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Cela-Conde, Camilo J. and Gisele Marty. “Beyond Biological Evolution: Mind, Morals, and Culture.”

Camilo Cela-Conde and Gisele Marty focus on models of human evolution that account for the development of traits in individuals, including morphological traits such as large brains and functional traits such as speech. They also consider the development of collective traits in human populations, such as language, culture, and moral codes. These models raise important theological questions regarding divine action.

Most theological attempts to address human evolution treat the development of culture separately from, or in contrast to, the evolution of morphology, but these attempts run into serious problems since cultural evolution presupposes and builds on biological evolution. Interactionist models are thus needed. Such models must also address the question of when and how such traits as a complex brain and human language emerged during the past 2.5 million years. Some scientists hold for an almost instantaneous and isolated emergence of language, but since language does not fossilize, the conjecture is hard to test empirically. Others argue for a long, gradual, and early development of language going back to Homo habilis, and relate it to the slow development of the brain, an idea which is easier to test. Another question is how to differentiate the evolution of our species from other hominids and even from other primates. The theological task, in turn, is how to relate such an understanding of human evolution, especially of language and cognition, to divine action, taking into account the elements of continuity as well as discontinuity between humans and other hominids as well as between hominids in general and other primates.

Darwin was the first to speak of both a biological mechanism for moral behavior and a distinctive “moral sense” which he attributed uniquely to humans. He explained the evident diversity of moral codes in terms of adaptation to varying environments. But how does human moral sense (or “moral altruism”) differ from the kind of biological altruism shared by so many species, and what are its genetic roots? This question leads the authors into a discussion of sociobiology as it has developed over the past two decades. In their view, it has focused on four key issues: the phenomena implied by human morality; the analogs to it at the animal level; the phylogenetic explanation of the emergence of these analogs; and the development of human morality within this framework. Though the debate has waned somewhat, Cela-Conde and Marty hope to show how it might now be reinvigorated.

Part of the challenge, in spite of the reductionism inherent in the debate, is the actual complexity of the phenomenon of human morality. A variety of approaches are being pursued. Some scientists point to the distinction between the capacity for, and the content of, moral thought. Others focus on group selection and kin selection models of altruism. Some argue for a strict separation between biological and moral altruism, while others stress their intimate connection. The authors note that, even if a strong connection is granted, reductionism can at least be partially avoided by appealing to the supervenience of moral language. Some sociobiologists have developed theories of reciprocal altruism, ultrasociality, and sociocultural fitness. Still the authors know of no model which includes all the elements required, from innate tendencies to empirical moral norms. Moreover, the complex cognitive processes implied in evaluating and making decisions suggest that the usual distinction between motive and criterion is inadequate.

Instead, in their model, Cela-Conde and Marty consider both the motive to act, the personal ethical criterion, and the set of collective values and norms. Individuals accumulate and actualize these values during the apprenticeship process, giving to the collective complex an evolutionary, changing character. They propose a phylogenetic argument that places biological and moral altruism as two successive stages in human evolution. Biological altruism is closely associated with the genetic code and belongs to the area of motivation; moral altruism is related to the personal ethical domain or the values of the group. Neither taken alone is able to explain the whole of human moral conduct. The combined development of cognitive capacity and moral behavior is sometimes called “co-evolution.” They also draw on the cognitive sciences. Here, internal rewards to the individual may be available through religious rituals, acting before public crowds, integration into small communities, and so on. They conclude by exploring the idea of universal norms directing moral behavior as typified in the first stages of sociobiology, and the idea of universal tendencies to accept moral codes as found in later, more sophisticated sociological arguments. These results and their problems point, in turn, to the need for a more complete theory linking the biological substratum to moral conduct, the influence of social groups, and the role of emotions in maintaining moral behavior.

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