Morality as an Evolutionary Exaptation

In Johan De Smedt & Helen De Cruz (eds.), Empirically Engaged Evolutionary Ethics. Springer - Synthese Library. pp. 89-109 (2021)

Abstract

The dominant theory of the evolution of moral cognition across a variety of fields is that moral cognition is a biological adaptation to foster social cooperation. This chapter argues, to the contrary, that moral cognition is likely an evolutionary exaptation: a form of cognition where neurobiological capacities selected for in our evolutionary history for a variety of different reasons—many unrelated to social cooperation—were put to a new, prosocial use after the fact through individual rationality, learning, and the development and transmission of social norms. This chapter begins with a brief overview of the emerging behavioral neuroscience of moral cognition. It then outlines a novel theory of moral cognition that I have previously argued explains these findings better than alternatives. Finally, it shows how the evidence for this theory of moral cognition and human evolutionary history together suggest that moral cognition is likely not a biological adaptation. Instead, like reading sheet music or riding a bicycle, moral cognition is something that individuals learn to do—in this case, in response to sociocultural norms created in our ancestral history and passed down through the ages to enable cooperative living.

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