Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right
and Wrong. Marc D. Hauser. xxii + 489 pp. Ecco, 2006. $27.95.
Like all careful thinkers who have contemplated the human condition,
Marc Hauser does not argue that either nature or nurture acts alone.
Indeed, in his new book, Moral Minds, he explicitly states
that morality results from both influences working together. The
variations between societies in how people make moral
judgments highlight the role of nurture, whereas the many
similarities between cultures reflect the hand of nature. This much
is clear from just about any introductory anthropology class, but
Hauser wants to bring us fartheralong the road to understanding what
it means to be a moral species.
Hauser repeatedly compares linguistic and moral abilities, using
Noam Chomsky's basic approach to the linkage between nature and
nurture. Recall Chomsky's famous proposal: The principles of grammar
are innate, but the specific parameters are set by the specific
language a person learns. Hauser argues that this idea—that
nature dictates the principles, whereas nurture controls the
parameters—has done useful service in linguistics and applies
with equal strength to the psychology of morality.
Hauser's thesis depends to a substantial degree on the observation
that when presented with simple moral dilemmas,people make quick,
intuitive decisions—ones they sometimes have difficulty
justifying when asked to explain them. That automaticity, in
Hauser's view, implies the existence of some innate mental
machinery. The evidence, however, is weak. Consider an elegant study
that compared white American men from Northern states with
counterparts from the South, a study that Hauser discusses in some
detail. When the subjects were exposedto a mild insult, the
Southerners showed a greater willingness to react violently—a
difference that is presumably cultural. But the experiment also
revealed that testosterone and cortisol levels spiked in the
Southerners. Thus their more violent responses, which clearly have a
cultural basis, seem every bit as automatic as the snap judgments
Hauser uses as evidence of innate moral capacities.
Another problem is that whatever innate moral abilities we possess
would have evolved among members of increasingly cooperative groups,
a point that Hauser would be unlikely to dispute. Hence one should
be skeptical of any explanation of morality that does not involve
the intimate interplay between cultural and genetic evolution.
For example, the evolution of innate moral abilities within such
groups would, no doubt, result in differences in behavior toward
insiders and outsiders. As a result, ethnocentrism is,
unfortunately, a good candidate to be considered part of our
evolutionary inheritance. Such conclusions are not new. In
Descent of Man, Darwin included patriotism among the
social instincts that would have evolved under conditions of
intertribal competition. Some modern versions of Darwin's argument
propose that, although differences in culture account for which
tribes survive, living in such communities for thousands of
generations indirectly selects for individuals with a strong sense
of allegiance to the group.
Such loyalty is likely sometimes to conflict with one's
self-interest—and self-interest has great sway in most
people's behavioral calculus. The resulting dilemmas and debates
would seem to spring from more than just different parameters being
used by our innate mental machinery for morality. But Moral
Minds touches on these thorny issues only fleetingly (in
Whereas the genetic influences on morality are subtle, the raw power
of culture is apparent. Over the past few thousand years, cultural
innovations have allowed huge increases in the size and complexity
of human societies—without any known evolution of the innate
components of morality or other inborn cognitive abilities. If
people continue to live in complex societies for tens or hundreds of
thousands of years, certain mental changes will no doubt evolve.
This general argument goes back to an idea James Mark Baldwin and
others formulated in the late 19th century: Any form of learning can
act as a leading factor in organic evolution. Cultural evolution, in
particular, operates rapidly and creates highly novel environments
that in turn beget selective pressures on genes.
Take the evolution of language. A likely scenario is that cultural
evolution created social communities sufficiently complex to favor
good communication. Our distant forebears would have made use of
whatever rudimentary symbolic capabilities they possessed to develop
a crude protolanguage. (From studies teaching chimpanzees to
communicate using symbols, we know that such abilities likely
existed in our early ancestors.) If the utility of this new form of
communication was high—and it apparently was—individuals
with an innate gift for mastering language would be favored by
natural selection. And as the population gradually became more
accomplished in exchanging utterances, further complexities in the
language could evolve culturally, ultimately leading to the innate
language abilities one sees today—along with a slew of modern languages.
The Chomskyan principles-and-parameters description is, in our
judgment, a useful vehicle for conveying to lay audiences some of
the nuances of evolutionary psychology found in the scientific
literature. But use of this device comes at a high price: It gives a
false sense of what investigators really know. Even on its home turf
in linguistics, the innatist argument evokes as much controversy as ever.
Today Chomsky himself has retreated from many of his earlier
detailed ideas about the nature of innate grammar. Hauser, Chomsky
and W. Tecumseh Fitch recently published a rather minimalist
interpretation of the innate structure of language and have defended
it against those who imagine that there is much more there.
The problem is that the tools available to evaluate whether
something is truly innate (such as testing its automaticity) are far
too blunt. Apportioning responsibility among genes, culture and
individual learning is a daunting task that requires dissecting the
complex developmental trajectory of an organ, the brain, whose
operations are difficult to observe. The big guns of reductionistic
biology are now training powerful new techniques on these problems.
Likely enough, functional genomics and developmental neurobiology
will one day, perhaps sooner rather than later, put flesh on what
now remain some rather theoretical bones. One hopes that advances in
psychology will keep pace.
In the meantime, Moral Minds makes a grand stab at
synthesizing existing work in philosophy, psychology, neurobiology
and evolutionary theory in an effort to explain our moral
capacities. Although Hauser does a good job of bringing a diverse
array of findings and perspectives to bear on the question of the
evolution of morality, the book is inconsistent in its portrayal of
the division of labor between innate principles and learned
parameters. The opening passages suggest that the influence of the
former dominates moral decisions, but in much of what follows,
Hauser frequently describes the powerful role of the latter.
In our view, Hauser does not fully succeed in his goal of providing a
strong framework for further research. In truth, the vexing problem of
how genes, culture and individual experience fit together cannot yet be
solved. To his credit, Hauser reviews much evidence that culture is
important, but his tendency to view the problem in terms of innate
principles and learned parameters prevents him from imagining that
culture may have shaped the principles and that genes, including ancient
selfish and nepotistic ones, may have shaped the parameters.