The Evolutionary Ethics of E. O. Wilson


Whitley Kaufman in The New Atlantis (image form wikimedia commons):

In his new book The Social Conquest of Earth (2012), naturalist E. O. Wilson argues that our best chance at understanding and advancing morality will come when we “explain the origin of religion and morality as special events in the evolutionary history of humanity driven by natural selection.” This is a bold claim, yet a familiar one for Wilson, who has been advocating something like this approach to human morality ever since his landmark 1975 work Sociobiology.

In that book, Wilson provocatively argued that “scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers” and that ethics should instead be “biologicized”: questions once debated seemingly without end by philosophers will be settled by biologists using the same methods by which they have explained digestion, reproduction, and all of the other evolved drives and functions of the body.

The unification of science and morality, on Wilson’s count, would be a much-needed revolution for ethics. But it has also long been one of the desiderata of the Enlightenment project — which has been so successful in fulfilling its promise of advancing our scientific knowledge and our material wellbeing, yet seems to have made so little progress in settling debates over ethics. The consilience of the human and natural sciences that Wilson’s sociobiological project promises would carry on the scientific method’s “unrelenting application of reason” to the field of ethics, and finally begin to establish a stable, wise, and enduring ethical code for the future.

Wilson’s vision has earned him the title of prophet from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and his work has been seminal in the field of evolutionary ethics — the study of the evolutionary origins of our moral beliefs and practices. Yet, though Wilson can be considered one of the most articulate proponents of the project to biologicize ethics, his work also, in spite of itself, reveals the greatest barriers to carrying it out.