Welcome to the new morality section of This View of Life, which I’ll be editing with assistance from associate editor Mark Sloan. I’ll use this initial post to say a few things about how I’ll approach the evolutionary science of morality.

Morality is centrally important to human affairs, for two main reasons. First, cross-culturally, the well-being of individuals is strongly affected by their moral standing: an individual held in high moral regard may be praised, rewarded, or celebrated as a hero, whereas one held in low regard may be admonished, ostracized, or put to death. Second, a society’s ability to compete with other societies may depend heavily on the content of its moral system: a moral system that successfully promotes values associated with economic and political competitiveness, for example, can be hugely advantageous to the society that hosts it. Our moral beliefs, then, have a critical impact on the fates of both the individuals we judge, and the societies to which we belong. (Two of my Psychology Today blog posts relating to these topics are here and here).

Given that morality is so important, you’d think we’d want to make sure that we were doing it right. That is, you’d think that we would insist on knowing why we have the beliefs that we have, how those beliefs came into being, who they benefit, and where they are likely to lead us. Very often, however, our moral judgments are based primarily on our immediate emotional reactions to the behavior of others, and our attempts to justify our judgments are just post hoc rationalizations of these emotions [1]. We often feel passionately about our moral beliefs, but understand very little about why we have them. If asked to justify a belief, we might evoke a principle such as kindness, the greater good, or the will of God. But these principles are often ambiguously defined and difficult or impossible to pin down (see my related post here).

When the moral belief in question is relatively uncontroversial, the ambiguity of our justifications may not be a big problem; for example, most people in a contemporary Western culture would agree that physically attacking an unthreatening person is wrong, and perceive the justification as virtually self-evident (something along the lines of ‘unprovoked violence against other people is bad’). But what if a moral belief is one a society does not overwhelmingly agree on? Myriad moral issues fall into this category, and threaten the cohesiveness of many contemporary societies; consider, for example, the bitter disagreements among Americans about issues like income inequality, gay marriage, gun control, drug legalization, abortion, and the separation of church and state.

We’d be better able to move on from these disputes in productive ways—and thus to make moral progress—if we could better understand our own moral beliefs. But how can we do this when our beliefs seem so opaque to introspection? It’s easy to feel passionate about our beliefs, but how can we see behind our emotions, to find out where our beliefs came from and whether they are leading us to where we want to go? Evolutionary science provides the key to such moral progress.

When I say that evolutionary science is the key to moral progress, there’s at least one thing I don’t mean and two things I do mean.

What I don’t mean is that the evolutionary process itself can provide guidance about right or wrong. If something increased or increases reproductive fitness, does that mean we should judge it as morally good? Of course not; I agree with philosophers who identify such thinking as a flawed ‘appeal to nature’ or ‘naturalistic fallacy’. Consider behavioral outputs of what are probably evolved psychological adaptations: many of these (e.g. xenophobia) could usually be considered bad, whereas many others (e.g. parental investment) could usually be considered good. By the same token, many behaviors that are probably by-products of evolved adaptations (e.g. reading and mathematics) could be judged as good, whereas many others (e.g. crippling drug addiction) could be judged as bad. Suffice it to say: whether or not a behavior is adaptive, or whether it is the product or by-product of an evolved adaptation, implies nothing about its moral value.

So if the evolutionary process provides zero guidance about right and wrong, how do we know what our moral beliefs should be? It’s up to us. We have to do our best to agree about what our goals as a society should be, and then advocate and enforce moral norms based on how useful we think they will be for accomplishing these goals. Which brings me to the first way in which evolutionary science is the key to moral progress: the better we understand human nature, the better we can design moral systems that encourage expression of our ‘good’ evolved psychological adaptations while discouraging expression of our ‘bad’ ones. A moral system will succeed not by attempting to ignore or override evolved human nature, but rather by strategically privileging some aspects of human nature over others [2]. If we want to reduce violence within our society, for example, we shouldn’t deny the fact that humans have psychological adaptations for violence. We should instead acknowledge this fact, while recognizing that we also have adaptations for peaceful dispute resolution [3,4]. Then we should learn as much as we can about how both kinds of adaptations work, so that we can better design our culture to encourage deployment of the peaceful adaptations and discourage deployment of the violent ones.

The second reason evolutionary science can enable moral progress is because knowledge about the function of a moral belief is essential for evaluating the belief’s current utility. By testing predictions about how a moral belief relates to certain individual and environmental variables, we can learn a lot about what problems the belief was designed (by biological or cultural evolution) to solve in past environments, and about whether it continues to fulfil this function in current environments. For example, recent studies suggest that a man’s physical strength—that is, the degree to which he would have been capable of competing aggressively for status (and thus for resources) in ancestral environments—predicts his attitudes towards political violence and social inequality [5-8]. In other words, men seem to hold moral beliefs that would advantage them individually in a society in which status competitions were decided in large part by physical strength. These results suggest that the mental mechanisms producing their beliefs a) were designed for status acquisition, and b) may not fulfil this function particularly well in modern societies in which status competitions are decided more by technology, intelligence and education then by physical strength.

Moral disputes are a seriously divisive force in many contemporary societies, and a lot is riding on their outcome, in terms of both individual well-being and societal competiveness. By illuminating human nature, and the origin and function of biologically and culturally evolved moral beliefs, evolutionary science is currently generating knowledge that can help us move on from these disputes in the most rational and productive ways possible. The morality section of This View of Life will aim to contribute to this effort, by chronicling and promoting the work of researchers who are doing the most to advance the evolutionary science of morality.

Michael E. Price is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, and co-Director of the Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology, at Brunel University, London. His research focuses mainly on the evolutionary origins of moral beliefs, and he has conducted studies among both Westerners and indigenous Amazonians (the Shuar and the Yanomamö). Michael maintains a blog at Psychology Today entitled ‘From Darwin to Eternity’, writes a regular column for the banking magazine Global Custodian entitled ‘Natural Law’, and serves on the editorial board for Journal of Evolutionary Psychology. He has a BA from Duke University and a PhD from the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at UC Santa Barbara.


1. Haidt J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review 108: 814-834.

2. Johnson D.D.P., Price M.E., Van Vugt M. (2013). Darwin’s invisible hand: Market competition, evolution and the firm. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2012.12.016.

3. Pinker S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: The decline of violence in history and its causes. Penguin.

4. McCullough M. (2008). Beyond revenge: The evolution of the forgiveness instinct. Jossey-Bass.

5. Sell A., Tooby J., Cosmides L. (2009). Formidability and the logic of human anger. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 106: 15073–15078.

6. Price M.E., Kang J., Dunn J., Hopkins S. (2011). Muscularity and attractiveness as predictors of human egalitarianism. Personality and Individual Differences 50: 636-640.

7. Price M.E., Dunn J., Hopkins S., Kang J. (2012). Anthropometric correlates of human anger. Evolution and Human Behavior 33: 174-181.

8. Petersen M.B., Sznycer, D., Sell A., Cosmides L., Tooby J. (2013). The ancestral logic of politics upper-body strength regulates men’s assertion of self-interest over economic redistribution. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612466415

Published On: July 16, 2013


  • Bryan Atkins says:

    Dr. Price and co-conspirators at TVOL,

    Love this. Great work! Thank you.

    Would love to see y’all take the gloves off even more. Realize that’s more op-ed type writing than science writing.

    Wish TVOL had a series in the NY Times. While the Times political / cultural columnists are decent, think the writers are a bit weak with regard to the prominent patterns of evolutionary history and the philosophic import of those patterns, and evolution in general.

    Would love to see a TVOL screenplay too, brah!

    Enough Batman, Ironman, Superman, Spiderman, etc.

    How about HuMan? Breakdown some of the evolutionarily selected mind apps that Robert Kurzban wrote about in “Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite”.

    In addition, have an idea for an algorithm-based morality technology.

    If interested, please read the first two sections of Quantum Arguing found here:

    Thanks again!


  • Jack Cassidy says:

    Been reading you and Mark. I am very excited about the idea of using science in general and evolutionary science in particular as a tool in deciding basic criteria for moral premises. These ideas are most certainly related and I have an interest in studying that relationship.

    Just can’t see how altruism would promote reproductive success for the giver. I can see how lots of positive social behaviors (empathy, kindness, not initiating violent or fraudulet behaviors, etc.) would be selected for in a group of animals that use reason as their primary adaptive trait.

    Altruism is the giving of a value with no thought of receiving a value in return. How could it be adaptive for the giver as a general mode of behavior? In fact, hasn’t altruism, adopted as tax-supported social policy led to increased reproductive success in populations that, without it, would be far less successful? Ouch, I sound like Malthus.

    Evolution is studied on several levels; molecular, reproductive, individual, populations, and others. Your work seems to suggest that reproductive success should be measured only by the success of the total population under study. While success of the population would be great for genetic variation and altruism would be great for short-term population success, I wonder if there is a limit to this road? What is the long-term consequence of an altruistic individual or sub-group supporting the reproductive success of the genotypes of individuals whose productive or parental skills would otherwise suppress the transfer of their traits?

    I’m not comfortable with some of the implied social consequences that could be drawn from my questions, but I won’t address these is a simple comment.  Txs for your work. Jack


  • Mark Sloan says:

    Jack, there is a diversity of opinions about whether evolutionary science can be used as a tool in deciding basic criteria for moral premises.

    I support the conservative position that science cannot tell us what our overriding “moral premises” imperatively ought to be, or as I phrase it, what the ultimate goals of enforcing moral codes ought to be. However, perhaps less conservatively, I argue that the science of morality, like all science, can be useful in informing us as to how to best achieve a group’s existing goals. So science may be a good source of knowledge about which moral ‘means’ (moral codes) will likely best achieve an ultimate moral goal, but go silent about moral ‘ends’, what the ultimate goals of moral codes ought to be.

    Altruistic behaviors toward non-kin, such as that motivated by empathy and loyalty, might increase reproductive fitness by a couple of means, but I argue the primary means is by increasing the benefits of cooperation. The trick is that altruism alone cannot do this. By itself, altruism will most likely just be exploited as I expect you are thinking. Game theory shows that for altruism to non-kin to evolve, it must be accompanied by punishment of people who exploit altruism. (In people this punishment is provided in part by the emotion moral indignation which motivates retribution for bad behavior.) The two best known strategies that combine altruism and punishment are direct and indirect reciprocity, which evolutionary game theory show can be readily selected for by the benefits of cooperation.

    Prior to the emergence of culture, moral behaviors (costly cooperation strategies such as direct and indirect reciprocity) were selected for based only on increased reproductive fitness.

    But after the emergence of culture, these costly cooperation strategies could be selected for (by cultural evolution) in cultural moral codes with whatever cooperation goal people desired, such as pleasing a god or just increasing well-being in the society.

    So the emergence of culture forever unhitched morality from being only about increasing reproductive fitness. Indeed, now moral behaviors (such as fidelity in marriage) may decrease reproductive fitness.

    I hope you keep reading and find the posts here interesting.

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