Tag Archives: Evolutionary psychology

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.

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Becoming Human TomaselloI’m always eager for the year-end list of David Auerbach at Waggish. The man is a voracious reader in all kinds of domains. 2019’s list was dauntingly long, but I found a few titles right up my ally, one being Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny by Michael Tomasello, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke. Tomasello is one of the few scientists bridging developmental research on both primates and children, and a leading figure in a branch of evolutionary psychology that was new to me: human ontogeny.

The book focuses on the question what makes humans unique. It does this by focusing on how children become adult humans, and as such part of human culture – how the development of human abilities in children differ from the development of these abilities in great apes.

Tomasello’s scope is large. He ties the development of human cognition and human sociality together, resulting in synthesizing insights about social norms & moral identity. This in not only a comparative psychology book, but an important work on ethics too. Truly a tour de force, and the first theory I’ve come across that convincingly brings cognition, evolution and ethics together – not in a normative way, but by describing the pathways of how these things arise, starting with newborn babies.

Tomasello builds on the seminal insight of Lev Vygotsky, who in the beginning of the 20th century was one of the first to articulate the fact that children need a social context to develop fully. A child that would be put onto a desert island without any social interaction would not become ‘human’ as we generally define it.

To further sketch the content, let me first quote the blurb from the publisher – Harvard.

Tomasello assembles nearly three decades of experimental work with chimpanzees, bonobos, and human children to propose a new framework for psychological growth between birth and seven years of age. He identifies eight pathways that starkly differentiate humans from their closest primate relatives: social cognition, communication, cultural learning, cooperative thinking, collaboration, prosociality, social norms, and moral identity. In each of these, great apes possess rudimentary abilities. But then, Tomasello argues, the maturation of humans’ evolved capacities for shared intentionality transform these abilities—through the new forms of sociocultural interaction they enable—into uniquely human cognition and sociality. The first step occurs around nine months, with the emergence of joint intentionality, exercised mostly with caregiving adults. The second step occurs around three years, with the emergence of collective intentionality involving both authoritative adults, who convey cultural knowledge, and coequal peers, who elicit collaboration and communication. Finally, by age six or seven, children become responsible for self-regulating their beliefs and actions so that they comport with cultural norms.

At first, I was a bit suspicious of Tomasello’s claims: I have read quite a lot of Frans de Waal and the likes, and my intellectual stance the last decade or so had been to not overestimate human uniqueness – not in language skills, not in cognition, etc. I considered differences between humans and other animals basically a matter of degree.

To a certain extent this obviously still holds, but one of the merits of Tomasello is that he uses large sets of experimental data that clearly show there are two things that are unique in humans: “shared intentionality” and “collective intentionality”. Basically, the fact that we humans do things together, know that we do things together and have elaborate insights in other humans’ mental states that influence our own mental states. So it’s not only cooperation itself that is important, but the fact that it is a form of recursive cooperation.

Language obviously is important for all of this, and so this is not only an ethics book, but one that should interest linguists too. The same goes for the cultural transmission of knowledge: instructed learning basically doesn’t exist in the rest of the animal kingdom, so yes, pedagogy too. Continue reading