[lit-ideas] An evolutionary theory of right & wrong

  • From: JimKandJulieB@xxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sun, 5 Nov 2006 20:01:50 EST

October 31, 2006 
Books on Science 
An  Evolutionary Theory of Right and Wrong 
Who doesn’t know  the difference between right and wrong? Yet that essential 
knowledge, generally  assumed to come from parental teaching or religious or 
legal instruction, could  turn out to have a quite different origin.
Primatologists like Frans de Waal  have long argued that the roots of human 
morality are evident in social animals  like apes and monkeys. The animals’ 
feelings of empathy and expectations of  reciprocity are essential behaviors 
mammalian group living and can be  regarded as a counterpart of human 
Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard  biologist, has built on this idea to propose that 
people are born with a moral  grammar wired into their neural circuits by 
evolution. In a new book, “Moral  Minds” (HarperCollins 2006), he argues 
that the 
grammar generates instant moral  judgments which, in part because of the 
quick decisions that must be made in  life-or-death situations, are 
to the conscious mind. 
People are  generally unaware of this process because the mind is adept at 
coming up with  plausible rationalizations for why it arrived at a decision 
generated  subconsciously.
Dr. Hauser presents his argument as a hypothesis to be  proved, not as an 
established fact. But it is an idea that he roots in solid  ground, including 
own and others’ work with primates and in empirical  results derived by moral 
The proposal, if true, would have  far-reaching consequences. It implies that 
parents and teachers are not teaching  children the rules of correct behavior 
from scratch but are, at best, giving  shape to an innate behavior. And it 
suggests that religions are not the source  of moral codes but, rather, social 
enforcers of instinctive moral  behavior.
Both atheists and people belonging to a wide range of faiths make  the same 
moral judgments, Dr. Hauser writes, implying “that the system that  
unconsciously generates moral judgments is immune to religious doctrine.” Dr. 
argues that the moral grammar operates in much the same way as the  universal 
grammar proposed by the linguist Noam Chomsky as the innate neural  machinery 
language. The universal grammar is a system of rules for  generating syntax 
and vocabulary but does not specify any particular language.  That is supplied 
by the culture in which a child grows up. 
The moral grammar  too, in Dr. Hauser’s view, is a system for generating 
moral behavior and not a  list of specific rules. It constrains human behavior 
tightly that many rules  are in fact the same or very similar in every society 
— do as you would be done  by; care for children and the weak; don’t kill; 
avoid adultery and incest; don’t  cheat, steal or lie. 
But it also allows for variations, since cultures can  assign different 
weights to the elements of the grammar’s calculations. Thus one  society may 
abortion, another may see infanticide as a moral duty in certain  
Or as Kipling observed, “The wildest dreams of Kew are the facts  of 
Katmandu, and the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.”
Matters of right  and wrong have long been the province of moral philosophers 
and ethicists. Dr.  Hauser’s proposal is an attempt to claim the subject for 
science, in particular  for evolutionary biology. The moral grammar evolved, 
he believes, because  restraints on behavior are required for social living and 
have been favored by  natural selection because of their survival value. 
Much of the present  evidence for the moral grammar is indirect. Some of it 
comes from psychological  tests of children, showing that they have an innate 
sense of fairness that  starts to unfold at age 4. Some comes from ingenious 
dilemmas devised to show a  subconscious moral judgment generator at work. 
are known by the moral  philosophers who developed them as “trolley 
Suppose you are  standing by a railroad track. Ahead, in a deep cutting from 
which no escape is  possible, five people are walking on the track. You hear a 
train approaching.  Beside you is a lever with which you can switch the train 
to a sidetrack. One  person is walking on the sidetrack. Is it O.K. to pull 
the lever and save the  five people, though one will die? 
Most people say it is.
Assume now you  are on a bridge overlooking the track. Ahead, five people on 
the track are at  risk. You can save them by throwing down a heavy object into 
the path of the  approaching train. One is available beside you, in the form 
of a fat man. Is it  O.K. to push him to save the five? 
Most people say no, although lives saved  and lost are the same as in the 
first problem. 
Why does the moral grammar  generate such different judgments in apparently 
similar situations? It makes a  distinction, Dr. Hauser writes, between a 
foreseen harm (the train killing the  person on the track) and an intended harm 
(throwing the person in front of the  train), despite the fact that the 
consequences are the same in either case. It  also rates killing an animal as 
acceptable than killing a person.
Many  people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction, Dr. Hauser 
says, a  sign that it is being made at inaccessible levels of the mind. This 
inability  challenges the general belief that moral behavior is learned. For if 
people  cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction, how can they 
teach  it?
Dr. Hauser began his research career in animal communication, working  with 
vervet monkeys in Kenya and with birds. He is the author of a standard  
textbook on the subject, “The Evolution of Communication.” He began to take 
interest in the human animal in 1992 after psychologists devised experiments  
allowed one to infer what babies are thinking. He found he could repeat  many 
of these experiments in cotton-top tamarins, allowing the cognitive  
capacities of infants to be set in an evolutionary framework. 
His proposal  of a moral grammar emerges from a collaboration with Dr. 
Chomsky, who had taken  an interest in Dr. Hauser’s ideas about animal 
communication. In 2002 they  wrote, with Dr. Tecumseh Fitch, an unusual article 
that the faculty of  language must have developed as an adaptation of some 
system possessed by  animals, perhaps one used in navigation. From this 
interaction Dr. Hauser  developed the idea that moral behavior, like language 
behavior, is acquired with  the help of an innate set of rules that unfolds 
in a child’s development.  
Social animals, he believes, possess the rudiments of a moral system in that  
they can recognize cheating or deviations from expected behavior. But they  
generally lack the psychological mechanisms on which the pervasive reciprocity  
of human society is based, like the ability to remember bad behavior, 
quantify  its costs, recall prior interactions with an individual and punish 
offenders.  “Lions cooperate on the hunt, but there is no punishment for 
Dr.  Hauser said.
The moral grammar now universal among people presumably evolved  to its final 
shape during the hunter-gatherer phase of the human past, before  the 
dispersal from the ancestral homeland in northeast Africa some 50,000 years  
This may be why events before our eyes carry far greater moral weight than  
happenings far away, Dr. Hauser believes, since in those days one never had to  
care about people remote from one’s environment. 
Dr. Hauser believes that  the moral grammar may have evolved through the 
evolutionary mechanism known as  group selection. A group bound by altruism 
its members and rigorous  discouragement of cheaters would be more likely to 
prevail over a less cohesive  society, so genes for moral grammar would become 
more common. 
Many  evolutionary biologists frown on the idea of group selection, noting 
that genes  cannot become more frequent unless they benefit the individual who 
carries them,  and a person who contributes altruistically to people not 
related to him will  reduce his own fitness and leave fewer offspring. 
But though group selection  has not been proved to occur in animals, Dr. 
Hauser believes that it may have  operated in people because of their greater 
social conformity and willingness to  punish or ostracize those who disobey 
“That permits strong  group cohesion you don’t see in other animals, which 
may make for group  selection,” he said. 
His proposal for an innate moral grammar, if people pay  attention to it, 
could ruffle many feathers. His fellow biologists may raise  eyebrows at 
proposing such a big idea when much of the supporting evidence has  yet to be 
acquired. Moral philosophers may not welcome a biologist’s bid to  annex 
their turf, 
despite Dr. Hauser’s expressed desire to collaborate with  them. 
Nevertheless, researchers’ idea of a good hypothesis is one that  generates 
interesting and testable predictions. By this criterion, the proposal  of an 
innate moral grammar seems unlikely to disappoint.

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