.)

    The main reason I don’t think evolution by natural selection plays a lead role in the development of morality is because I see no evidence that anything beyond the “primitive” versions of moral sentiments or the capacity to reason are heritable. What is heritable is enormous plasticity in how things can be shaped ontogenetically rather than phylogenetically. (Of course, some evo-devo officionados will pooh-pooh any distinction between ontogeny and phylogeny — but I don’t take seriously any suggestion that I inherited my morals in the same way I inherited my eye color.)

    Posted December 5, 2007 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says


    I think you underestimate the degree to which all manner of cognitive dispositions are heritable. Identical-twin studies have given some startling results, even down to such things as a habit of wearing a rubber band on the wrist. And the famous case of Phineas Gage, a kind and caring fellow who became an amoral cad after an iron bar was blown through his skull, is often cited as illustrative of the fact that physiological changes can affect moral dispositions. And physiological structure is, of course, heritable.

    Even for me, this is a somewhat jagged pill to swallow, as it obviously has been for Dennett, too. I think this is because we still want to reserve some part of ourselves as somehow “higher” than blind Nature.

    I think, however, none of this is any cause for despair, as so many people seem to think.

    Posted December 5, 2007 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  5. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I don’t have issues about being “higher” than nature, and take it more or less for granted that human reason and human morality can be explained naturalistically. That’s not at all the same as saying that it can be explained in terms of the operation of natural selection acting on heritable variations. Although I take it more or less for granted that what I’ve characterized as rudimentary social dispositions and abilities to reflect on hypotheticals are products of natural selection, I’m not much tempted by the idea that the interactions between them that I suspect give rise to morality are just another instance of natural selection at work.

    In somewhat the same vein, be careful about what you infer from truisms like “physiological structure is heritable.” Some of it obviously is. Some of it almost certainly isn’t — scars, for instance. It’s not naturalism qua naturalism that troubles me, but naturalism pursued so enthusiastically as to abandon care and precision.

    Posted December 5, 2007 at 4:49 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Good points, and fair enough; I certainly don’t want to be guilty of carelessness or imprecision. And I am in no way embracing anything the least bit Lamarckian here; I wasn’t suggesting, for example, that had Phineas Gage had children after his accident that they would have been churlish as well (though they might well have inherited many of his original personality traits).

    The point, simply put, is that if moral/religious social structures within a group make that group, as a unit of selection, fitter than other groups, the members of that group will be subject to a selection pressure that will push them in the direction of ever-greater adaptations in their cognitive design in the direction of empathy, altruism, cooperation, and so forth. (The between-group selection pressure must be strong enough to trump the within-group disadvantages of such altruistic behavior; showing that this can be so is what group-selection theorists are working on, with promising results.)

    Certainly it is easy to find examples of purely cultural transmission of such things. For example, the triumph in college football of the “spread offense”, which has allowed groups like Ohio State to become “fitter” than, say, Michigan in recent years, is obviously not genetic. But at evolutionary timescales it would not be hard to imagine that a cognitive knack for participating in the spread offense would become an adaptive, wired-in feature, if it were of sufficient benefit. (This would be an example of the “Baldwin Effect“.)

    There is much here that I plan to assemble into one or more posts; in particular I am mulling over the notion that certain “moral” social structures are, in a sense, “basins of attraction” that any sufficiently plastic social species will converge upon. In this sense it might even be argued that they have an objective reality of sorts, though of a very different kind than most people have in mind when they talk about this subject.

    Posted December 5, 2007 at 5:14 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says


    One last thing, just to be clear: I’m in no way arguing that any specific moral content is the product of natural selection; obviously I’m not saying that “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour” is wired in verbatim by evolution.

    But the basic moral parts are present in all human, and even many non-human groups: empathy, some variation of the Golden Rule, aversions to incest, and so on. These are the basic “moral truths” that I think are fully explicable by natural selection, and if so, that have no objective foundation other than their instrumental utility.

    Posted December 5, 2007 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  8. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – OK, I rather like your short list of basic “moral truths,” and think it quite likely that they can be explained in terms of the evolution of a social species. I’m less confident that notions of universality can be explained in that way, and I think universality is rather central to morality. But that’s my own hangup, and a lot of people who feel otherwise are comfortable using ‘morality’ to refer to systems of rules not intended to be universal in scope.

    Posted December 5, 2007 at 5:55 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks, and thanks as always for making such thoughtful and provocative comments. I need people like you to keep me honest.

    Could you expand on that last bit (“I’m less confident that notions of universality can be explained in that way, and I think universality is rather central to morality.”)? I’m not sure I understand what you mean here.

    Posted December 5, 2007 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  10. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – By “notions of universality” I mean the idea that moral rules are not indexed to individuals; that neither my own nor any other “point of view” is privileged. (Again I must admit that some people don’t think morality does incorporate this sort of impersonalism.) This is probably most naturally thought of as a cognitive attitude. But has the capacity for this attitude plausibly been subjected to significant directional selection over evolutionary time scales? Or might it be an “accidental” capacity, a plietropic effect (but not necessarily a spandrel) that only got instantiated when novel circumstances (perhaps some level of social complexity? involving symbols?) created the conditions for its appearance? Given the current ratio of knowledge and ignorance on these matters, I don’t think we can exclude any lines of investigation.

    And thank you for the stimulating conversation. It’s been fun.

    Posted December 5, 2007 at 10:58 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says


    If I understand you correctly, I would say that those things that are indeed human universals are the ones that we might think are more due to selection at evolutionary timescales.

    Here’s a pertinent passage from David Sloan Wilson’s book Darwin’s Cathedral (page 119):

    An innate psychological architecture is required to have a moral system, but the specific contents can vary and therefore adapt to recent environments. In addition, it is important to remember that moral communities larger than a few hundred individuals are “unnatural” as far as genetic evolution is concerned because to the best of our knowledge they never existed prior to the advent of agriculture. This means that culturally evolved mechanisms are absolutely required for human society to hang together above the level of face-to-face groups.

    Given the massive cost of religion, at least (and it is religion that serves as the placeholder for morality in many, if not all, cultures) I am inclined to be less persuaded by plieotropic explanations. It’s just too expensive to be a side effect; I think it must be directly adaptive, and strongly so.

    Posted December 6, 2007 at 1:32 am | Permalink