Tag Archives: Anthropology

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.

Continue reading

THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF CHILDHOOD – David F. Lancy (2014)

The Anthropology Of Childhood

I bought David Lancy’s The Anthropology Of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings a few weeks after I learned I would become a father. It has been lying around for about two years, and as my daughter is starting to say the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’, now felt like the right time to start it. Verbally expressing preferences is a big deal on the road to personhood.

Lancy is a Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Utah State University, who wrote and edited several books on childhood and culture, starting his own research in the 1970ies. This book feels like a summary of the entire field, and can be considered Lancy’s crowning achievement. He draws on his own research here and there, but the bulk of this book is based on Lancy’s reading of countless other sources, giving it a vast scope.

On the back cover, Barry Bogin of Loughborough University puts it like this: “the most comprehensive, and perhaps only, review of the human child in terms of evolutionary biology and sociocultural anthropology. Based on the best of theory and field ethnography, it is essential for any study of human development and human nature.”

I read the 2nd edition, which adds over 750 new sources to the first edition that appeared in 2008. 750 extra sources: that should be an indication of this book’s thoroughness. There’s 104 pages of bibliography, plus a 6-page author index, a 5-page topic index and a 7-page society index – all small print. The text itself is 410 pages long, riddled with quotes from other studies.

Continue reading