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.


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