Morality, Neuro-myths, and the Spurious Seduction of Evolutionary Ethics

Has neuroscience sold us a lie about the nature of morality?

Here’s a thought experiment. Suppose you are an aid agency providing food for children in a refugee camp. You have limited resources and could either feed all the hungry children inadequately, in which case they will soon starve, or feed a few adequately so they will survive but the others will all die. It’s a moral choice between equity and efficiency. What do you do – especially if your head is in an fMRI brain imager when you are confronted with the dilemma? According to the authors of this neuroscientific quandary, who claim to be measuring the brain correlates of distributive justice, one brain region, the insula, encodes inequity while the putamen region encodes efficiency.[i]

This typifies the beliefs of the new discipline of neuroethics that absolute moral values are inscribed in the brain. But how did we get here? For as long as oral traditions or written records have been available, moral injunctions have been laid down as representing the word of God, the wisdom of philosophers or the command of kings. Think of the Bible’s Ten Commandments, the teachings of Confucius or Ashoka, or the Code of Hammurabi. Precepts, rules of conduct and penalties for disobedience follow, engraved on tablets and enshrined in ancient texts, interpreted and reinterpreted by scholars and theologians as central pillars of society.

No longer. Ever since Darwin, but with increasing insistence over the last half century, the life sciences of evolution, genetics and neuroscience have claimed their rights as arbiters of morality. A key moment came in 1975 with the publication of EO Wilson’s Sociobiology. Wilson, a Harvard-based biologist, defined sociobiology as ‘the systematic study of all social behaviour,’ a branch of evolutionary biology encompassing all human societies. The book offered a biological - genetic and evolutionary - explanation of human cultural manifestations such as religion, ethics, tribalism, warfare, genocide, cooperation, competition, conformity and many others. Wilson argued that sociobiology would provide the basis for a complete code of evolution-based ethics. The book’s apparent justification of the inevitability of racism, sexism and class sparked a major controversy, spilling from academia into political activism, both from the radical left[ii] and the neo-Nazi right[iii].

By the 1990s, sociobiology had been ‘rebranded’[iv] as evolutionary psychology (EP). The claim was now that a universal ‘human nature’ had been genetically fixed at the very origins of Homo sapiens in the Pleistocene and there had not been enough evolutionary time for change to occur; thus we modern humans still have ‘stone age minds’ and a residual stone age morality not dissimilar from Wilson’s earlier list. EP was called upon to ‘explain’ patriarchy, nepotism, male preference for sex with younger women and young womens’ for older, richer men, even rape and, allegedly, stepfathers killing their stepchildren. Its adherents argued firmly that ‘explain’ did not mean justify, it was merely that this was the way evolution had made us behave. It was ‘Mother Nature’ who was sexist, claimed one prominent evolutionary psychologist, ‘so don’t blame her sons.’[v] 


"Brain activity does not cause moral judgement."

There is, of course, an interesting paradox here. EP’s protagonists simultaneously claim to be able to separate fact from value and to argue that, as a fact, our values are laid down in our genetics. To its critics, EP’s view of human nature merely projected back into the Pleistocene the lifestyle and values of middle-class Californian family life in the 1950s. It came to be known as Flintstone morality, even though not much can be inferred about the social life of our Pleistocene ancestors from the few skulls, shards of bone and artefacts available.

Underpinning EP is a ‘selfish gene’ view of living systems, that humans are mere vehicles for the propagation of our genes. As we share some of our genes with our siblings, it ‘pays’ to behave altruistically towards our kin: we should be prepared to sacrifice our lives for two siblings or eight cousins. Hence morality begins with the family. Called upon to explain the observation that people will frequently act to help other unrelated individuals, EP invented the concept of ‘reciprocal altruism,’ – you would save a drowning person in the belief that if you in your turn were drowning, they would save you – a proposal soon laughed out of court. A more sophisticated argument is that humans, even in the Pleistocene, have been and are social animals, living in gatherer-hunter groups wider than mere genetic kin. Group survival depends on cooperation, including the rearing of infants. And co-operativity could be regarded as an essential first step towards agreeing a code of moral behaviour.

Two decades on, following the sequencing of the human genome, which revealed just how few genes it contained (about the same number as a tiny nematode worm) and the rise of epigenetics, EP’s crudities have, with embarrassment, been consigned to history amongst evolutionary biologists and geneticists, although they persist in popular culture. Instead, there has been a recognition that, far from having been laid down immutably in the Pleistocene, ‘human nature’ – whatever is understood by that term - has been transformed through a runaway process of gene-culture coevolution in which cultural change (including changes in agriculture and technology) feeds back into genetic change and genetic change in turn enables new cultural forms.[vi]

Thus despite the claims of evolutionary ethics, whilst all human societies may have required moral principles to function, those moral principles are not immutably determined by human biology but are culturally shaped. Take one of the most ringing statements of ethical principle, the opening words of the US Declaration of Independence:

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’

But the drafters of that document did not read it as we might today. When they said ‘men,’ they did not mean ‘men and women.’ And when they said ‘all men,’ they did not include Black men, still less Black women. Morally acceptable practices in Western Europe today, such as homosexuality or abortion, are not those of our Victorian forebears, nor those current in many other parts of the globe. Rape in marriage is no longer morally or legally permissible. And as the persistent struggles over these moral norms reveal, they are not immutable. I need not labour the point. Moral principles are culturally relative, even if such principles are part of our biological heritage as social, group-living animals. They are sufficiently independent of biology as to render the latter of little significance as we make moral judgements each day.

So what of neuroethics? From my perspective as a neuroscientist, it would seem obvious that our actions, behaviours, thoughts and intentions engage brain processes and that, with appropriate techniques, it might be possible to observe these processes on the wing, so to say. Wondrous as the false colour brain images generated by fMRI are, they are misleading and claims that they indicate a ‘site’ in the brain for – as in this instance – efficiency and inequity, suggest a fixity that misrepresents the dynamic nature of brain processes. More relevant here is that even were such an association to be found, it is at best correlative – there is no direction of causation implied. The brain activity does not cause the moral judgement. Finally, one may question the relevance of these toy problems beloved of moral philosophers, and now embraced by neuroethicists, to real life situations where ethical judgements are not made in the asocial and ahistorical conditions of an imaging laboratory but in the normal confusion of everyday life.

Read more from this issue of IAI News here: Morality and Prejudice

[i]  M Hsu, M Anen and SR Quartz The right and the good: distributive justice and neural encoding of equity and efficiency, Science 330 1092-1095, 2008

[ii] See for instance  Steven Rose, Leo Kamin and Richard Lewontin Not in our Genes Penguin, 1984.

[iii] ‘Sociobiology says that racism is in our selfish genes’ claimed a headline in the now defunct magazine of the equally defunct National Front.

[iv] Richard Dawkins’ term

[v] For a critique of EP see Hilary Rose and Steven Rose (eds)Alas Poor Darwin: arguments against evolutionary psychology, Cape, 2000

[vi] For an excellent account fully within the Darwinist canon, see Kevin Laland: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: how culture made the human mind, Princeton, 2017

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Abraham Joseph 31 August 2017

More than morality obsessed, existence is keen on some other objectives, it seems. But morality comes automatically for the guys and societies that follow her guiding principles.

Comments of Dzen makes a lot of sense.

Man is moral, not because of, or directly from any inherent moral sense, but from establishing his destined 'relation' with Existence. His self-realization, the proverbial goal of every human being!

Love to share here with, a blog post of this commentator, that delves into the theme of 'how ought to we live':

Dzen_o 30 June 2017

To speak about the morality is necessary before to define/rationally understand – what are the notions/phenomena “Matter”, “Consciousness” , and “Life”; first of all to understand that Matter and Consciousnesses are fundamentally different, including human’s consciousness is non-material and uses practically totally material body as some stable residence.

All these notions/phenomena are Meta-mainstream philosophical and so Meta-mainstream “usual scientific” as well, which can be defined/understandable/studied only in framework of the “The Information as Absolute” conception ( ).

Outside the conception the study of the consciousness, moral, etc. has no perspective, including, for example, applications of the neuroscience is practically something as studying what a computer with a running program does, having at that no understanding what is studied and having no access to the random access memory and the processor; as that the neuroscience in the reality does.

Returning to the moral, etc. – see the Sec.2 in ; though it is useful, of course to read the whole paper.

The URL links in the IAI comments often aren’t active directly, but work if an address ia copied and pasted into the browser address line.

mlsloan 20 May 2017

Hello Steven,

Perhaps some readers will find interesting my starkly opposing view of how EO Wilson’s prediction of a science based morality (or perhaps more than one) is, after 45 years or so, finally near fruition.

Of course, I would be glad to discuss my particular objections to your perspective if you have any interest in doing so.

You may agree that biology underlying emotions triggered by moral judgements such as empathy, loyalty, gratitude, indignation, guilt, and shame was selected for by the benefits of cooperation these emotions motivated.

However, contrary to your implication, it is a profound error of logic to conclude anything like this science claims ’justification’ for “racism, sexism and class”. Quite the opposite, racism, sexism, and class tend to reduce the over-all benefits of cooperation.

Also, it appears to be the case that virtually all cultural moral norms have the same primary selection force, the benefits of cooperation in groups. Cultural norms are just an additional substrate on which evolution can select for and encode elements of cooperation strategies. ”Morality” as defined by both our biology and cultural moral norms is about elements of cooperation strategies.

But it would be a second profound error of logic to conclude anything like this science claims whatever increases cooperation in groups is what we morally ‘ought’ to do”. While virtually all past and present moral norms are elements of known cooperation strategies, many strategies increase the benefits of cooperation for an in-group at the expense of an out-group. For example, claiming homosexuals are imaginary ‘threats’ to the group can be effective in increasing in-group unity and cooperation (people enjoy banding together against a threat!). But well-informed modern societies would see that as shameful, and immoral, exploitation.

Science tells us what moral ‘means’ ‘are’. They are elements of cooperation strategies. Anyone who claims they are anything else is factually wrong – they are making a category error. They are talking about a different subject than what our moral emotions and intuitive moral judgements are about.

On the other hand, science cannot tell us what the goals for acting morally ought to be.

Possible goals for acting morally suggested by mainstream moral philosophy are 1) utilitarian goals such as the most happiness for the most people, 2) to act ‘virtuously’, 3) to act in ways that are universally moral, or 4) combinations of the above such as achieving utilitarian goals by universally moral ‘means’. So far as I know, which goal a person or a society chooses for acting morally is a matter of subjective preference as long it does not conflict with what moral ‘means’ ‘are’ - increasing the benefits of cooperation.

EO Wilson predicted science would provide the basis for an evolution-based morality. By revealing what the evolutionary function of morality ‘is’, science has defined what moral ‘means’ for achieving our goals are, and are not,. That seems to me a large step forward.

My own preference goal is a kind of Rule-Utilitarianism, achieving utilitarian goals by universally moral cooperation strategies - strategies that exploit no one.