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Evolution and Morality: The Biology and Philosophy of Human Conscience

At a conference in beautiful Erice, Italy titled Evolution and Morality: The Biology and Philosophy of Human Conscience, evolutionary biologists, ethologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, psychologists, theologians, and philosophers discussed the role of cultural and biological evolution in influencing morality. The conference was hosted by the Ettore Majorana Foundation and Centre for Scientific Culture.

So, is morality just a fuzzy concept that will be debated throughout the annals of time? Or is it a concept which an evolutionary framework can render scientifically useful to better understand the human condition and perhaps improve it?

The first speaker Frans de Waal, demonstrated how chimpanzees and many other non human primates (even elephants and dogs) often exhibit very strong other-regarding behavior (Frans used the video below as an example of elephant cooperation) simply because natural selection often favors teamwork and altruism over defection and exploitation within social life. Here is a nice summary (provided by the conference organizers) of the historical debate regarding the origins of human morality:

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“Debates about the origin of human morality have gone through many phases, but ever since Darwin’s The Descent of Man, they have included evolutionary accounts or oppositions to such accounts. One of the central issues has been the sharp line that some scholars draw between humans and other life forms using morality as principle demarcation. In this view, humans are moral, whereas the rest of nature is amoral, perhaps even immoral. Human moral behavior is still often defined in opposition to the natural “instincts” or as a tool to keep those instincts under control. In other words, human morality would be a pure product of culture as “evidence” of our uniqueness. Whereas the natural sciences study human and animal anatomy, physiology, behavior and learning with the comparative method, they have until recently been reluctant to enter this debate. Part of the reason is that each time they have tried, there have been crisis of “naturalistic fallacy”. In the past decade, this situation has radically changed, however. New findings in neuroscience, psychology, primatology, behavioral economics, and anthropology have brought us back to the original Darwinian position that morality is continuous with animals social instincts. It turns out that our species is more altruistic and cooperative than was assumed, has an intuitive (as opposed to purely cerebral) approach to moral dilemmas, and that also other mammals show signs of empathy and other regarding tendencies assumed to underpin morality. These tendencies do not define morality, and are insufficient to arrive at a reasoned consensus regarding right and wrong, but without this ancient prosociality morality as we know it might not be possible.”

WATCH two elephants cooperate to solve a task:

Many provocative presentations and discussions followed that included questions such as is a naturalized ethics possible? How did a “watchful” god support the evolution of large-scale cooperation among genetic strangers? What happens in our brains to make us moral? and how does epigenetic changes during early life influence our moral development in later-life?

Picture of Speakers:

This View of Life is pleased to provide this permanent record of the conference and to serve as a vehicle for expanding knowledge that is informed by an evolutionary perspective.

TVOL is grateful to the conference organizers and participants, especially to Mark Sloan for his support. Mark blogs about evolutionary morality at Morality’s Random Walk. Listen to the interviews below and visit links to other resources that explain the conference.

I spoke with Stefano Parmigiani, an ethologist and one of the conference organizers, about the conference, the Ettore Majorana Foundation and Centre for Scientific Culture and the International School of Ethology.

I also spoke with participants from around the world about their impressions of the conference and their research. Frans de Waal gives a short introduction.


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