THE EVOLUTION OF MORAL PROGRESS – Allen Buchanan & Russell Powell (2018)

The Evolution of Moral Progress Buchanan PowellWhile reading the brilliant Contingency and Convergence: Toward a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind, a 2020 book by Russell Powell on what evolutionary science can tell us about the possible nature of consciousness emerging in bodies on other planets, I was in awe of Powell’s meticulous reasoning skills. The book was an intellectual feast because of the rigorous thinking on display.

What struck me most was the interdisciplinary prowess: Powell is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Boston University, and aside from a PhD in Philosophy also holds a Master in Evolutionary Biology and a professional doctorate in Law. It is rare to encounter a mind that can argue that well and commit complex thoughts to paper in a manner that is both logical & clear. Obviously the first thing that I did when I finished Contingency and Convergence was see if Powell had written other stuff, and that let me to this book, co-authored with Allen Buchanan, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Duke and professor of the Philosophy of International Law at King’s College.

For starters, let me quote the Oxford University Press‘ description of The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory:

“Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell resurrect the project of explaining moral progress. They avoid the errors of earlier attempts by drawing on a wide range of disciplines including moral and political philosophy, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, history, and sociology.

Their focus is on one especially important type of moral progress: gains in inclusivity. They develop a framework to explain progress in inclusivity to also illuminate moral regression—the return to exclusivist and “tribalistic” moral beliefs and attitudes. Buchanan and Powell argue those tribalistic moral responses are not hard-wired by evolution in human nature. Rather, human beings have an evolved “adaptively plastic” capacity for both inclusion and exclusion, depending on environmental conditions. Moral progress in the dimension of inclusivity is possible, but only to the extent that human beings can create environments conducive to extending moral standing to all human beings and even to some animals. Buchanan and Powell take biological evolution seriously, but with a critical eye, while simultaneously recognizing the crucial role of culture in creating environments in which moral progress can occur. The book avoids both biological and cultural determinism. Unlike earlier theories of moral progress, their theory provides a naturalistic account that is grounded in the best empirical work, and unlike earlier theories it does not present moral progress as inevitable or as occurring in definite stages; but rather it recognizes the highly contingent and fragile character of moral improvement.”

If you want a much more thorough summary of the book, I can vouch for the accuracy of this one by Jeroen Hopster from the University of Utrecht. (Buchanan & Powell’s book is liberal to a certain extent, definitely not Marxist, should it being reviewed on a Marxist site worry you. Readers hostile to Marxism should not be detered from reading Hopster’s review either, the summary is politically neutral.) There is also this review by Prof. Em. Allen Gibbard, and one by Michael Brownstein and Daniel Kelly here, the latter starts with an outline, but also offer interesting caveats to some of the book’s theories. These authors are much more in the know as I am on the subject matter, and they call the 422-page book “marvelous” and “likely to become a landmark”.

In the rest of the review, some thoughts on the book, an intermezzo on the supposed power of literature, and, as usual in my non-fiction reviews, I’ll end with a collection of interesting information tidbits I want to keep an account of.

What maybe needs addressing first is the mention of the world ‘liberal’ above. Let me quote Hopster:

“In taking this stance they rely on substantive ethical assumptions, of a broadly liberal moral outlook. This might make for some queasy among readers who do not share the same moral outlook. However, these readers can still appreciate what I take to be the book’s key contribution: to analyse and explain under which conditions a move towards more or less inclusivism is likely to occur.”

What is meant by a “broadly liberal moral outlook”? Basically just the idea that the authors think that the abolishing of slavery, advances in women’s rights, rights of disabled people, general human rights, protection against cruel punishment, animal rights, etc. are all instances of moral progress. Mind you, they don’t try to argue the philosophical foundations of such a statement, they “do not offer a normative ethical theory”. But they are not moral nihilists either: they just assume these advances as good, and it’s hard to deny these societal developments of the last 250 years have decreased human suffering. While this all may sound as truisms to many people, some conservative readers might be of the conviction our modern Western society is in a state of moral degeneration or moral regression. Buchanan and Powell spend quite a few tightly argued pages wherein they point at faults in the reasoning of such thinkers, most notably Alastair MacIntyre.

To me this approach was quite refreshing. Instead of spending too much time on trying to build up a theoretical definition of what constitutes ‘moral progress’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, the authors start from the idea that advancements in equal rights and inclusion is moral progress. What the authors do not claim is that this progress is universal and set in stone. They very much acknowledge such progress is local and not evenly distributed across the planet, and an important part of the book is devoted to trying to understand why regressions of inclusivity occur – for instance during World War 2. “Exclusivist moral response is a conditionally expressed trait that develops only when cues that were in the past reliably correlated with outgroup predation, exploitation, competition for resources, and disease transmission are detected.” Crucial to understand demagogues is that these cues don’t need to be cues to real threats – if people believe or are made to believe threatening cues exists that belief is enough for exclusivist tendencies to gain hold again.

Their theory doesn’t lead to optimism at the moment: both climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to serious regression. While the authors mention climate change, this book is not predictive in scope, even though their theory has predictive power, and much of recent political developments can be explained by it. I’m thinking of the rise of extreme right wing anti-immigrant sentiment in parts of Europe, Brexit, anti-liberal movements in Poland, Hungary, Turkey and Trump’s exclusivist rhetoric. To be clear, this list is mine, the authors themselves only mention Trump in a couple of pages.

For one of the core ideas of the book, let me quote Brownstein and Kelly:

“This is the core contribution of the book, and it is designed to dispel the challenge to the sustainability of inclusivist-based forms of moral progress mounted by ‘evoconservatives’, so called because they draw on evolutionary considerations to support prescriptive conclusions traditionally associated with political conservativism. Evoconservatives (for example, Fukuyama; Arnhart; Asma; Haidt) argue that the ‘groupishness’ of evolved human moral psychology imposes unavoidable constraints on the human capacity for inclusivity, and thus on humans’ ability to extend moral consideration to groups of people beyond their own (and also to non-human animals, plants, the environment as a whole, and so on). In short, evoconservatives hold that there are limits, rooted in how our minds work, to how far human groups can expand the moral circle. Our penchant for inclusion is not unbounded, but is rather strongly attuned to racial, ethnic, gender, or species-based markers of membership in our own parochial ‘moral community’.

Buchanan and Powell’s main complaint about evoconservativism is that it fails to appreciate the extent to which human minds are ‘adaptively plastic’, and so fails to appreciate that they can support both moral regression and sustained moral progress.”

If you are (professionally) interested in matters like these, I’d say the book is mandatory reading. Buchanan & Powell do an excellent job in dispelling these “evoconservative” views at length, amongst other things supported by empirical observations.

The subtitle of the book is A Biocultural Theory, which should please those wary of purely biological reductionism: Buchanan and Powell support their theory both via (Powell’s) deep understanding of biological evolution as via cultural transmission of behavior. Again and again the book tries to look at different angles, discusses possible counterarguments, injects nuance in its own terms and propositions, and tries to be humble in what it tries to do – acknowledging that moral understanding is ever evolving, and theirs is not the last word on the matter. It is this combination of epistemic humility and epistemic rigorousness that makes this book such a joy to read, even for a non-specialist like me – that is, if you enjoy observing intellectual thoroughness as such. The book is fully self-contained and needs no prior knowledge, yet digs deep.

It also acknowledges it is only the beginning of a much vaster work, for how come morality evolved beyond mere strategic/reciprocal considerations – as it has clearly done? “We have argued that the capacity for open-ended normativity plays an important role in moral progress, but it is not obvious how this fact could be accommodated within a framework that is properly called evolutionary”. They mention they plan to write a follow-up on evolution and ideology, and at the end of the book there’s an 8-page appendix with topics for future research.

The book is repetitive occasionally, but that is the result of writing self-contained chapters, as Buchanan & Powell are well aware that academics tend to read only those chapters relevant to their own research. As such, it is not a negative, but a service to readers, both academics and those that leave a few weeks in between chapters: everything is amply recapitulated.

The only possible fundamental critique I can muster is that Buchanan and Powell’s approach is rather centered on Western thought, but that is to be expected from a book that includes a “lengthy analysis of the modern human rights movement.” Currently I’m reading The Dawn of Everything – A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow, which was just published, and that book has lots of interesting things to say about how we see human history as a history of progress emanating from the West. Additionally, also Buchanan and Powell start from the anti-hierarchical, egalitarian ancestral state of hunter-gatherer groups – except temporarily, “when one individual is selected to lead a war party”. But ultimately Graeber and Wengrow’s findings don’t counter Buchanan’s and Powell’s, not in the slightest. They just provide an important caveat.


There’s one other small instance of critique that bears highlighting here, on this particular blog, and it has to do with Buchanan and Powell echoing the popular idea of the novel as a cultural innovation. In their words:

“one of the greatest technologies ever invented for engaging the human imagination and moral emotions in ways that allow us to transcend the narrow confines of nationality, class, race, and gender, through identification with fictional characters of diverse backgrounds. When perspective-shifting techniques engage belief through stimulating the imagination and emotions, it becomes easier to detect inconsistencies in one’s moral views and harder to suppress awareness of them through cognitive dissonance reduction maneuvers that sacrifice truth for self-satisfied epistemic inertia.”

While I do not deny that literacy in general – it bears mentioning that literacy is far more than being able to read novels – and mass literacy of a culture has important effects on that culture, I do not subscribe to singling out the novel as crucial. I have already written extensively about the hubris of some writers in my 3000 word deconstruction of Richard Powers’ defeatist 2021 novel Bewilderment, and I would say storytelling as such is much more important on a fundamental level for a society, and stories are (and were) everywhere, not only written down in novels. Moreover, the vast majority of people hardly read novels, or don’t read novels at all – and that includes people in the Western world.

Even while Barack Obama claimed Powers’ previous novel The Overstory changed how he sees certain things, the relevant question is if that has had any effect whatsoever on his actions as a politician? Is there any hard scientific data supporting the idea that novels significantly change people’s behavior? I’m just a sample of one obviously, but I’ve read over a 1000 novels in my lifetime and none of them have significantly changed my ideas about the world, nor did they change my behavior, except that some of them prompted me to buy and read more of their author.

On top of that, it’s ironic that on the page opposite to the one I just quoted that passage from, an important caveat to the power of novels could be found:

“Although we reverse a more comprehensive investigation of the role of religion in moral progress for a future work, here we will venture to agree with Norbert Elias, who held that the character of a religion at any given time, including its understanding of human rights, is generally a reflection of the larger culture in which religion is embedded, not an exogenous cause of the character of that culture.”

I would argue that the same goes for novels: they reflect their culture, rather than cause it. Richard Powers wrote a book about autism and the 6th mass extinction because neurodiversity, giant pandas and the insect apocalypse are already part of the discourse – so much even that politicians in countries across the globe have been installing policies to counteract animal and plant extinction for decades. Granted, more should be done, but in a way Bewilderment is very late to the party.

Buchanan and Powell also need to realize that the vast majority of people who read novels only read stuff that aligns with their own moral & ideological viewpoints to begin with, as authors operate in increasingly divided and separate cultural ecologies, and publishers cater to these ecologies not only with marketing, but also by intervening directly in the content of their novels with things like sensitivity readers. If Vox Day would coincidentally read an Ann Leckie or N.K. Jemisin novel, his reaction will not be a shift in perspective.

Luckily, the book’s theory doesn’t hinge on the novel’s supposed powers at all, and its mention is a mere side note. I’d say this is a classic example of experts voicing opinions outside their expertise – see the tidbits below if you want to be in on that joke.

When I finished The Evolution of Moral Progress, I decided to see if Powell had published something else since 2020’s Contingency and Convergence, and I found out that Powell today goes by the name of Rachell. She has two monographs in the making: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Human Nature (due 2022), and Alien Minds: Invertebrate Intelligence and the Evolutionary Meaning of Life (a book being co-written with Irina Mikhalevich). I will keep an eye out for both – if I could today, I would already pre-order them. Just saying: I have become a Powell fan.

Buchanan also has written another book since: Our Moral Fate – Evolution and the Escape from Tribalism, published in 2020. According to Goodreads reviewer Guido Calderini the first part is basically a reiteration of Evolution of Moral Progress, and in the second part Buchanan introduces “the concepts of moral identity and ideology”, “extremely interesting and a necessary addition to the theory first presented on that 2016 article. A good book, but not as tight and clean in its argumentation as the 2018 one.”


I will leave you with some of the things I’ve learned while reading The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory. The usual caveats apply: these nuggets of wisdom are not a summary at all, and are not intended as a representative sample of the actual content of the book, but I do hope they show a bit of the book’s thematic richness. They are just here as a reminder for myself, and maybe some of them will interest you too. I’ve decided to quote extensively rather than summarize, to give you a taste of the book’s prose.

> As a starter, an example that shows the rigorousness the authors apply to the terms they use throughout the book. One could distinguish three understandings of moral progress. “The first, most demanding sense is (…) moral progress in the most full-bodied sense (…) not simply change that is desirable from a moral point of view but [it] also must involve the exercise of or improvements in the moral powers. The second and weaker understanding allows changes that are improvements from a moral point of view to count as moral progress even if they came about through self-interested, prudential, or other nonmoral motivations (…) The third and weakest understanding (…) would equate it with changes that are desirable from a moral point of view, without requiring that any human motivational capacities be involved.”

> Peter Singer borrowed his “expanding circle” theory from William Lecky.

> Vs. functionalist accounts of morality, and vs. fixed approaches, like list of innate moral foundations, “care/harm, authority/obedience, purity/contamination, fairness/reciprocity” by Jonathan Haidt, Richmond Campbell and Victor Kumar. Not only have these lists already changed over the years, even “if one acknowledges that the foundations may be interpreted and weighed differently as moralities evolve, it is surely a case of epistemic hubris to assume that the list of foundations will never change. Given the open-ended normativity of human beings – and given the fact that intelligent people have repeatedly falsely believed that they had a fix on what morality not only is but always will be – there is no good reason to believe that the list won’t change. And if that is so, then one cannot define moral progress as the interpretation and weighing of this small set of values (or norms or virtues) in the process of solving “problems of interdependent living”. In other words, even if one ignores the intrapersonal aspect of morality and the fact that morality now reaches to beings with which we do not experience “problems of interdependent living” but that are merely passive recipients of our treatment of them, Campbell’s and Kumar’s view suffers the problem that all fixed content views suffer.”

> Ideals that are far away from our current situation are hard to gauge, and as such it is impossible to determine whether it is truly an ideal worth pursuing.

> “(…) there is no good reason, at present, to think that morality is unified – that is, to assume that there is some grand, unifying fundamental moral norm, concept or value from which all aspects of morality can be informatively derived.”

> “Organisms do not simply adapt to pre-existing ecological niches, much as keys are molded to fit locks. Rather, organisms and their selective environments are co-determinative, in the sense that a lineage’s adaptive moves shape the very ecological design problems that it needs to solve. (…) The point is that adaptation is a dynamic, open-ended process, so we should not think of morality as a stable evolutionary key to the fixed ecological lock of cooperation.”

> Selection also happens on group level, not merely on an individual level, but group-level selection “is only sufficiently strong in the context of frequent and frequently lethal intergroup conflict (…).” My own addition to this idea is that as humans have entered a global phase since a few centuries, such whole group-level selection doesn’t happen anymore, and it is clear we have developed behaviors as a species that co-determine our environment to such a degree that our behavior is resulting in the sixth mass extinction & climate change, both of which might lead to societal catastrophes – possibly reintroducing group selection.

> “Parochial altruism, which consists in the combination of in-group favoritism/empathy and out-group antagonism/antipathy, is among the most cross-culturally robust features of human moral psychology and a direct prediction of group selectionist accounts of morality. Ethnocentric bias (…) emerges rapidly in very young children beginning at around three years of age; the expression of ethnocentric bias is cognitively automatic and does not require reward and punishment or explicit acculturation; and (…) there is also evidence that humans have innate tendencies to “essentialize” human groups and to automatically assign moral significance to group membership – which in turn serves to modulate empathy and altruism and thus interactions with other groups.” There seems to be lots of indications “that [in-group/out-group bias] is genetically prespecified to some degree.” (Its interesting to contrast this with the much older The Ethnic Phenomenom by Pierre Van den Berghe (1981), who gives compelling reasons for his thesis that racism is not genetically hardwired as such, but do note that racism is a subset of in-group/out-group bias.)

> “The great attraction of eugenics for the middle and upper classes lay in the fact that it provided both a diagnosis and a scientific cure for modern social ills that did not concede the need to change the nature of the capitalist social order. Rather than having to admit that the crime and immorality they were witnessing was the result of an unjust economic system, believers in eugenics could conveniently “medicalize” these problems and in a way that exculpated themselves and the system from which they disproportionately benefited.”

> Exclusivist morals have costs too: less trade, mate exchange, alliances, and an increase of dangerous, belligerent and destructive interactions. “Because of this evolutionary trade-off, exclusivist tendencies will, according to the adaptive plasticity hypothesis, be tempered in environments in which out-group threats are not detected during development or in which they are counterbalanced by opportunities for cooperation with out-groups.”

> Long-distance trade might predate language in hominids. However, Buchanan and Powell don’t provide a source for this claim, they just say “research on Pleistocene technology” “suggests” this. I’m not saying it is unlike, not at all. The problem is that they don’t define language. In general, I’m always wary of claims that try to date hominid language – not that Buchanan and Powell do so here, the tidbit is just mentioned in passing, as support for existing intergroup relations. (But see chapter I of The Dawn of Everything by Graeber & Wengrow on such so-called ‘trade’.)

> The difference in cultural conceptions of honor between the northern and southern states in the USA “have been explained as the result of these regions being settled by peoples with different cultural moral systems adapted to different historical ecologies. [by R.E. Nisbett and D. Cohen] In particular, Scotch-Irish livestock herders were the predominant settlers of the South, whereas peasant farmers from Germany, England, and the Netherlands were the chief settlers of the North. Livestock herding is robustly associated with hyper-masculine, honor-based cultures around the world because it typically occurs in rugged, lawless regions of countries where theft and other forms of predation are commonplace – and where violent reactions serve as a necessary deterrent in absence of an effective police force. [from S. Linquist]”

> “there is a link between exclusivist psychological orientations and mental rigidity, close-mindedness, dogmatism, and fear of uncertainty. Individuals exhibiting these psychological orientations are less able or willing to critically examine assumptions underlying their moral worldview, to perceive the complexities of moral problems, to acknowledge that they hold logically contradictory beliefs (…). These traits, in turn, make it difficult or impossible to subject one’s values and cultural practices to critical scrutiny, thus impeding inclusivist moral development and perhaps moral progress more generally.” In my opinion, a worry today is that a part of the liberal side on the American cultural divide is beginning to show a particular ingroup mentally as well, leading to so-called cancel culture, which is a form of dogmatism at times. The quote shows how such a development can become a vicious circle. The irony obviously is that cancel culture is performed under the banner of moral inclusivity.

> “fundamental attribution error: people tend to attribute positive in-group behaviors to internal character dispositions and negative in-group behaviors to situational factors, whereas they make the reverse set of attributions in relation to out-group members. Indeed, what is disturbing about generic overgeneralization is that it apparently only applies in connection with highly negative behavior. If a member of another group exhibits commendable behavior, people do not tend to attribute that behavior to all other members of the group. Evolutionary risk management theory can come some way toward explaining this asymmetry of attribution.”

> “Theories give data meaning. Observations only count as data in relation to some hypothesis, and what we perceive as data depends heavily on our background theories. As Tooby and Devore state, “Models (or theories) are organs of perception: they allow new kinds of evidence and new relationships to be perceived.””

> “(…) inequality can result in an epistemic environment that distorts understandings of what morality requires and hence of what constitutes moral progress. In a society with pervasive racial or gender discrimination, the victims of discrimination will be unable to exhibit or in some cases even develop important capacities, including capacities that are thought to be relevant to determining their rights and statuses. Social experience in such environments will seem to confirm false beliefs about the limited capacities of such individuals – the very false beliefs that are invoked to justify the discriminatory practices that create the distorted experience.”

> Explanatory deficits lead to normative deficits.

> “Because cooperation, at least on a fairly large and complex scale, requires coordination through the following of norms and because internalization of norms improve compliance and reduces costs of achieving it, it is important for individuals to develop the disposition to follow moral norms automatically, as it were.”

> “ideologies function to reduce rates of cultural “mutation” that could destabilize societal arrangements that benefit all or, in some cases, that benefit primarily an elite caste. In essence, ideologies can act as immune systems, blocking invading cultural variants that could destabilize existing institutional structures and undermine social cohesion, whether this is to the benefit of all or only a subset of society.” Ideologies also function as coping mechanisms for “subjugated groups”.

> Cultural variants “spread much more rapidly than genetic variants, but it also makes cultural transmission uniquely susceptible to the spread of maladaptive variants.” “But [cultural copying biases – such as tendencies to copy cultural variants that are common, to emmulate prestigious individuals, and to identify transparently successful strategies] are far from fail-safe heuristics as destructive norms are often adopted by prestigious individuals – consider, for example, celebrity “anti-vaxxers” (…) and more generally the tendency of experts to opine outside of their proper domain of expertise. Furthermore, futile or harmful norms are often mistaken for successful ones, particularly in cases of complex causation, such as epidemiology and disease.” (This passage is particularly telling & prescient in the context of the current pandemic, but obviously has a much larger field of application.) “It follows that the fact that a norm is maintained in a society does not, therefore, provide persuasive or even prima facie evidence that the norm has a salutary function. This simple fact (…) has momentous implications for traditional conservative thinking, which takes the longevity of social practices and institutions as evidence of their “wisdom.””

> Rights are often distinguished as being ‘negative’ or ‘positive’: negatives ones are rights “against physical harm”, positive ones are like rights to certain “conditions of living, including public health arrangements, (…), and access to basic education.” But the terminology “is seriously misleading”. “It is not the case that the former require only refraining on the part of the government and citizens, while the latter require positive government actions that involve taking resources from citizens to secure the rights of others. So-called negative rights also require substantial, sometimes vast positive undertakings by government, and these inevitably involve redistribution of wealth among citizens.”

> Apparently Europeans in part justified the colonization of Africa to abolish slavery there.

> “Instead of characterizing social justice as being only concerned with achieving a fair distribution of the burdens and benefits of social cooperation, as Rawls phrases it, the idea of disability rights recognizes that access to effective participation is itself a matter of justice – one that arises prior to the question of how to distribute the benefits and burdens of cooperation fairly.”

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews. Here‘s an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature. Here are my favorite lists – including a list of favorite non-fiction.

The author index includes all my fiction reviews – most of it science fiction.

31 responses to “THE EVOLUTION OF MORAL PROGRESS – Allen Buchanan & Russell Powell (2018)

  1. Great review, and good spot on that forthcoming book Alien Mind, I’ll be looking out for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting tidbits. It’s not a subject that I would like to read a whole book about, but from what I’ve read of her other work (Contingency and Convergence) I can assume that this book is also very well argued. By the way, I am about a third, or almost halfway into C&C. I only read it in little pieces, maybe a few days a month. I’ll get there.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review and what an interesting book! This one is definitely going on my list.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting! Are the authors saying support for inclusivity should be the first principle of a truly moral society? Or that it’s the product of a truly moral society? Just wondering.

    Your point about story-telling is well-taken. I reckon our ancestors sat around the fire and told stories for much the same reason we tell them now. Whether it’s The Iliad or some anecdote you overhear in a pub, stories are either cautionary or aspirational (ie, we’re supposed to learn something useful from them) but also need to know their audience (confirmation bias).

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, they make none of such prescriptive statements. I would think they would be drawn to the latter statement first however.

      As for storytelling, you are right. I don’t know if you clicked the link to the NYT review of ‘The Storytelling Animal’ by Jonathan Gottschall, but it seems that book has interesting stuff to say on the matter, confirming what you say. I should get a copy I guess, or at least find out more about it.


      • Just read up a bit on the Gottschall book, it seems it is very superficial and lacks thoroughness. It doesn’t mean his ideas are totally wrong, but either way, he doesn’t manage to prove them.


  5. Maybe the fault doesn’t lie with him? I guess stories help us understand others better and to anticipate certain situations- ie, we might read about a particular (imaginary) character) then later notice corollaries with somebody we actually know, which in turn influences how we interact with that person. Proving and quantifying this could be tricky, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes true, very hard to prove & quantify. But then the guy’s theory should have had more ‘maybe’, ‘probably’ and ‘might’ in his text.

      What I think might be more important than the stories themselves are your group members’ reactions to them. Most learning happens there, I think, as each story is told in a social context with particular functions. Religious stories that have a religious police enforcing behavioral rules behind them are different from a horror movie night with friends.

      Most stories we tell aren’t even fictional, but stories about people we know – like gossip. I think our social relations’ reactions to such stories are far more instructive on how we are supposed to behave in society than whatever fictional account.


  6. Absolutely. In that respect I’d agree with you that the authors are attaching far too much importance to the novel; gossip is probably the most relevant example of story-telling – e.g. in a work context (what a colleague did right, what they did wrong, etc).

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ll definitely read this. While I might be subject to positive bias (my general outlook on moral progress is basically the same as presented by these authors, and I even wrote a piece or two about it) I’m actually very happy to see a serious book giving this a serious thought and not just treating it as unicorns-and-rainbows kind of utopia.

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  11. I’ve not read the tidbits at the end yet, but I have a few things that kept leaping out at me as I read through this that I feel are worth mentioning.

    The work of two different authors jump immediately to mind as relevant to this book;

    First, anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s self-proclaimed answer to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Kropotkin himself was a nominal naturalist, but primarily a political philosopher, but Mutual Aid argues against ideas which were early forms of evoconservatism, highlighting studies and elements in the evolutionary record which supports the notion that groups which are more cooperative and generally inclusive of other groups and species are in fact evolutionarily more successful.

    Second, an author who I haven’t read anything from yet, but Timothy Morton also comes to mind here, especially regarding theories of interspecies interdependence and symbiotic relationships between species. I don’t know how related Morton’s work is Buchanan and Russell’s work here, but what I’ve read of his stuff kept leaping out of my mind as I read this.

    This book sounds really interesting, and I enjoy the prospect that the authors are approaching philosophy from a perspective which integrates other fields of study into the subject of morality. Much of philosophy, historically and contemporarily, ignore expertise from outside the field, and as a result earns the whole enterprise the reputation of being disconnected and self-involved. Folding science into things of course generates some fuzziness, since scientific fields are approaching all their inquiries from subjective values and bodies of knowledge (a la Thomas Kuhn, or Harry Collins & Trevor Pinch’s interesting 1993 book “The Golem: What Everyone Should Know About Science”). Still, it’s useful to have any attempt to introduce thought-rigor to explorations of philosophical concepts.

    Another thing that comes to mind is the period following World War 1 in the United States, paired with the 1918 flu pandemic; the Red Summer, the first Red Scare, the Second Ku Klux Klan. Much ink has been spilled about how race relations in the U.S. experienced a backslide in those years, and the modern liberal/Obaman “arc of history bends toward justice” mantra simply doesn’t bear out. Moral progress takes work, it’s not a sure thing simply as a fact of history.

    This is a great review of a fascinating-sounding book, and it’s definitely going onto my list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, I will look into Timothy Morton, that’s a new name for me.

      Your thoughts on philosophy are similar to mine, and it’s only after years and years of reading philosophy I came to see that much of it is a waste of time if it is not grounded in scientific observation. I started realizing that by reading Richard Rorty, who claimed that much of philosophy is merely people writing books about other books they’ve read. Early philosophy gets a pass as the scientific method wasn’t up to point, or the right techniques for fine grained data collecting didn’t exist yet, so they couldn’t help it, but if you are doing philosophy nowadays you need to be connected with the broad scientific field indeed.

      I think the authors explicitly refer to the 1918 pandemic, but my memory has become a bit sketchy by now. Anyhow, the authors do warn to not take things for granted indeed.

      Do report back when you’ve read it!


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