This week The New York Times published an article by Nicholas Wade entitled “Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written in Our Genes?” It reads like a parody of science writing, it’s so full of flimsy logic. Of course it’s just the latest article among many (e.g. 1,2,3) that have inappropriately invoked adaptive explanations for complex human characteristics.
The article describes the views of Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia who researches human emotions and morality. Haidt proposes that our morality is rooted in two fundamental structures, one “ancient” and one “modern.” Through cross-cultural research, he has also concluded that human morality is based on five moral systems, which may vary in importance but appear fundamental across most cultures. Some cultures emphasize the rights of the individual, for example, while others reinforce group cohesiveness. All this sounds interesting and enlightening, until the argument is overextended… and these moral structures become adaptations. “Religious behavior may be the result of natural selection,” according to Haidt, and “‘Those who found ways to bind themselves together were more successful.’” Haidt also claims that the “ancient” and “modern” moral structures evolved independently in humans, at different points in our history: before and after the emergence of language. Interesting speculation, but where’s the evidence?
To be honest, I’m more frustrated with the NYT‘s Nicholas Wade than I am with Haidt. I haven’t read Haidt’s research, so he very well may have been careful to explain the potential evolutionary implications to his anthropological and psychological findings. But consider the opening paragraph in the article:
Where do moral rules come from? From reason, some philosophers say. From God, say believers. Seldom considered is a source now being advocated by some biologists, that of evolution.
What biologists? Wade does not cite a single biologist, let alone an evolutionary biologist, in the article. For shame! This is downright inaccurate reporting.
So what’s the big deal? Two points. First, evolutionary biology is an actual field, in which empirical data are collected and theory is developed. Science has a method, in which hypotheses are formed and tested; you can’t just make up your own, convenient as it might be. This process generates evidence, which can support a claim. Without evidence, it is not science. Second, evolution is contentious in the public sphere. And small wonder! Haidt’s claims on the role of religion in human evolution—such as they might be—are absolutely, positively, not science (and not the first we’ve heard, either). Yet to a lay reader, the claim that morality is an evolutionary adaptation, proposed by someone with an academic degree and covered enthusiastically in the NYT science section, may seem like a perfectly legitimate representation of contemporary evolutionary theory. It’s not! Let’s not confuse titillating speculation with science, lest the power of basic science research to explain the world around us be destroyed.