About a century a century ago, a number of prominent and wealthy people began endorsing a political view sometimes referred to as “social Darwinism.” Their view, which is now widely refuted by philosophers and scientists alike, was that social programs aimed at helping the sick, feeble, and weak halted the progress of human evolution by intervening in the process of natural selection which favors the healthy, smart, and strong. This view has two serious flaws. First, it radically misunderstands the process of natural selection by mistakenly conflating strength with adaptability. Second, it commits what philosophers refer to as the naturalistic fallacy by interjecting the prescriptive idea of progress into what is purportedly a descriptive theory of biology.
Recently, Jim and I had a conversation about the frequency with which figures in both ethics and socio-biology seem to appeal to evolutionary imperatives to explain moral sentiment. Jim’s concern is that appeal to a biological phenomenon to EXPLAIN moral phenomenon seems to run perilously close to the naturalistic fallacy in which biological explanations are used as a JUSTIFICATION for moral sentiment. I won’t make the charge that any scholar at the forefront of socio-biology would confuse the observation that “our biology makes us everything that we are, including good” with the indefensible conclusion that “common moral sentiments are good because they developed naturally,” but my worry is that some of the people who are reading books on the biological foundation of moral psychology may be making exactly that flawed inference. Hence, I think there is some possibility of a new, softer, fluffier, but no less flawed version of social Darwinism making headway as a popular pseudo-scientific social theory.
One book which is a prime candidate for this type of misinterpretation is Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding by Sarah Hrdy. The thesis of the book is that human beings evolved as cooperative caretakers because of the relative helplessness of human babies. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Hrdy said:
“I’m not comfortable accepting this idea that the origins of hypersociality can be found in warfare, or that in-group amity arose in the interest of out-group enmity… Sure, humans have been notably violent and militaristic for the last 12,000 or so years… when hunter-gatherers started settling down and defending territories, and populations started getting seriously dense…. But before then? What would humans have been fighting over? They were too busy trying to keep themselves and their children alive.”
I want to say from the outset that I have no objection to Dr. Hrdy’s thesis, nor am I suggesting that she is guilty of conflating biological theory with moral prescription. Rather, I worry that other people in her field (Hrdy is an anthropologist) will appeal to the biological “adaptiveness” of the various traits that comprise our moral psychology (altruism, cooperation, empathy, a sense of fairness, etc.) in order to suggest that these traits are good.
This is problematic not only because the socio-biologist can make the case that opposing traits (selfishness, competition, contempt, a sense of disgust, etc.) were also adaptive (or at least not disadvantageous), but because adaptive qualities are in no way good or bad. They aren’t even consistently advantageous from a reproductive standpoint. All it means to say that a trait like altruism was adaptive was that it allowed those who possessed it to survive and reproduce more at some point in human evolution.
I see clear parallels between the fallacious inference that our moral psychology was adaptive and therefore good and the fallacious inference that the strong survive in nature and therefore the weak should be left to die off. Admittedly, it is difficult to see how this new version of social Darwinism could be used to rationalize morally abhorrent behavior or justify heinous public policy, but it still makes a totally unfounded leap from the world as it is to the world as it should be. For me, that’s reason enough to worry.