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

Published On: October 29, 2013


  • SocraticGadfly says:

    Re Haidt’s comment on the top unsolved problem in Ev Psych.

    No. 1 is, of course, as part of the old EEA, the whole linchpin of Ev Psych, and simply assumed to be true without any scientific evidence.

    I’m glad to see him asking how much development happened later than the normal dating of the EEA. I’d extend Haidt the other direction … how much human psychological evolution happened between the start of “Out of Africa” to the start of the Holocene? It’s arguable that we could call humans of that period “early modernizing” or something; pre-civilization, but still outside the box of the EEA.

  • Mark Sloan says:

    Socratic, I’ve seen the EEA described as the Pleistocene (2.6 M Years) which ended at the Holocene (12 K years BP). I don’t think Haidt is thinking of the Holocene period as the EEA. Perhaps you and I agree that neither is long enough to cover the EEA. A lot of our moral machinery (such as empathy, loyalty, gratitude, and ‘moral’ indignation) appears to be shared with chimpanzees, so the EEA for our moral machinery started long before the Pleistocene. I like Robert Kurzban’s discussion of the EEA at http://www.epjournal.net/blog/2012/12/eea-invariances/

    But what interests me about your comment is the possibility of divergence in the biology underlying our moral psychology in present populations based on different evolutionary paths in the last 70,000 years or so (since “out of Africa”).  Consider traditional hunter gatherers such as the San Bushmen and Australian aborigines, and Egyptians, Europeans, and Chinese who have been living post agriculture and in cities for thousands of years.

    How likely is it that there are significant differences in their biology that underlies moral emotions such as empathy, loyalty, shame, guilt, gratitude, and indignation and Haidt’s universal moral foundations care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty? I think it is highly unlikely to be significantly different because all of these are adaptations that are ‘winners’ as soon as you have cultures with moral norms (and for perhaps more than half of them, winner’s even for our pre-cultural ancestors), which long pre-dates “out of Africa”. 

    Perhaps some of the above links compare the moral foundations of traditionally hunter-gatherer and traditionally agriculture/city based people. Of course, separating biological and culturally based differences would be highly challenging.

  • Mark Sloan says:

    Logos, the material here is backed up by the peer reviewed literature. No such disclosure is required. 

  • Logos says:

    Next time this Tempelton laureate shows up, please put a disclaimer :

    ‘FoxNews psychology’

  • John V. Patrick says:

    The whole of these conceptions or preconceptions can be summarized by the Christian scripture “In the beginning there was the word and the word became flesh”. Obviously this passage connotes intelligent design of sorts and it makes little difference if the transition from word to flesh was instantly or took a trillion years. It still connotes intelligent design as we have known the concept.  I am a person of limited knowledge, at lease in philosophy but was trained in the physical sciences where cause and effect has been proven to be a valid reality, and accepted by most of us. Thus, I believe that after creation, our present conditions are a product of our design projected through cause and effect–our learned proficiencies, and the documented evolutions, all caused by our god given ability to think – our progress as we have learned to define them.
    The real problem of our concepts of mental evolution lies with our attempts to combine mental evolution with what we are calling cognition especially the learning aspects of cognition where we have applied most of our energy to concepts involving race which does not exist, and other mental aspects thought to be related to our physical evolution, not realizing trillions of such studies have served to only distort our findings.
    The only concept of learning as related to cognition is that we learn by doing. By doing we evolve via reasoning (proven validity), language, memory (all aids to communications), problem solving and perception (realizing what we already know). The rest is our attempt to complicate things- a concept involving self – actualization, a concept we created with our god given ability to think.
    Of all the animal creatures of the present earth, only we humans can transfer knowledge from one generation to another. Thus our mental evolution was born.
    John V. Patrick, author of Dogma: Deconstruction of our mental evolution and psyche pean4510@aol.com

  • John V. Patrick says:

    The problem is that most scholars tend to underestimate the power of self-actualization which is the prime driving force, both emotionally and empirically, for humans. History suggests that self-actualization and its inherited counterpart- denied self-actualization are the most direct routes to our dogmatic mentality.
    As a secondary deterrent to our marketing expertise is our predisposition with race which does not exist in large or small groups.  Attack these two deterrents and or at least move towards controlling them and we will have a better world.
    John V. Patrick, author of Dogma- the Deconstruction of our Mental Evolution and Psyche

  • John V. Patrick says:

    If you accept the concept that mental evolution is an individual thing derived from trillions of years of development, it becomes obvious that our, or individual states of mental evolution is a product of many complex interactions with some having greater significance than others with the greatest being what we pass on from generation to generation, and next, from community to community.. To decrypt the possible interactions or to define the individual conscripts is an exercise in folly, especially when the conscripts are such as listed by Sloan (Oct30, 2013).  From my limited prospective, we cannot talk to or analyze feelings of the primates. I feel we should concentrate on issues such as “Why or what make people laugh”, or “The effects of denied self-actualization”.  We have a better chance of obtaining meaningful information from to likes of these.
    John V. Patrick, author of Dogma- Deconstruction of our mental evolution and Psyche

  • Mark Sloan says:

    John, we can observe how primates, who have very similar biology to ours, solve the universal dilemma of how to obtain the benefits of cooperation without being exploited and thereby gain insights into the origins of our own biology for solving that same problem.

    Since the universe is only about 14.5 billion years old, where did your “trillions of years” transpire? 

    Also, I don’t see the relevance of your ideas to understanding morality as the product of evolutionary processes, which is the topic of this subsection.

  • John V Patrick says:

    MARK-  Morality is fundamentally the product of our ability to think, make judgments, and compare the mentalities of each other and thus, develop mentally.  The trillion or billion years of development really does not matter mentally. Trace mental development from the first recorded versus time, then regress it back into the unknown time and we get only an estimate of thought. or what it really is. The real point of my comment is that our research should be better directed towards the mentally of man because that is where the problems are. So be it if it took a million or trillion years to go from ape to the most beautiful or smartest person. Its more important to study the more rapid changes in our mental development and how to control it. I might add that all research is good. I also believe that morality is an evolutionary process and education is the more likely route to control it.
    John V. Patrick -author of DOGMA

  • John V. Patrick says:

    We can resolve the morality and religious issuers and their inherent conflicts by realizing one simple fact. That is, that morality like religion is a matter between an individual’s ethos and, in the case of religion, the relation between an INDIVIDUAL and his god. WE CAN NOT INFLUENCE OR REGULATE CONFLICTS BETWEEN INDIVIDUALS NOR WITHIN THE CONSCIENCE OF THESE RELATIONSHIPS BECAUSE OF INDIVIDUAL INTERACTIONS INVOLVED IN THE DERIVATION OF THE INDIVIDUAL ETHOS AND RELATED DOGMA OF THEIR BELIEFS.
    John V. Patrick, author of DOGMA and soon to be released DOGMA ll

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