Friday, July 25, 2008

Moral minds

A review by Jonathan Derbyshire of Marc Hauser's book, Moral Minds, in The Guardian.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm an admirer of Hauser's work. Derbyshire, however, seems relatively unimpressed by Hauser's claims.
Hauser's extravagant promise, in the prologue, to "explain how an unconscious and universal grammar underlies our judgments of right and wrong" is therefore not fulfilled. In fact, he comes close to acknowledging this in a somewhat deflating conclusion when he concedes that the "science of morality" is still in its infancy. And there is nothing here to suggest that this nascent discipline will conquer the "proprietary province of the humanities" any time soon.
Hauser begs to differ. He presents a response entitled Did you actually read the book? here.
Though much of Jonathan Derbyshire’s review captures much of my book Moral Minds quite accurately, there are some egregious errors that I would like to flag.
I think there's a lot of work to be done in exploring the link between biology and morality, but I think contributions by the likes of Hauser have advanced our understanding of morality by leaps and bounds in the past decade. And the fact that this is only the beginning is exciting, not deflating. As Hauser states.
The field is abuzz, and the results are emerging quickly. I am glad to be alive to witness this renaissance, an inquiry into one of the most interesting aspects of human life.
I couldn't agree more.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

My brain made me do it

Two individuals, in separate incidents, stab another person to death. One individual is found guilty and sentenced by a judge to 20 years in prison. The other is found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison. Is this fair?

According to the latest scientific evidence: yes - in certain circumstances.

And one of those circumstances is if the offender is a teenager. This is because teenagers' brains have been shown to lack the kind of impulse control that adults have (or are supposed to have).

The suggestion is that even if a teenager succumbs to an impulse to cause harm this may not necessarily reflect on their character later in life. As put by US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority that outlawed the execution of anyone under 18 in 2005:
It is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character.
Yet it has also been suggested that the lack of impulse control in teenagers, particularly males, including some up to their mid-20s, may be an evolutionary adaptation. This lack of impulse control might manifest in a willingness to engage in more risky behaviour. This might be beneficial to young bachelor males who are competing for resources and, ultimately, mates.

Risk taking - as anyone who has spent any appreciable time in Vegas will tell you - can result in big wins, but often at the expense of many losses. Abstracted across a population, the big winners are the males who end up with multiple offspring at the expense of males who have few or no offspring. (The same is true on the stockmarket - which is why it's not prudent to follow the advice of the broker with the highest returns. Chances are he or she [more likely a 'he' because of the risk taking] has gone risky and struck it lucky. He/she may not be so lucky in future.)

The question is: just because an individual's impulse control is hampered by an evolutionary relic, does that excuse them from immoral behaviour?

This starts to touch on problems with the naturalistic fallacy (as commonly conceived), i.e. that you can't derive an ought from an is. Were you able to do so, then if something is natural, then it can be conceived as being good. And murderous impulses might be natural, but I'm sure we'd be reluctant to accept them as good.

I'm not sure what the answer to this issue is - but I do think the answer can't come purely from reason. Even if we reason that an individual is unlikely to commit another crime in the future, it still remains that we have overpowering impulses towards retributionism and punishing moral transgressions - not necessarily for any reasonably or utilitarian ends, but just because we're outraged. Just listen to the pleas for 'justice' from the families of murdered individuals. Reasonable they may not be, but it's hard not to feel the pathos of their pleas.

Nature may not be necessarily good. But nature certainly influences good. And that's only going to be a continuing problem for courts and the legal system as a whole as science reveals more facts about our nature.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Foundations of morality - interview with Jon Haidt

Bloggingheads has Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute conducting a fascinating interview with Jonathan Haidt - one of the harbingers of the emerging science of morality.

You can view the whole thing here.

It goes for an hour, which it a touch indulgent in this 5 minute YouTube world, but it's well worth riding the whole thing out. If you do only have 5 minutes, however, then of particular interest is Haidt talking about his Moral Foundations Theory around 18 minutes in to the interview.

This is Haidt's theory that there are fundamentally five foundations of morality: Harm/Care; Fairness/Reciprocity; Ingroup/Loyalty; Authority/Respect; and Purity/Sanctity. Haidt suggests every moral issue falls into one of these five camps.

But what's most illuminating is that contemporary liberals (or 'social liberals') acknowledge and respond to the first two, but don't respond to the last three. Conversely, conservatives (specifically 'social conservatives') respond strongly to the last three and only weakly to the the first two. Haidt suggests this is one reason for the ongoing debate between the Left and Right that seems intractable - basically, they're talking different languages, they share different values, and they can't even see why the other side would believe what the do, thus the arguments rarely reach the minds, if not the ears, of the 'other side'.

Haidt highlights this point by making a very poignant observation: after researching perspectives on morality in many different countries and cultures, and finding that harm/care and fairness/reciprocity were only two of five moral foundations, he realised that his own tradition - the social liberal intellectual tradition - was but a minority.
I realised I was a member of an unusual subculture – and my subculture was doing all the writing on morality!
This is an incredibly significant point, and one not to be overlooked. Academic research on morality has been done predominantly by followers of the social liberal intellectual tradition. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it comes with moral baggage that prevents it from seeing the bigger moral spectrum. Thus the moral theories that have sprung from this tradition - Singer, Rawls, Bentham - skip entire chunks of what many people and many cultures would consider moral.

This means the challenge for the next generation of moral thinkers is to construct a moral theory, or a prescriptive moral system, that takes all the moral intuitions into account. It may well be impossible to construct a system in an entirely self-consistent way, but this may be a result of the simple fact that our moral intuitions are not themselves self-consistent. In my thinking, this is because we operate more as a result of tensions between opposing forces - self-interest versus other interest etc - rather than having singular guiding principles.

One more parting thought - I wonder whether there might be another moral foundation. Wilkinson and Haidt already wrestle with the distinction between social liberal (or old school socialist Left) and libertarian, acknowledging that they both score low on ingroup/loyalty; authority/respect; and purity/sanctity, and the socialist Left focus more on harm/care while libertarians focus more on fairness/reciprocity. But I don't know whether that fully captures the distinction.

I wonder whether there's another axis along self/other-agency.

Let me use an example. When you see a homeless person begging on the street, clearly disheveled and likely to be on, or coming down from, drugs, what do you think?

I think the important thing is whether you attribute that individual's condition to their own actions or to external forces.

I would suggest a pillar of the socialist Left was a stronger belief in external factors guiding our lives. A few wrong turns and even a good hard working person can become homeless. For that reason, they deserve compassion.

On the other hand the strong libertarian might see that person as being more individually responsible for their own fate. They made some bad calls, or they were slack or weak, and they therefore deserve to bare the responsibility for their actions. As such, they don't deserve as much compassion from us.

Certainly, self/other-agency is not as easily identifiable as a moral foundation like harm/care, but it does set up which conditions make a particular thing worthy of moral consideration. The idea needs to be fleshed out, but I think the distinction between communitarian and individualist sentiments needs more clarity in the Moral Foundations Theory.

Still, the Moral Foundations Theory is a triumph of thinking - it's amazing it took us so long to figure it out. I'll end by echoing a sentiment of Wilkinson's at the end of the video: "I'm a Haidtist!"

Friday, July 18, 2008

How to kill postmodernism

Most art these days is crap. And that saddens me deeply.

But it doesn't have to be crap. I remember when growing up we had a much loved friend of the family who was an artist - a gifted and eccentric artist - who sat me down and explained in sombre but urgent tones why he did what he did. He was on a mission, for the sake of humanity, to explore what it means to exist, to live and to die. His medium was paint and canvass. He wielded his brush to create something that would reveal hidden truths to the viewer.

It wasn't about ego. It wasn't about money. And it wasn't about bringing down the establishment, empowering the oppressed or shocking for the sake of shock itself.

Sadly, it seems much of the gallery exhibited art that is produced these days is more about 'subversion' than creativity. It's more about so-called 'exploring' concepts that are either so confused or obtuse that they teach us nothing.

I blame postmodernism (as exemplified by the YBA).

Simply put, postmodernism is a movement that was only ever half-inspired, and it exhausted its value to art shortly after the movement began. Yet, by the astounding voracity of its meme, it's proven virtually inescapable for modern artists. And over time, it has become the very thing it sought to destroy.

Postmodernism has fostered a new elite and has reinstated the gallery as the only place 'true art' is shown. It is exclusive, presumptuous and deeply vacuous. In fact, I think Dada achieved nearly everything postmodernism sought to achieve, and things have regressed from there.

Why is postmodernism so voracious? Because it's conceived in such a way that the very act of rejecting it is a postmodern act. Postmodernism is all about reacting to those who come before, or around, you. So by even suggesting a new art movement in reaction to postmodernism just leads to more of the same.

So how to break free? The beginnings have already emerged, in the form of the Stuckists. The Stuckists want to recapture some of the values of modernism, hence their coining the term Remodernism. It's about returning to 'authenticity', without pretence and without the gagging desire to be avant-guarde. It's about re-injecting values into art - values that have not only been avoided, but overtly rejected by postmodernism and its rampant relativism.

Does Stuckism successfully break free from the pomo spell? Nearly, but not quite. I still find a hint of self reference and self consciousness to Stuckism, as shown in the last point of its manifesto:
Stuckism embraces all that it denounces. We only denounce that which stops at the starting point — Stuckism starts at the stopping point!

So what will it take to move on from postmodernism - or as it's called these days, with or without irony, 'post-postmodernism?

I think the only way to cut through the funk is to reject the pitiless relativism of postmodernism and acknowledge that there are some things that are common to all humans and that there is a reason why art is art, not soccer. It's no accident that paintings, sculptures and music have a profound effect on our psyche. In fact, recent research has been revealing startling facts about how our brains appreciate art, and why we respond to certain things in certain ways.

For example, there are clearly parts of the brain that are specialised in recognising faces, and perceiving emotions thereon. The same mechanisms are evoked by an artistic representation of a face (or a landscape, or a physical object, or even abstract entities like colours or textures). Thus, an artist can stir emotional responses through a representation, and they need not do so consciously - in fact, artistic intuitions are enough to create something with affect. And there is nothing inauthentic about this approach.

I firmly believe that art is ripe for a revolution, one that will make postmodernism seem childish, shallow and naive. It will be art that is intended to have an effect on the audience, whether it be happiness, sadness or simply exhibiting something aesthetically pleasing. Meaning can come back to art, and not in wildly presumptuous tangential ways. Representation, symbols, significance, culture can all return without fear of being called out for selling out to a dominant cultural paradigm or whatnot. That will be authentic art.

Already there are movements that are focussed on bringing art to the public, not keeping it seconded away for the art elite. This is exactly what we need: more art in homes around the world. We shouldn't be leaving people framing the same old prints from the art gallery store or hanging more art deco on their walls (not that there's anything wrong with either - but there should be an injection of new, wonderful art into the mix).

Now, I'm no artist myself, so I don't know what form art could take in the future. But conceptually, postmodernism is a decaying edifice, a house of cards, that is ready to collapse with the rejection of rampant relativism and subjectivism. And that can only be a good thing for art and culture as a whole.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Showdown: moral emotions vs moral reason

It's been a chicken and egg debate for centuries: which comes first, the moral emotions or the moral reasons?

One side of the debate would have us think that moral judgments are the result of our moral reasoning, and our emotions then serve to motivate our behaviour after the fact. Thus, Fred thinks Mary shouldn't have lied to him, so he becomes angry.

The other school of thought paints the opposite picture: Fred is angered by Mary's lying, so he judges it as morally wrong.

Well, the latter school, called social intuitionism, is starting to rack up evidence in its favour, showing that we often make quick snap moral evaluations in the form of intuitions, and reason only kicks in afterwards to present a justification.

And this process kicks up some interesting side effects, like that many of us a moral hypocrites, as reported on MSNBC.
Most of us, whether we admit it or not, are moral hypocrites. We judge others more severely than we judge ourselves.
Another example comes from Live Science.
A new study finds that a sense of moral superiority can lead to unethical acts, such as cheating. In fact, some of the best do-gooders can become the worst cheats.
All this raises some interesting questions about how our moral faculty works - and what that means for our moral systems. Certainly we'd like to think that we're guided by moral principles that are rational and non-contradictory. Yet it appears that no matter what our reason says, our moral intuitions get involved first and motivate our moral behaviour, leaving reason to pick up the pieces.

So much for the categorical imperative, eh?...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The evolution revolution

Two interesting articles, both worth a read. And both addressing the movement towards an evolutionary understanding of human nature - or at least, an understanding of human nature that doesn't exclude human nature, as did much of the social science of the latter half of the 20th century.

The first is about the father of sociobiology (and hence, the veritable grandfather of evolutionary psychology), E. O. Wilson in The New York Times.

Wilson is a fascinating character, and one whom I greatly admire. I don't subscribe to his entire view of the role of evolution in behaviour though. I do agree that multi-level selection is likely superior to considering evolution only from the perspective of genes. And I agree that evolution shapes behaviour - but only indirectly through faculties and sentiments.

I also agree that moral philosophy didn't get terribly far in the 20th century. Heck, we're still reading the Greeks and Hume/Kant to get our main alternative views of morality. That's not to say there hasn't been some very important progress in the 20th century, but when it comes to broad, fundamental perspectives on morality, it falls short. My belief is this is because of two main reasons. First is that the underlying theories of human nature were flawed for much of the 20th century; moving from Freudianism to behaviourism to a belief in nurture to the exclusion of nature. Second is that, sadly, the 20th century became obsessed with definitions of morality rather than trying to advance moral thinking by proposing new moral systems. I blame G. E. Moore.

However, as the next article by the Times Online states, a new movement is underway that is changing our view of human nature. And with this changed view should come a new perspective on morality - the topic of my own thesis.

Perhaps I'm biased, but I think this could be as significant a movement in morality as any we've had. All theories of morality make assumptions about human psychology, and to date, they've all been wrong. So with a new understanding of psychology we have an opportunity to find a new understanding of morality.

And it can't come at a better time - the world is changing faster than ever before, and society is very different to the way it was even 50 years ago, let alone 250. We also face new challenges not confronted by humanity before - challenges of finding the limits of human existence and building a sustainable society in a world filled to the brim with people. To get us through these challenges we need a moral system that is appropriate for the 21st century, not one that was developed two millennia ago, or even two centuries ago. And with the likes of Wilson and the researchers mentioned by Finkelstein, we might just be starting on the path to finding it.

Calamity or sustainability: the choice is ours

The world population is expected to hit 9.2 billion by 2050, according to the UN's World Population Prospects report. That's up 2.5 billion over the next 43 years. The report puts this figure in context thus:
This increase is equivalent to the overall number of people in the world in 1950 and it will be absorbed mostly by the less developed regions, whose population is projected to rise from 5.4 billion in 2007 to 7.9 billion in 2050.
Yet consider that the fundamentals of our market system, and the economics that underpin it, stem from before 1950, when 'natural' factors were abstracted away as immutable constants, and not considered as non-renewable resources.

There are already overwhelming signs that the world population is at its limits, not only in terms of sheer numbers, but also the level of resource consumption per individual. As Asia rises (again) and demands the standard of living the West has kept to itself for the past two centuries,
non-renewable resources will only be further stretched.

And even ignoring for a moment energy and food, one of the biggest issues the world faces is fresh water. Just about region in the world is suffering from some level of water shortages, and wealthy nations are not immune. And without water, not only do you get famine, but you also get war.

This is not just all idle speculation and environmental rhetoric, it's the words of Professor Jeffery Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, and world renowned economist and advisor to the likes of United Nations Secretaries-General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon and presidents and prime minsters around the world.

I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Sachs last night at the launch of Sydney University's Institute for Sustainable Development. Sachs spoke with his trademark passion about the crisis facing the world in terms of environment, climate change, population growth, resource consumption and the impact of the rise of China and India on the world economy. Simply put, our course at the moment, if left unchecked, is driving us towards the cliff.

While previous generations had their own watershed challenges - depression, world wars, the spectre of nuclear holocaust, just to name those from the 20th century - ours will be to find a way of living sustainably and peacefully through the 21st century. This is in the face of market forces that are - not by design but by principle - opposed to any measures that might curb growth.

Consider this chart of world wealth over the past 2,000 years. The different colours represent the wealth of various regions, but the overall trend is what is most important. Come the industrial revolution in the mid-19th century, and wealth skyrockets, particularly in Europe and the United States. We can thank two main things for this growth: 1) is readily available energy; 2) is capitalism and market economics.

There can be no question that market economics along with increased trade between nations is the lubricant that has enabled other innovations and technologies to flourish and wealth to grow.

However, as I suggested at at the beginning of this post, the very strength of market economics is its ability to steer itself towards the most productive ends, yet that could be our greatest problem. This system only works if there are no hard bounds to growth. Even if there are a few hard bounds, as long as there it at least one unlimited resource that itself is not dependent on finite resources, then it can continue to grow. Thus we've seen innovation and technology push growth to levels beyond what was thought possible even in the 1970s. But the sad fact is, there aren't any infinite resources that are not themselves bound by other factors. Not a one. Even technology is finite, as it's dependent on humans themselves, and human require an environment to live in, air to breathe and water to drink.

My biggest concern with developing a sustainable world is how to ween us from unchecked market economics without scuttling the market entirely. As Sachs said in his lecture "have no nostalgia for pre-industrial times." We certainly don't want to wind back the clock of health, information technology, food production, science or social liberalisation if we can help it. But how to create a new economics that is not dogmatically driven by the pursuit of short term growth?

The good news is, I think it can be done. People like David Suzuki have been harping on for years about the need to quantify environmental and relatively insubstantial factors so we can incorporate them in our economic thinking. For example, if we place a price on carbon emissions, then the market - instead of being the enemy - can be the most powerful weapon in our arsenal to combat carbon emissions. Hence: carbon trading.

This is no easy feat, however. It requires enlightened long term vision by politicians, and by the people who elect them. And it's notoriously difficult to encourage people to make a short term sacrifice for a long term gain. In psychology, it's called discounting.

But it's also immensely significant that economists - like Sachs and the editor of The Economist, John Micklethwait, who I saw speak a couple of weeks ago - are speaking so passionately about the environment. They are not individuals who necessarily place an intrinsic value on the environment for its own sake, as do many environmentalists. They place a value on the environment for our sake. This move does not diminish the environment, but it enhances it for millions of people in the world who don't share the sentiments of environmentalists. In fact, while I have deep respect for environmentalists, I believe it will be the pragmatic approach of economists who will actually motivate the world to change its behaviour and steer towards sustainability, not so-called 'treehuggers'.

However, making things all the more difficult are external forces of ignorance and dogma that only serve to drive the world closer to the cliff. Take Sydney's Catholic Cardinal George Pell and his recent appeal for the West to increase its population. As mentioned at the opening of this post, population is already reaching calamitous levels, and things are only going to get worse. What the world needs is not more people, but less. Add to this the Catholic Church's abominable policy against family planning and contraception, particularly in Africa - which as you can see by the fertility map at the top of this post, is undergoing dramatically unsustainable population growth, coloured in red - is causing untold misery for millions of people. Enlightened?...

Sachs made mention of Pell in his lecture too, suggesting in his characteristic droll manner that he "remains unconvinced" of this strategy of increasing population.

And on a closing note, in light of World Youth Day happening right here in Sydney at the moment, the Catholic Church is exactly what the world doesn't need. Besides its half-hearted (and philosophically dubious) attempts to update its Seven Sins to be relevent to the modern world, its dogmatic approach to the world is the way of the past, not of the future.

Any ideology that seeks to improve the lot of humanity in the future needs to go beyond religious singlemindedness and embrace empiricism along with reason and a moral code that is in accordance with the natural world, rather than being based on the supernatural.

Any ideology based on the supernatural will inevitably draw a line at some point of reasoning at some arbitrary point and appeal to faith. For example: contraception. The question of whether contraception is good or bad is a complex one, and requires us to explore the evidence for the harm or good it serves to humanity. Yet the Vatican doesn't care about the evidence for harm and care, it only cares about its interpretation of its religious texts - written many centuries ago in a very different world. This cannot be the way we seek answers.

In fact, some say you can't have morality without religion. I disagree. I think you can't have a complete moral system with religion. And right now, humanity has to develop a moral and ethical system that will help us find the right values that will enable us to survive this watershed moment in history - this quest to find a sustainable way to live.

Sachs finished his lecture on an optimistic note by referring to John F. Kennedy's Peace Speech, given only months after the Cuban Missile Crisis - and a catalyst for the first nuclear weapons treaty between the US and the USSR. In this speech he says we should certainly acknowledge our differences, but far more important are our commonalities. And we all want to live in a peaceful world, a sustainable world, a world we can pass on to our children knowing they can find happiness for themselves and their children.

Here is a passage from the speech that might just as well be about our great challenge as it was about finding peace in the age of nuclear war:
Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many of us think it is unreal. But that is dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable - - that mankind is doomed - - that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.

We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade - - therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable - - and we believe they can do it again.

We are living through history right now. And we may be seeing a turning point for the world, starting in 2008. New leadership in Australia and the United States could be the start of a shift from 20th century thinking into 21st. There are still many pieces of the puzzle missing, but the beginning of the solution may be coming into focus. We just need to maintain our commitment and not be distracted in our quest to make this a sustainable and peaceful world.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Science of morality

Robyn Williams at the ABC was kind enough to allow me to record an essay for its Radio National programme, Ockham's Razor.

You can listen to the podcast here.

The topic is a general look at the science of morality, covering such things as the origins of altruism, moral reasoning and the possibility of an innate moral faculty. I also refer to the groundbreaking work done by Jonathan Haidt and Marc Hauser on moral sentiments and an innate moral faculty, respectively.

Being an essay, it also gave me an opportunity to mention angle of great interest to me: if we indeed do possess an evolved moral faculty and innate moral sentiments, are entirely appropriate in today's world? One clear example is our tendency to classify people as us or them.

If it turns out that these tendencies contribute to conflict and general human suffering, should we look to actively contradict them? Certainly we do so when it comes to sweet foods. And yet we're undergoing an obesity epidemic in the West these days, so we're obviously not faring too well in that fight.

Reiterating my closing comments in the essay, I feel we're only scratching the surface of the science of morality. But it's a crucially important field, and even if we don't like the truths it might uncover - or refuse to confront them - we ignore them at our peril.

Creationism is deliberate ignorance

David Kidd pointed me towards some fascinating research about scientific literacy amongst Americans.

And if you're interested, the raw data and actual questions asked can be found here.

One thing I found striking while digging through the results was that for most questions, often only around 10% provide the wrong answer (some of my favourites being that the sun doesn't shine at the south pole; the earth takes a month to go around the sun and all radioactivity is made by humans). That's actually quite heartening.

However, the big spanner in the data was the question about evolution. Here we have an almost 50/50 split between those who believe humans developed from earlier animals, and those who believe they didn't. What this says to me is it's not a case of lack of scientific literacy, it's a concerted attack on evolution by the religious fundamentalists. It appears as though there are individuals who are otherwise scientifically competent, except for their dogmatic rejection of one particular theory.

Now, I know it's all too easy to point one's finger at religious fundamentalists and wonder how they could be so misguided. I don't want to get into any discussions or commentaries about how ludicrous it is that the world's scientific leader can also have around half its population rejecting possibly the most powerful and sublime scientific theory ever concocted (I think I've said enough right here - and there's plenty more around if anyone wants to delve deeper). But it is worrying to think this is not a matter of lack of education. It's a deliberate ignorance. And I find that deeply troubling.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Two flavours of evolutionary psychology

In many people’s eyes, evolutionary psychology (EP) has a bad rap. For some it’s methodology is questionable. For others the conclusions unpalatable. I actually tend to think many criticisms of EP are misguided, and either miss the point or attempt to build a straw man only to burn it down. But, I also acknowledge that EP has some criticisms that are clearly worthy of attention.

But I think a lot of the criticisms of EP are really targetted at just one approach to EP, and it's not the only approach one can take. In fact, I find it helpful to distinguish between what I see as two broad streams of EP; two streams that often perceived as being one and the same yet they are different enough to handle the criticisms in very different ways. And they both have significant implications on other fields, such as moral philosophy.

I'd even go so far as to say I was an enthusiastic subscriber of one version, while being but cautiously interested in the other. And I suspect a lot of EP critics would also find themselves in the same boat.

The first stream I call 'leaps and bounds', or 'top down', evolutionary psychology (let's call that TDEP). The other is, predictably enough, 'small steps', or 'bottom up', EP (here, BUEP). The fundamental distinction is between what they are trying to use evolution to explain behaviour.

TDEP is typified by the Leda Cosmides and John Tooby school of thought. Other exemplars would be David Buss, Robert Trivers and other 'sociobiologists' like E.O. Wilson. In my eyes, the common element running through all their research is the observation of behaviour and the positing of evolutionary explanations for it. So it draws a long thread from genes all the way through to individual, or even collective, behaviour.

As such, while the research often starts with behaviour and ends with genes, the theories travel the other way, starting with genes and ending with behaviour. If you get my drift. And this is where many of the criticisms of EP are targetted: at the link between genes and the end behaviours.

Just a few of those criticisms include the difficulty of 'reducing' complex behaviours to one or more genes; the assumption that this approach implies that genes determine behaviour, and the contrary observation that there are very few behaviours that are universal; the idea that genes 'fix' behaviour, not allowing for change or free will etc.

But the other school of thought, BUEP includes researchers like Robin Dunbar, Marc Hauser, Jon Haidt and others. BUEP doesn't necessarily stress the link between genes and behaviours rather than linking genes with faculties. This might seem a trivial difference, given that the faculties themselves (like the language faculty, or Hauser's moral faculty) lead to behaviour, but the key point is the genes enter the picture at the bottom and there is plenty of wiggle room before they hit the dry land of behaviour.

Some might also say this distinction is trivial because BUEP is not really that controversial (although some research in its field could be considered such, like Haidt's work on political sentiments). The idea that evolution has shaped our brains in the same way as our bodies is simple enough. Sure, we aren't born as a tabula rasa, because there has to be a tablet with certain properites to begin with, and evolution shaped those properties.

But even BUEP is important because it reminds us that biology and evolution are important in behaviour, even if they are several steps removed. And BUEP is a foundation of TDEP, so even if you question the findings of the latter, the former can still stand.

I find this distinction useful for my own research into the the implications of evolution on morality. Certainly there's lots to talk about with Cosmides and Tooby's notions of a cheater detection module, or Trivers' talk about a biological basis to altruism. But there's another story that makes even BUEP significant for moral thinking.

First if, as Hauser suggests, evolution has endowed us with a moral faculty that works at the level of sentiments in cahoots with a number of hardwired cognitive heuristics, this could have potentially sweeping implications on morality. For example, if this picture is true, then where do we find our moral foundations? From whence come our 'cardinal values', as Dennett likes to say.

We normally think that our cardinal values - often including things like altruism, compassion, temperance etc - are rationally justifiable, or that they just are. But if evolution sticks its nose into our moral realm, it can stir things up.

If evolution has shaped our moral faculty, presumably because it lent some adaptive advantage to our ancestors, does this mean our values are ultimately reducible to those things that lend a selective advantage? This would be tantamount to a fierce naturalism, and would quickly fall foul of the is-ought problem (which is often called the naturalistic fallacy, although the two are different) as well as claims that it could lead to a form of Social Darwinism. But, if we dismiss such a naturalism, what's left? Do we pluck our cardinal values out of thin air, as suggested by G.E. Moore? Or are we left with moral nihilism, as Richard Joyce believes?

Another moral issue concerns utilitarianism, and that old chestnut of why maximise happiness or pleasure rather than some other value. If it turns out that evolution can provide an explanation for the existence of happiness or pleasure, and they turn out to be simply behavioural motivators to point us towards things that promote our survival - while pain serves the opposite role - then this, too, could ground morality in biology. For, if our biology was different, then so too would be our morality.

All this stems from BUEP, let alone the considerations of TDEP. So even if you have concerns about the leaps and bounds school, if you even but acknowledge that evolution plays some role in our behaviour, even by shaping our cognitive faculties, then there are still important issues that stem from that, particularly in the moral realm.