Bernard Williams vs. evolutionary biology
November 27, 2007 11:56 AM   Subscribe

Bernard Williams had a pretty low opinion of evolutionary biology. Are there any essays where he directly or indirectly criticizes the field? What about 'Shame and Necessity'?

A Guardian profile from a few years back quoted him as saying that Steven Pinker runs right over the real philosophical difficulties as if they weren't there. Did he ever develop his criticism? 'The lectures which were later published as 'Shame and Necessity', were delivered in the early 90s. Perhaps that predates Steven Pinker's books for laymen, I don't know. It's been a few years since I read 'S&N' and I've forgotten a lot of it. Still I keep thinking that his treatment of his subjects has some connection to his disparagement of evolutionary biology. The section on shame vs. guilt claims that the development of an internalized sense of failure to meet a standard does not indicate that moral growth has occurred over the accompanying change in culture, in fact, just the opposite. Now, I don't think proponents of evolutionary biology make claims of value, so moral growth would be irrelevant to their perspective. Perhaps I'm wrong? Would evolutionary biologists hold that an emotion like guilt could come into being over a couple of hundred years? The latter sections where Williams criticizes Aristotle's view of slaves and their inherent base nature seems more germane but I have forgotten a lot of the substance of the argument.

I know this is pretty esoteric so all thoughts are appreciated. Feel free to recommend any book that shows philosophic criticisms of evolutionary biology. If you know an interview where Williams expounds in a little more detail that would be swell. And if you know what Williams' real concerns were and whether 'Shame and Necessity' addressed those issues, well that's everything right there.
posted by BigSky to Religion & Philosophy (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think you mean evolutionary psychology.
posted by OmieWise at 12:17 PM on November 27, 2007

I'm more familiar with the cognitive psych critiques of EP (which is what I still assume you were asking about), which are legion. While they aren't precisely what you're asking about, they may be a road into the literature. Regardless, they're certainly damming critiques, in my opinion.

I think many of the critical posts at Mixing Memory have been quite good on this, explaining the actual ignored science that disproves the EP hypotheses. This one, which amounts to a book review, ranges pretty widely and has links to many of his other posts. Probably his foundational post on the subject is this one. There's also some stuff at the new blog address at Science Blogs.
posted by OmieWise at 12:33 PM on November 27, 2007

Response by poster: I think you mean evolutionary psychology.

That too.

I copied the phrasing from here, where Steven Pinker is referred to as an 'evolutionary biologist'. I suspect there is some difference in the criticisms but I am grateful for your links and will give them a close read.
posted by BigSky at 12:43 PM on November 27, 2007

Oh, I see that. I think it's a misquote or a miswriting. Pinker has only trained and worked as a psychologist. He has made some use of his version of evolutionary theory in his work promoting EP, but from an evolutionary perspective his work in that area is pretty shoddy. Here's his cv. There are some google results for ("evolutionary biologist" pinker), but they almost all refer to someone else as the biologist in question (usually Dawkins). I've never before seen Pinker referred to as an "evolutionary biologist."

I say all this because you may be able to dig out more information by using the common (at least in the US) phrasing.
posted by OmieWise at 1:05 PM on November 27, 2007

As OmieWise says, Steven Pinker is not an evolutionary biologist.

Would evolutionary biologists hold that an emotion like guilt could come into being over a couple of hundred years?

Evolutionary biologists probably wouldn't have much to say about guilt, so look to the psychologists. I will say that if a character arises in humans within "a couple hundred years," or about 10–20 generations, it's very, very unlikely to have come about through the mechanisms of evolution.
posted by grouse at 2:27 PM on November 27, 2007

1. "Evolutionary psychology" used to be called "sociobiology". There are different nuances but the terms are awfully similar. Maybe the reporter mixed parts from them. Pinker is not an evolutionary biologist, as OmieWise correctly points out.

2. Pinker is widely thought of (by philosophers) as a bit of a hack, who writes popular books containing important imprecisions. For example -- as I understand it, having not actually read The Blank Slate -- he caricatures opponents as believing that human biology has no influence at all on people's behavior and beliefs, and then meets the very easy challenge of arguing that in fact human biology does after all have some influence on people's behavior and beliefs. [As I say, I haven't read it. So don't take my word for anything but a second-hand report of other people's reactions.]

3. There are a number of important criticisms of different flavors of ev-psych/sociobio theories. OmieWise linked to some very good ones above.

Here's a very rough and ready version of one critique. It's not really a philosophical critique, it's a scientific critique.

A first clarification to keep in mind:
The philosophers who criticize the ev-psych stuff are (almost entirely) believers in science, believers in evolution by natural selection, etc. They are pro-science. They are not backward "let's cover our ears and not listen to the scientists" types, as they are sometimes foolishly caricatured. [I'm not speaking about Williams in particular here; I can't remember offhand what his feelings are on this issue.]

Natural selection shaped human cognitive systems, just as it shaped other parts of human anatomy etc.
Everyone in the debate agrees on this. This thesis alone is not ev psych/sociobio, and if anybody says "my opponent doesn't seem to accept that natural selection shaped human cognitive systems", they're making a strawman unless their opponent really is a creationist.

The question is: How much -- and which parts -- of observed human behavior today is innate and unchangeable? The mere claim that natural selection shaped human cognitive systems does not answer this question at all.

And the mere fact that someone can invent a plausible-sounding story about why such-and-such a psychological trait would have been useful for early humans does not show that that trait is actually innate and unchangeable, or even that the underlying brain structures etc would have been available as an object of selection. Selection works on behavior, which is produced by the psychology plus environmental and cultural factors. So selection could only work on the product of those three things, not on any one of them individually. [The strawman ev-psych view at the beginning of this paragraph is not representative of the best ev-psych. But it's useful as a way of spelling out theses that nobody in the debate should accept.]

The most likely answer for my money is: most of observed human behavior today is a product of culture and socialization, even though the brain was produced through natural selection. The behavioral phenotype of early humans, produced by genotype + cultural + environmental factors, worked well in the environment of evolutionary adaptation. Everyone agrees on this. We still have a lot of the genes that produced the behaviors that worked in the EEA -- everyone agrees on this too -- but today these genes may produce different behaviors and different psychological phenotypes because they're interacting with different environmental factors (just as we're taller because better nourished, and we should expect a similar phenomenon for psychological traits). We can't just move from the fact that a psychological trait is widely manifested (even if manifested in humans throughout the few thousand years of recorded history) to the conclusion that it must have been selected for.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:36 PM on November 27, 2007

Here is a previous question that might be useful too. (I went on at some length in that thread too.) I know we have some mefites who are fans of ev-psych (orthogonality comes to mind) who you could get in touch with if you only get detractors here and want another view.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:39 PM on November 27, 2007

In fact, on reviewing that thread, I think there's a real danger in this debate of everybody just saying "their view is oversimple" when really it's all just strawmen all around. At any rate, when you're looking into this stuff, try to be careful to avoid strawmanning the other side, and try to be careful about being precise with exactly which theses you're taking to be under discussion.

Plus a further correction: In the thread I linked, someone later came along and said that Pinker does not in fact make the strawman I was (above) accusing him of making, in The Blank Slate. So there's a first-hand report of someone who says they've actually read it - probably more worth believing than my second-hand report!

(I tend to get worked up about this because, as I said in the other thread, there are some ev-psych style theories that have a severe tang of confirmation bias about them (eg, men are different from women in way X), and get reported widely for that reason. I tend to be hyper-suspicious of this kind of thing. I know you're concerned with keeping an open mind in debate about controversial ideas, and I'm all for that -- I just think that when we're presented with research that purports to affirm some ingrained social stereotype, we need to really be on guard against confirmation bias and its neighbors. Experience has shown that (as with the race-IQ research) science is prone to getting it wrong about questions like this. Extra skepticism and wariness, extra scrutiny of methods and analysis, is what I'm suggesting -- not a blanket condemnation.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:56 PM on November 27, 2007

Best answer: Here's somebody's livejournal entry that looks at Williams on the relation of evolutionary psychology to ethics... might give you a pointer to the specific kind of discussion that is more of interest to you.

That entry discusses Williams' essay "Philosophy, Evolution and The Human Sciences" (in Making Sense Of Humanity); sounds like that would be your first place to look to find out what he specifically thought about this stuff.

As to the philosophical question you're asking:
There is a straightforward scientific question about how moral emotions like guilt, shame, pride, etc come about in humans -- both in individuals and in history/evolutionary history. Philosophy can help with this, in thinking about how to taxonomize the moral emotions to help the scientists get a clearer fix on what they're searching for the origin of.

There is a separate question, "what is the relationship of moral emotions to the moral values that they seem to reflect?" That is, one can feel guilt because one thinks one has done a morally bad action. But what is the nature of moral badness? What makes an action morally bad? The answer to this question is not necessarily illuminated by the scientific answer to the first question. Some of the many options (setting aside theories of morality that require a divine figure):

-It might be that what counts as morally bad is a natural feature of the world independent of humans ever having evolved. (Maybe moral truths are like the truths of mathematics; they exist always and independent of humans, but humans discover them.)

-It might be that what counts as morally bad depends on what kinds of creatures humans are, but not dependent on what humans think about morality. (For example, because humans can suffer and recognize their own suffering, it's morally bad to cause a human to suffer, and this is true even if your society thinks it's ok to cause humans to suffer.)

-It might be that moral badness is entirely a matter of what humans think is bad -- so if we all stopped thinking that things were morally bad or good, they would just cease to be morally bad or good.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:51 PM on November 27, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you, LobsterMitten.

The livejournal entry was exactly what I was looking for. Evolutionary psychology is of some interest, but Bernard Williams was more the object of my curiosity. I'm thinking about rereading 'Shame and Necessity' in the near future and I suspect that some of these issues are lurking around in there even if they aren't being directly addressed. As you might know, the Sather lectures are a pretty big deal in the Classics world and I would expect Bernard Williams to have been going after bigger game than Bruno Snell's portrayal of the Ancient Greek mind (his starting point is a criticism of Snell's 'The Discovery of the Mind'). If I remember right, he connects his criticism of Aristotle with the claim that the knowledge of how some phenomenon or behavior or group comes to be does not directly indicate how it ought to be treated or considered. Or, to use some of the phrasing from the livejournal, that a naturalistic interpretation carries with it a teleological one. And as a side note, I think the example Williams uses in this context is the question of what the role of women should be. Disclaimer: my memory is not so hot, any of the above concerning 'Shame and Necessity' may well be more imaginary than factual.

I also appreciate your brief description on three possible relations between moral emotions and moral values. In my opinion, the scientific answer has little to do with it beyond settling some pragmatic questions for those who pick door #3. My own take is in agreement with Strauss, answering some questions moves you out of philosophy and into dogmatism. I would rather just try and recognize what each argument entails.

Fantastic answer.
posted by BigSky at 5:03 PM on November 27, 2007

Best answer: I have been scouring this seminar (scroll down for full pdf) with Williams but could not find any clear pronouncements of his about evolutionary psychology and his criticisms of it. While it does more to clarify his positions in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy and his discussion with Korsgaard, you may have better luck in digging up a couple nuggets there; certainly what he says about, for instance, naturalistic explanations of the source of motivations seems in some respects germane to your questions. There is also a good discussion of Aristotle on slavery.

On the other hand, Willams' own words (from that seminar) make it clear, to my mind at least, why he would be interested in such a critique of evopsych; it is just constitutes another trendy form of ex post facto legitimization of moral motivations, and hence just another meta-ethical attempt at grounding the source of morality (not that he rejects this wholesale, but he questions philosophy's or psychology's motivations for doing so):
So, the first question now is the following: Is the fact that a sense of fairness is part of our motivational set compatible with internalism or do you need some rationalistic Kantian idea to explain how a sense of fairness can be part of one's motivational set? Christine and other neo-Kantians are not going to deny that a sense of fairness is part of our motivational set. It is clearly a psychological explanation of what people do to say that he did it because he thought the opposite was unfair. That's a perfectly good psychological explanation, so ex hypothesi something like a sense of fairness is part of his motivational set. The question is, do we need some very special rationalistic explanation of why it is part of his motivational set? And I would say the ball is in the Kantian's court. I can't see why we should need such an explanation. Children are brought up to have a sense of fairness as a general potentiality and it's absolutely explicable why they should be. The roots of this may well be innate because we are after all selected to be to some degree cooperative creatures. Then the next question is: How does the sense of fairness get applied for the first time to gender roles? I think that is the most interesting question. That is: Is it just a change of style? — that's the relativist answer — or have things that were wrongly thought in the past now been abandoned?, in which case you will have a kind of Aufklärung progressivist story. You will say that people have stopped being as prejudiced as they were, that it's moral progress. A legitimation that was offered in the past has been questioned for the first time and it seemed not to be a legitimation. And of course the thing about gender domination, like the thing about racism, is that once you ask for a reason for it there aren't any. It only ever existed for people who didn't ask for reasons for it.
Finally, I think you could do a lot worse than have a look at the entry on "Rationality and Psychology" entry in The Oxford Handbook of Rationality, written by R. Samuels and S. Stich, which offers a close comparative analysis of 'heuristic/cognitive bias' psychology's versus evolutionary psychology's theories of mind/brain. Particularly rewarding is their overview of the most important papers and the various sets of experimental data. From one of their concluding paragraphs:
We believe that the “middle way” we've been urging between the pessimism suggested by the heuristics and biases tradition and the optimism proclaimed by evolutionary psychologists is compatible with and perhaps made more plausible by a family of dual processing theories about the mental mechanisms underlying reasoning and decision
making that have gained increasing prominence in recent years.
posted by rudster at 6:08 PM on November 27, 2007

Response by poster: Wow. And I thought this subject was too obscure for AskMe.


I've only skimmed the seminar so far but this is great. It really gives a sense of his eloquence and how quick he was on his feet.

I thought Williams did pretty much reject any meta-ethical attempt to ground morality. Were there any candidates that he thought had a legitimate shot?

Again, thanks. I have more to bring to the text for consideration than my capacity allows.

*** Much rambling and 'thinking' out loud follows, probably best skipped ***

The paragraph quoted points directly at it. For the worldview to be questioned there has to be a distancing from a naturalistic explanation. And if that distancing never occurs then you never have to take responsibility for deciding what's appropriate. On the other hand, what evidence is there that detaching from one's self justifying explanations is morally superior? None, except the belief that looking with fresh eyes leads to more contact with the world, greater capability and the possibility to improve at knowing and implementing one's intent.

I like the moral ambiguity in the contrast between this sentence from the paragraph above,

"A legitimation that was offered in the past has been questioned for the first time and it seemed not to be a legitimation. And of course the thing about gender domination, like the thing about racism, is that once you ask for a reason for it there aren't any. It only ever existed for people who didn't ask for reasons for it."

and this one from the interlocutor, at the start of the seminar,

"By asking the question `How should one live?', one shows that one is interested in living an ethical life. In this sense I can agree with what I think you say in Ethics, namely that the question `Why should I be moral?' is not meaningful for a moral thinker. The answer to the moral question, the results of his reflection are not meant to convince him or his readers to be moral. On the contrary, he starts precisely from this interest in morality and tries to understand what it means to be moral, what his wish to be moral implies.".

Granted, these are not anywhere near the same level of priority but I must smile at the racist's justifications vanishing in the same way as the moral man's. You can't help but to wonder that if the racist's questioning of the assumption that "These people are in this position because that is their nature" is well chosen, then what do we say when your average ethical guy starts to question, "I act ethically because it is in my nature to be ethically engaged". Is that question also well chosen? And then where does that question lead? Now, that's not a fair comparison since there is a disparity between the racist's detachment which consists of asking questions while detachment from moral duty requires an avoidance of asking questions (or at least, that's what I would argue in some other post; 'questions' of course, is a bit figurative). But still, it's an amusing parallel.

While most of the above connects with the 'Necessity' portion, this final paragraph of Williams', quoted in the livejournal might relate a bit loosely to 'Shame':

"the idea of a naturalistic ethics was born of a deeply teleological outlook, and its best expression, in many ways, is to be found in Aristotle's philosophy, a philosophy according to which there is inherent in each natural kind of thing an appropriate way for things of that kind to behave. On that view it must be the deepest desire - need? - purpose? - satisfaction? of human beings to live in the way that is in this objective sense appropriate to them (the fact that modern words break up into these alternatives expresses the modern break-up of Aristotle's view).".

I'm thinking that what he terms "the modern break-up of Aristotle's view" can be made analogous with the movement from shame (violating a communal social standard) to guilt (seeing oneself as not meeting the private notion of a natural order). And Williams criticizes the notion that guilt indicates moral progress. But what kind of community standards can exist that don't presuppose a teleological outlook?
posted by BigSky at 11:04 PM on November 27, 2007

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