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Moral Philosophy as Applied Science

  • Michael Ruse (a1) and Edward O. Wilson (a1)


(1) For much of this century, moral philosophy has been constrained by the supposed absolute gap between is and ought, and the consequent belief that the facts of life cannot of themselves yield an ethical blueprint for future action. For this reason, ethics has sustained an eerie existence largely apart from science. Its most respected interpreters still believe that reasoning about right and wrong can be successful without a knowledge of the brain, the human organ where all the decisions about right and wrong are made. Ethical premises are typically treated in the manner of mathematical propositions: directives supposedly independent of human evolution, with a claim to ideal, eternal truth.



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1 Muller, H. J. is quoted by Simpson, G. G. in This View of Life (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964), 36.

1 See the following widely used textbooks: Roughgarden, J., Theory of Population Genetics and Evolutionary Ecology: An Introduction (New York: Macmillan, 1979); Hartl, D. L., Principles of Population Genetics (Sunderland, Mass.: Sinauer Associates, 1980); May, R. M. (ed.), Theoretical Ecology: Principles and Applications, 2nd edn (Sunderland, Mass.: Sinauer Associates, 1981); Krebs, J. R. and Davies, N. B. (eds), Behavioural Ecology: An Evolutionary Approach, 2nd edn (Sunderland, Mass.: Sinauer Associates, 1984).

3 Reviews of the various modes of selection, including forms that direct individuals away from competitive behaviour, can be found in Wilson, E. O., Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975); Oster, G. F. and Wilson, E. O., Caste and Ecology in the Social Insects (Princeton University Press, 1978); Boorman, S. A. and Levitt, P. R., The Genetics of Altruism (New York: Academic Press, 1980); Wilson, D. S., The Natural Selection of Populations and Communities (Menlo Park, Calif.: Benjamin/Cummings, 1980).

4 For example, the debate over ‘punctuated equilibrium’ versus ‘gradualism’ among palaeontologists and geneticists. For most biologists, the issue is not the mechanism of evolution but the conditions under which evolution sometimes proceeds rapidly and sometimes slows to a crawl. There is no difficulty in explaining the variation in rates. On the contrary, there is a surplus of plausible explanations, virtually all consistent with Neo- Darwinian theory, but insufficient data to choose among them. See, for example, Gould, S. J. and Eldredge, N., ‘Punctuated Equilibria: The Tempo and Mode of Evolution Reconsidered’, Paleobiology 3 (1977), 115151; and Turner, J. R. G., ‘“The hypothesis that explains mimetic resemblance explains evolution”: the gradualist-saltationist schism’, in Grene, M. (ed.), Dimensions of Darwinism (Cambridge University Press, 1983), 129169.

5 See footnote 2.

6 Kimura, M., The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution (Cambridge University Press, 1983).

7 Sibley, C. G. and Ahlquist, J. E., ‘The Phylogeny of the Hominoid Primates, as Indicated by DNA-DNA Hybridization’, Journal of Molecular Evolution 20 (1984), 215.

8 We are grateful to Victor A. McKusick for providing the counts of identified and inferred human genes up to 1984.

9 Ashton, G. C., Polovina, J. J. and Vandenberg, S. G., ‘Segregation Analysis of Family Data for 15 Tests of Cognitive Ability’, Behaviour Genetics 9 (1979), 329347.

10 Smith, S. D., Kimberling, W. J., Pennington, B. F. and Lubs, H. A., ‘Specific Reading Disability: Identification of an Inherited Form through Linkage Analysis’, Science 219 (1982), 13451347.

11 See Hall, J. C. and Greenspan, R. J., ‘Genetic Analysis of Drosophila Neurobiology’, Annual Review of Genetics 13 (1979), 127195.

12 12 See, for example, the recent analysis by Anderson, J. R., The Architecture of Cognition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).

13 See footnote 3.

14 The evidence for biased epigenetic rules of mental development is summarized in Lumsden, C. J. and Wilson, E. O., Genes, Mind, and Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981) and Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).

15 A new discipline of decision-making is being developed in cognitive psychology based upon the natural means–one can correctly say the epigenetic rules–by which people choose among alternatives and reach agreements. See, for example, Tversky, A. and Kahneman, D., ‘The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice’, Science 211 (1981), 453458; and Axelrod, R., The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

16 Rosch, E., ‘Natural Categories’, Cognitive Psychology 4 (1973), 328350.

17 The epigenetic rules of cognitive development analysed through the year 1980 are reviewed by C. J. Lumsden and E. O. Wilson, op. cit.

18 Lassen, N. A., Ingvar, D. H. and Skinhøj, E., ‘Brain Function and Blood Flow’, Scientific American 239 (1978), 6271.

19 Wolf, A. P. and Huang, C. S., Marriage and Adoption in China, 1845–1945 (Stanford University Press, 1980); Shepher, J., Incest: A Biosocial View (New York: Academic Press, 1983); Berghe, P. L. van den, ‘Human Inbreeding Avoidance: Culture in Nature’, The Behavioural and Brain Sciences 6 (1983), 91123.

20 Lumsden, C. J. and Wilson, E. O., op. cit. See also the précis of Genes, Mind, and Culture and commentaries on the book by twenty-three authors in The Behavioural and Brain Sciences 5 (1982), 137.

21 Rawls, J., A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), 502503.

22 This is the argument proposed by Nozick, R. in Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981) in order to escape the implications of sociobiology.

23 See footnote 16.

24 Jones, E. and Aoki, C., ‘Genetic and Cultural Factors in Alcohol Use’ (submitted to Science).

25 C. J. Lumsden and E. O. Wilson, op. cit., who show the way to predict cultural diversity caused by random choice patterns in different societies.


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