Welcome to the first installment of a new interview series at Evolution: This View of Life, “Profiles in Evolutionary Moral Psychology,” in which we’ll be speaking with several leading researchers of evolution and morality. These interviews will provide a uniquely personal perspective on each researcher’s approach to the science of morality, and because they’ll involve a standardized question set, they’ll also function as a survey of current research attitudes in the field.
For our first interview, I had the excellent fortune of being able to speak with Jonathan Haidt, the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business (who also happens to be editor of the business section at Evolution: This View of Life). Professor Haidt is one of the world’s most famous psychologists and leading public intellectuals—having been named, for example, a “top world thinker” by Prospect magazine and a “top global thinker” by Foreign Policy magazine. He is especially well-known for his work on the foundations of the moral emotions. In his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, he goes further than he ever had previously in theorizing about the evolutionary origins of these emotions, and his interview proved to be a rich source of insights about the nature and development of his theoretical approach.
MICHAEL PRICE: What can evolutionary approaches tell us about human moral systems, that other approaches cannot tell us? That is, what unique and novel insights about morality does an evolutionary approach provide?
JONATHAN HAIDT: Nearly all approaches to morality and moral development have assumed that cultural variation in morality means that morality is not innate. Some theorists emphasized childhood learning (Freud, Skinner); others emphasized childhood reasoning and discovery (Piaget, Kohlberg). But almost all were anti-nativist, bordering on blank slate. Well, from the vantage point of 2013, I think we can say that most of the history of psychology in the last 50 years has been the progressive discovery that blank slate theories are always wrong. Everything about human psychology has been shaped by our evolutionary history. Modern nativism is flexible – it’s about the first draft of the mind, which culture and experience then shape in ways that create unique individuals. But if we didn’t have evolutionary theory to explain that first draft, we’d still be stuck with dead-end blank-slate theories of morality and moral development. Evolutionary approaches allow us to look at other animals, especially other primates, to see the many ways that evolution creates what Frans de Waal calls “the building blocks” of morality.
PRICE: The ordinary view in biology is that adaptations evolve primarily to promote individual fitness (survival and reproduction). Do you believe that this view is correct, with regard to the human biological adaptations that generate moral rules? Does this view imply that individuals moralize primarily to promote their own fitness interests (as opposed to promoting, e.g., group welfare)?
HAIDT: If you say “primarily” in your question, then I say yes. I think the selfish gene approach is a good perspective for thinking about adaptation, and I think selfish genes create generally self-serving creatures, as long as we specify the two over-emphasized cases of kin-selection and reciprocal altruism. The first 2/3 of my book The Righteous Mind is about how we are basically Glauconians. That refers to the character Glaucon, in Plato’s Republic, who argues that we don’t really want to BE virtuous; we want to SEEM virtuous so that we can guard our reputations. But if you change your question to be: “Did group-level selection leave any mark on human nature?” or “Does human nature include any adaptations that are best understood as promoting group cohesion, fitness, or competitive prowess, as opposed to individual success,” then I say yes. The last third of The Righteous Mind is an extended argument that human groupishness shows the hallmarks of multi-level selection, including group-level selection. Most critics of group selection think that morality IS altruism, and they don’t think you need group selection to explain human altruism. But I say that group selection’s main effect would not be generalized altruism; it would be groupishness. Groups that can come together when under attack, elevate leaders and sacred objects, expel or kill traitors, and enter a mindset of “one for all, all for one,” would vanquish other groups under ancestral conditions. The human genes on earth today did not come down to us exclusively because some individuals outcompeted their neighbors in the same tribe. Rather, the genes on earth today are here in large part because some tribes prospered while others disappeared without leaving much DNA behind.
PRICE: What work by others on the evolution of morality (or just on morality in general) have you found most enlightening?
HAIDT: There is so much! To name four that made me stand up and cheer, with the feeling of vast new vistas opening up before me:
1. David Sloan Wilson’s book Darwin’s Cathedral. This book fundamentally changed my thinking about group selection and about religion. Dawkins has never responded to Wilson’s arguments. It’s stunning to me that on page 171 of The God Delusion Dawkins correctly states Wilson’s argument about how religion provides the special conditions that would allow group-level selection to get around the free rider problem. But he doesn’t respond, he simply moves on with his assertion that group selection never happened. Dawkins writes today as though no new arguments or evidence has arisen since 1976.
2. Pete Richerson and Rob Boyd’s book Not by Genes Alone. This book showed me how to integrate cultural learning with biological evolution. It also helped me understand the origin of our “tribal instincts,” which play such a large role in The Righteous Mind.
3. Natalie Henrich and Joe Henrich’s book Why Humans Cooperate. This book picks up where Richerson and Boyd leave off. It combines fieldwork with theory. In particular it helped me think about ethnicity, and the ways that real people compete and cooperate as they strive for prestige.
4. Michael Tomasello’s work on shared intentionality, as the key skill – the Rubicon – that our ancestors crossed (during the time of Homo heidelbergensis), which allowed us to create “moral matrices.” After reading Tomasello, I began to see a much greater gulf between humans and other primates.
PRICE: Which of your own publications are most relevant to an evolutionary understanding of morality? Which results or ideas from your work do you regard as most significant?
HAIDT: I have always loved drawing on evolutionary thinking as one of many perspectives. But it’s only when I wrote The Righteous Mind that I really delved into the literature and the controversies deeply enough to be able to say I might have made some sort of contribution. In chapters 7 and 8 of that book I describe the evolutionary processes that may have given us the 6 (or more) “moral foundations” that are—I suggest—like the evolved taste buds of the moral mind. But the thing I’m most proud of is chapter 9, where I synthesize the arguments—pro and con—about multi-level selection. After Jerry Coyne and others dismissed my arguments—which I presented in a TED talk—without actually reading anything I wrote, I decided to make chapter 9 of the book free on the web, so that more professors might assign it as reading in courses on evolution or morality. If you think group selection was “debunked” by George Williams and Richard Dawkins, please read Ch. 9 of The Righteous Mind.
PRICE: What are the most important unsolved scientific puzzles in evolutionary moral psychology?
HAIDT: First, How much biological evolution took place in the Holocene? And how much took place since the rise of big civilizations a few thousand years ago? Do our modern skulls really house stone-age minds? When evolutionary psych was being developed in the 1990s, the general view was that biological evolution was so slow that the Holocene could be ignored; what mattered was the Pleistocene. But now that it seems that human genetic evolution sped up wildly during the Holocene, that ought to change our thinking. If you really take gene-culture co-evolution seriously, then you’ve got to ask how the radically new selection pressures of life in cities and civilizations changed our genes over the last five to ten thousand years. (I’m not saying we evolved any new features or modules – there was no time for that. But there was plenty of time to tweak settings and timings.) But because of concerns about political correctness, my guess is nobody is going to touch this question, other than John Hawks.
Second, How many moral foundations are there? My colleagues and I identify six best candidates – care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. But we’ve always said there are others. Some good candidates are property, honesty, and a dislike of wastefulness. I think psychology has been hobbled by a destructive pursuit of parsimony. I am opposed to the pursuit of parsimony. I think evolution didn’t give a damn about parsimony when it was creating human nature, and moral psychologists should not pursue it either. (Of course, if two theories are equally good, you should take the simpler, as Occam advised, but that doesn’t mean you should choose a more parsimonious theory over one with more explanatory adequacy). So I hope that other morality researchers will critique Moral Foundations Theory, show what we missed, or where we went wrong. I think evolution gave us many moral “tastebuds,” which cultures then use to create their many variable moralities. So what is the full set of tastebuds?
Jonathan Haidt’s homepage at NYU
Homepage of his 2012 book The Righteous Mind
His profile at Edge.org
Learn more about his Moral Foundations Theory
His TED talk on ‘Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence’
Follow Jonathan Haidt on Twitter here