Wisdom’s Paradox

20 The Evolution of Moral Wisdom: What Some Ethicists might learn from Some Evolutionary Anthropologists

John Berkman


Can ethicists learn from evolutionary anthropologists? Yes, but unfortunately we should not expect it to happen frequently. Why? First, because it appears that many ethicists are temperamentally unwilling to look to evolutionary theorists for insight. Second, and more significant for my argument, only some ethicists can learn from evolutionary anthropologists because only some ethicists hold views about their own discipline that allow them to learn from evolutionary anthropologists. This paper will lay out this thesis. It will first discuss which approaches to ethics will not be open to evolutionary anthropology. Then, it will discuss approaches to ethics that can and should be open to learning from evolutionary anthropology. And finally, it will provide examples of what might be learned.

In a recent article, the evolutionary anthropologist Agustín Fuentes noted that a major problem in trying to speak about evolution and ethics is that there are so many different conceptions of “ethics.”[1] Typically interlocutors are speaking past each other; they are not even managing to have a significant disagreement. As one of my Wittgensteinian philosopher friends will exclaim when discussing some claim that is particularly confused: “That’s not even wrong!” But there is an even bigger problem than that which Fuentes rightly notes; many evolutionary anthropologists assume that the meaning of “morality” or “ethics” is unitary and self-evident, and are not even aware that some ethicists do not fit their preconceptions. Similarly, many ethicists assume that evolutionary theory is fundamentally unitary, and so if they have objections to a particular evolutionary theorist, they assume that these objections will apply to evolutionary anthropology more generally. This paper critiques the presumption that all reasonable and reasonably educated persons agree on the fundamental tenets of ethics or evolutionary theory. It is a huge and decisive error if it is assumed that we are talking about the same thing when we use the terms “ethics” or “evolution.” I will begin my analysis of this in the next section.

My title can be understood in at least three ways. It could be referring to the origin of wisdom, how such a thing came to exist. Or, it could be referring to the development of wisdom, how it grew and changed. Finally, perhaps less obviously, it could be speaking of changes in the understanding of wisdom within the disciplines of moral theology and evolutionary anthropology themselves. In fact, this paper will address all three of these topics at different points.

When I speak of “wisdom” at various points in this paper, it also will have different connotations, and that is part of its richness and allure. In common usage, wisdom is not limited to human beings, but is attributed to various species which possess a particular skill or characteristic in an exemplary fashion, one that allows such species to survive and flourish in unique or unexpected ways. For example, when the book of Proverbs hails ants, hyraxes, locusts, and spiders as exemplary and wise, we readily see a unique or exemplary characteristic that aids them, one which we, human beings, can learn from in our own way. A second common definition holds that wisdom is that fundamental capacity or skill of human beings—sometimes called “practical rationality” and sometimes “practical wisdom”—that allows us to act well. In some contexts, this skill is akin to what have recently been called “moral emotions.” It allows human communities and their members to successfully make complex decisions and navigate various social networks. Third, wisdom can also connote more than a skill possessed more or less by all people. It is something possessed by the Socrateses and Solomons of the world. It is rare and powerful, an aspirational goal for the many, but endowed on the few. This wisdom is insight applied to action. In this context, wisdom is analogous to the ability to answer riddles. One without insight on riddles only recognizes the answer after it is given by another. Similarly, one without insight on action only sees the wise course after it is revealed.[2]

There is Not One “Morality”

There have been many critiques of the Enlightenment view that there is a single rationally-compelling perspective on morality. Alasdair MacIntyre is the most comprehensive critic of this view, which he calls “‘Morality’ with a capital ‘M.’”[3] From After Virtue through to Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, MacIntyre has compellingly argued that it is impossible to definitively establish the truth of one ethical theory or perspective over all others. MacIntyre shows that one’s fundamental ethical outlook is taken up on the basis of, or in conjunction with, a cluster of other fundamental beliefs. One’s ethical viewpoint is inseparable from one’s fundamental convictions about the world, human nature, and God, and with one’s theological, political, economic, scientific, and/or aesthetic beliefs. One’s ethical perspective may even be shaped by the extent to which it is able to accommodate the insights of evolutionary anthropology.

If MacIntyre and other critics of “Morality” are correct, then evolutionary anthropologists who want their work engaged by ethicists will do well to recognize that only some ethical outlooks can be expected to show interest in and learn from their work. For example, if an ethicist has an exclusively revelation-based view of ethics—as in a divine command theory—then the ethicist cannot be expected to be influenced by evolutionary theory and what it may teach us about human characteristics, simply because human nature is not a criterion for that approach to ethics. Similarly, an ethicist with a highly rationalistic ethical viewpoint, following the philosopher Immanuel Kant, will likely be immune to most of what may be learned from evolutionary anthropologists.

In sum, if the outlook of an ethicist is that ethics has nothing to do with human inclinations or any aspect of human nature except advanced rationality, then such a moralist could reasonably be expected to argue that evolutionary anthropology is irrelevant to moral thinking. In other words, some views about the nature of morality make evolutionary anthropology irrelevant, even if insights from evolutionary anthropology are otherwise interesting.

There is Not One Theory of Evolution

Although the intellectual divides in evolutionary anthropology are perhaps not as stark as in ethical theorizing, it has recently become clear that there are deep divisions among evolutionary theorists. Until recently, the modern evolutionary synthesis (MES)—that is, the classic gene-based model of mutation and selection—was seen as the primary or even the exclusive mechanism of evolution.[4] However, over the last two decades a competitor to the MES has emerged, namely the extended evolutionary synthesis (EES).[5] What is at stake in this debate between MES and EES theorists? They disagree about the most fundamental question of evolution, specifically, the mechanisms by which species change and how new species come to be. In other words, the key interest of evolutionary theory is in heredity and changes in heredity over time. The EES differs from the MES because it acknowledges additional mechanisms of evolutionary change or attributes great significance to mechanisms of evolutionary change that the MES downplays, ignores, or rejects. In addition to the gene-based mechanism of evolutionary change, the EES argues that epigenetics, social learning, and cultural/symbolic changes are also important mechanisms of evolution.[6] Furthermore, advocates of the EES attribute much greater significance to niche construction theory in relation to all of these mechanisms of evolution. Niche construction theory focuses on the fact that environments do not merely shape, but are also shaped by, the organisms that inhabit those environments. In shaping their environments, organisms impact their own evolution.

In the same way that some approaches to ethics will be more open to incorporating insights from (some approaches to) evolutionary anthropology than others, so too some approaches to evolutionary theory will be more open to incorporating the insights of (some approaches to) ethics. For example, some evolutionary theorists contend that evolutionary theorizing simply replaces ethics as the guide to human conduct. If that is true, then evolutionary theory requires no engagement with ethicists. Some evolutionary theorists have argued that evolution “teaches” us that everyone acts according to their self-interest.[7] Even apparently virtuous people act the way they do because they want to. As the biologist E.O. Wilson put it, even Mother Teresa does what she does because that makes her happy, or some such.[8] If an evolutionary theorist thinks that selfishness is the basic story—intellectually and morally—of our lives, then there will be no perceived need to learn from ethicists.[9] Even more problematic are the naïve sociobiologists who presume one simply “reads” morality from “nature,” by which they seem to mean any common tendency that humans may have once unshackled from societal norms. Jablonka and Lamb summarize this view:

The widespread belief that common behaviors (often rather objectionable ones) are ‘genetic,’ ‘natural,’ and like simple monogenic diseases, ‘inevitable’…is ‘the public persona of [sociobiology].’. …Some of them promote a vulgar public image of genetically determined evolved ‘tendencies’…[interpreting] every pattern of behavior, from joking to raping, as the manifestation of an evolved adaptation that was selected in the distant past.’ Thornhill and Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape is a prime example of the genre.[10]

These sociobiologists make the elementary error of conflating the “natural” with any and all expressions of natural inclinations in humans. This makes no sense, not least because on this understanding there is no “unnatural” inclination. To speak of particular human inclinations (and those of other social animals) as natural, “natural” must refer to those that tend towards both the individual’s good and the social (or common) good of the individual’s community.[11] When sociobiologists appeal to evolution to make this and other elementary errors of logic, it discredits evolutionary theory as a source for ethical reflection among many ethicists, who assume sociobiologists represent the contribution of evolutionary theory to ethics.

In contrast to those evolutionary theorists who will not be open to learning from the insights of ethicists, which approaches to evolution will be more likely to be open to the insights of ethicists? Due to the fact that EES theorists put a greater emphasis on a larger number of mechanisms of evolution, they can be expected to be significantly more open to engagement with ethicists. For example, since EES theorists acknowledge the significance of niche construction theory as it pertains to human beings, and the importance of cultural evolution for the evolution of modern Homo sapiens, they are thus necessarily open to how religious, philosophical, and other wisdom traditions actually shape the evolution of human beings. The typical (if at times caricatured) MES view that the ethical imperative is simply to pass on one’s genes is rejected by EES theorists. For EES theorists, evolution is shaped by “passing on” many other things, including characteristics passed on epigenetically, modes of action passed on from parents to offspring, and cultural developments passed on linguistically. Advocates of the EES can in general be expected to be more open to the insights of religious and wisdom traditions discussed by theological and philosophical ethicists, if for no other reason than because they represent key elements of historic human cultures that have clearly influenced the evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens.

So far, I have argued that only some types of ethicists can reasonably be expected to be open to the insights of evolutionary theory, at least if they are consistent with their approach to ethics. I have given examples of ethicists—like Immanuel Kant—who, if they are faithful to the fundamental tenets of their ethical theory, will have nothing to learn from evolutionary anthropology. Thus, the first question is, what kinds of ethicists do have something to learn from evolutionary anthropology and what can they be expected to learn? As might be expected from what I have argued in this section, ethicists can be expected to learn from the new insights of the EES. After discussing the kinds of ethicists that I will argue can and should be open to the new insights of the EES, the remainder of this chapter will present examples of insights from anthropology that can and should be incorporated into contemporary ethical reflection.

Which Ethicists Can be Expected to Learn from Evolutionary Anthropology and What Can They Learn?

In the previous section, I gave examples of the kinds of ethicists who are not in a position to learn from evolutionary theory, because their approaches to ethics are uninterested in the origins or development of wisdom. The disinclination of some divine-command and Kantian ethicists to learn from human nature, history, or tradition—including our deep history as investigated by paleontologists and evolutionary anthropologists—is a particular characteristic of eighteenth-century ethical thought which means that all insights regarding ethics must be learned de novo. For divine-command theorists, one needs to discern what God requires from one now, in this situation. For Kantian ethicists, one’s principles must be derived from purely rational reflection.

Are these “principled” opponents of learning from anthropology the only ethicists who do not look for insights from evolutionary theory? Of course not. No doubt, many ethicists simply never get around to taking evolutionary theory into account. In the opening chapter of Human Evolution and Christian Ethics, Stephen Pope discusses a variety of highly influential approaches that ignore evolutionary theory. Furthermore, many ethicists wrongly equate the insights of evolutionary theory with the reductive views characteristic of the sociobiologists referred to earlier, and thus prematurely dismiss the field of evolutionary anthropology as incorrigible in its approach to ethics.

Having said that, there are approaches to ethics that should be receptive to the wisdom of evolutionary anthropology, namely those which see the non-rational and pre-rational aspects of human nature as relevant and important for understanding human morality. In other words, ethicists that recognize that an understanding of the goodness of sense capacities, desires, appetites, and affections of human beings are relevant for understanding human goodness should turn to evolutionary anthropology for insight on the most reasonable account of the origin and development of such capacities in our deep ancestors. As theologian Jean Porter puts it, “by investigating the basic intelligibilities and form of ordering found in the natural world, [evolutionary theory] provides data for theological reflection on the structure of creation.”[12]

Which ethical approaches take most seriously “the basic intelligibilities and forms of ordering found in the natural world,” in particular the integral nature of human beings in their relational, biological, sensory, and rational elements? The mainstream moral theories most interested in this integral nature are Aristotelian and natural-law ethics.[13] Of moral theorists who integrate these traditions, Thomas Aquinas is the most influential. What can Aristotelian and Thomistic ethicists learn from evolutionary biology? Evolutionary anthropologists investigate a variety of intelligibilities from the natural world. They learn about humans and other animals from archeological investigations. From human remains, archeologists learn about the size of humans and our deep ancestors, the size of their communities, what kind of injuries they would likely have suffered and how they died, even their diet. From discoveries of various types of habitation, burial practices, cookware and tools, the clothes and dyes and ornaments they fashioned, archeologists can learn about the beliefs of our deep ancestors as well as the social skills they acquired.

In the rest of this paper, I will examine five insights of the EES, and one challenge to evolutionary anthropologists, all of which can be appropriated by ethicists in their reflections. They regard shared capacities, social learning, niche construction theory, domestication, wisdom traditions, and the meaning of species.

Shared Capacities

The psychologist Paul Ekman has demonstrated that facial expressions associated with a variety of basic human emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, and joy are evident in all human cultures.[14] These emotions are also universally evident in a variety of other social animals.[15] Ekman’s list of basic emotions is remarkably similar to that of Aquinas on the one hand, and Charles Darwin on the other. Furthermore, contemporary cognitive psychologists such as Simon Baron-Cohen have compatible lists.[16] In a manner akin to Darwin, Ekman is very interested in facial expressions that universally show certain emotions.[17]

Ekman’s views are in continuity with classical and medieval philosophy and theology (e.g., Aristotle, Avicenna, Albert, and Aquinas), and some modern philosophers (e.g., Hume) in that he agrees that a prerequisite for any actions, in human and non-human animals, is a desire, in the form of an emotion, passion, or appetite. The medieval accounts in particular detail the underlying psychology, going into great detail not only on the external senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell) that humans share with other animals, but also the internal senses (“common sense,” imagination, memory, and the estimative sense) that are also shared. These accounts discuss the shared apprehensive powers—how animals know things—and also the shared appetitive powers—how their appetites or desires lead them to act. All of these theorists, from Aristotle to Hume to Ekman, agree on a desire-based account of activity.

This recognition of the animality that Homo sapiens sapiens share with other animals is less obvious to moderns and post-moderns than it was to ancient and medieval people. In contemporary discourse, it is typical to speak of human beings in contrast to “animals,” but for a medieval theologian like Thomas Aquinas it was quite the opposite. Not only did Aquinas consider human beings to be animals, he thought that this was completely self-evident to anyone who was reflective. In fact, in his Summa Theologiae, “a human being is an animal” is Aquinas’s stock example of a self-evident proposition. As a result, it can be argued that moral theologians can and should seek to learn from evolutionary anthropologists about the wisdom of our deep ancestors, the forms of practical wisdom they likely exercised, and the desires and emotions presupposed by those forms of practical wisdom. As noted earlier, at its most basic practical level wisdom directs the desires and emotions to the organism’s good in a way that benefits it for the long term. Classically speaking, virtues are those skills that allow the creature to direct its desires in ways that lead to an individual animal’s and its community’s flourishing.[18]

Lesson #1 According to the dominant account, virtues are ordered passions or emotions. If this account of virtue is correct, then we need to draw on contemporary analyses of the emotions that are a part of human nature if we are to have the optimal account of the virtues.

Social Learning

While emotions (or passions) show an incipient wisdom, these desires are not static. This wisdom gets realized generationally through learning, at least initially, before it in many cases becomes an inbred capacity. Evolutionary anthropologists are increasing arguing for the huge significance of a variety of forms of social learning, another key mechanism recognized by the EES for the evolution of wisdom in Homo sapiens and other organisms. [19]

This learning begins with what evolutionary anthropologists call associative learning. For example, associative learning is found in mongooses. Baby mongooses are educated into particular culinary practices by an older mongoose (usually not a parent) who functions as the baby mongoose’s mentor. Among mongooses, bird eggs are a key food source, and there are two distinct methods mongooses employ to crack them open. Almost all mongooses use only one of these methods. The mentor mongoose introduces its mentee to one of these methods of opening. The baby mongoose will learn that method, and will forever crack them open in that way, regardless of whether it later witnesses the other method. Here we see a particular skill important for its flourishing being learned by a younger mongoose. It is not an inbred culinary skill, such as suckling at the breast, but must be learned by each new generation.

In contrast to mongooses, macaques can learn new culinary skills throughout their lifetime, although this learning is more prevalent among younger macaques. There is a famous and long-running experiment by Japanese ethologists with macaques on an island uninhabited by humans. At one stage in the experiment, the ethologists left sweet potato on a beach. The macaques would find it, and after trying to brush off the sand, eat it. At a certain point one bright young macaque headed to the water’s edge instead and rinsed the sand from her sweet potato. Her innovation soon spread, and other macaques learned to do the same. The increased time spent at the water’s edge also led to a non-culinary innovation as these macaques came to enjoy playing in the water. Evolutionary anthropologists call this type of development a cultural innovation, because a new practice was relatively quickly adopted by the troop, who then passed it on to future generations.

Both of these are examples of social learning, but they demonstrate different degrees of practical wisdom in terms of the level of sophistication of such learning. There is no reason to doubt that among our deep ancestors social learning developed analogously. Early Homo sapiens, like mongooses, may have only changed significantly when environmental or other changes required change for survival. And so we should expect that evolutionary change in early Homo sapiens and their ancestors was exceedingly slow. However, at the point when Homo sapiens acquired the practical wisdom to engage in cultural learning, we should expect that they adopted new practices much more rapidly.

Lesson #2 What are often referred to as inexplicable or mysterious “instincts” have been learned at some point in a species’ evolutionary history or continue to be learned. So understanding the various goals of human beings in the past is importantand a better understanding of this should make it clear that a better understanding of moral development is essential for understanding ethics.

Niche Construction Theory

We are now at a point where we can adequately appreciate what at least some advocates of the EES see as its most important alternative perspective on evolutionary theory. Its significance is not merely that it is an important mechanism of evolutionary change, but that it serves as a context that impinges upon all mechanisms of evolutionary change. Odling-Smee, Laland, and Feldman grant “niche construction” a prominent place in evolutionary theory, claiming that it is one of two things (the other being carrying genes) that organisms do in the evolutionary process:

Organisms play two roles in evolution. The first consists of carrying genes; organisms survive and reproduce according to chance and natural selection pressures in their environments. This role is the basis for most evolutionary theory, it has been subject to intense qualitative and quantitative investigation, and it is reasonably well understood. However, organisms also interact with environments, take energy and resources from environments, make micro- and macrohabitat choices with respect to environments, construct artifacts, emit detritus and die in environments, and by doing all these things, modify at least some of the natural selection pressures present in their own, and in each other’s, local environments. This second role for phenotypes in evolution is not well described or well understood by evolutionary biologists and has not been subject to a great deal of investigation. We call it “niche construction.”[20]

Niche construction theory begins with the insight that every organism throughout evolutionary history has been both influenced by its surroundings and influences it surroundings. Organisms begin to change their environments to better fit their specific phenotypes. As organisms individually and collectively shape their environment, they also in turn shape their very evolutionary development. To put it in overly simplistic terms, when Homo sapiens started spreading out across the planet, they did not wait for a fur-growing mutation before moving into cold climates. Instead, they not only adapted to their environment by making warm clothes, they also modified their environment by building fires and warm dwellings.

On a trip to Gorongosa National Park in Central Mozambique in August 2017, I saw numerous termite mounds, some more than ten feet high and twenty feet in diameter. Termites flourish in these colonies in part because they live in environments that they themselves have created. (I see an analogous situation with beavers, whose dams regularly flood the road to my family’s lake cabin in rural Ontario.) These enormous termite colonies do not only modify the effects of their environments on the adults in such communities, they also change the environment in which the young develop. In modifying their environment, termites engineer the evolutionary development of future generations of termites. Furthermore, it was pointed out to me that in that part of Mozambique, flourishing termite mounds are a sign of a flourishing ecosystem more generally.

The view that changes in an organism could be passed on to its descendants is associated with Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a rival to Darwin whose views were heretical in any Darwinian consensus. However, developments in the science of epigenetics as a mechanism of evolutionary change has shown that at least in some contexts, Lamarck was correct. The evolutionary significance of this with regards to ethics is that at a certain point humans begin to shape their environment much more than their environment shapes them. As a result, the kind of evolution that becomes dominant is cultural evolution, as a variety of cultural factors will lead to rapid changes in the behavior of Homo sapiens, in turn shaping their evolution. In particular, when Homo sapiens became linguistic animals, this is thought to have allowed “high fidelity” transmission of culture. With the rise of language and the symbolic, cultural developments quickly became cumulative, and cultural adaptations are able to be passed on more efficiently and effectively. Many anthropologists, philosophers, and theologians mark the advent of language as facilitating a profoundly and decisively new form of wisdom, which allows Homo sapiens to reflect upon our choices, giving us “free will.” For my purposes, what is of particular significance is the “high fidelity” transmission of culture made possible by linguistic development. Language is the passing on of oral traditions, including wisdom born from a new awakening to the divine and to the ability to receive revelation. As I shall develop below, one key aspect of cultural evolution for the development of wisdom is the growth in understanding of natural law.

A final important insight of niche construction theory is the fragility pertaining to passing on cultural learning. Certain skills learned culturally, especially by early Homo sapiens, may come to be lost over time. The evolutionary theorist Kim Sterelny argues not only that at one point Homo sapiens may have lost the ability to pass on some culturally learned skills, but that there may well have been cultural developments in some groups that for a variety of reasons were again lost over time.[21] Considering that at a much, much later time in human history late Roman techniques for building with opus caementicium (building concrete) died out for close to a millennium, there is no reason to doubt that earlier Homo sapiens would not have had similar cultural losses, especially with far less established and developed cultures.

Lesson #3 It is necessary to take into account much more seriously how both natural and cultural environments have shaped and continue to impact social species, particularly human beings. We also see this in the next section, on the significance for human evolution of inter-species relationships of mutuality.


A fourth key area where moral theologians can gain insight from evolutionary anthropologists about the development of Homo sapiens has to do with its co-evolution with other species. For thousands of years, the survival and flourishing of humans have depended on other species. Here I have in mind not the tiny organisms that regulate the ecosystem of human bodies, nor the animals that humans have hunted for food, domesticated as livestock, or used to plow fields or operate mills. Rather, it has been argued that the very survival of Homo sapiens as a species some 40,000 or so years ago depended on a mutualistic relationship with another species, namely Canis lupus (i.e., the wolf). As I shall argue, this relationship led to a “mutual domestication” of both Homo sapiens and Canis, and likely resulted in very significant and very rapid evolutionary changes in both humans and wolves.

Making sense of this rapid evolutionary change has been greatly assisted by the recognition of the significance of epigenetics for evolutionary change, namely genetic change that goes on without a change in gene sequencing, but is driven by transformation in mitochondrial DNA. For example, studies have shown that particular (e.g., traumatic) events in the life of a woman can lead to changes in her mitochondrial DNA which can be passed on to her offspring, who in turn can pass it to their offspring. This is an epigenetic effect, and is another example of the belated discovery of an evolutionary mechanism that supports Lamarckian-type observations on how changes that occur during the lifetime of a particular individual can be passed on to future generations.

Our understanding of the process of domestication and its significance has been revolutionized by a famous set of experiments on silver foxes, ongoing now for over sixty years. The experiment was started in the late 1950s after a disgraced Russian geneticist, who had been demoted during the time of Stalin for defending Mendelian genetics, was invited to run an animal physiology lab far away from Moscow. Dmitri Belyaev had effectively been exiled from Moscow to Novosibirsk, which was over two thousand miles west of Moscow along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Belyaev was interested in process of domestication and wanted to produce “friendlier foxes” for the fur farming industry. Industry wanted foxes that would be easier to manipulate so that they more easily and efficiently bred, raised, and slaughtered for their luxurious and prized fur.

For his experiment, Belyaev sent his graduate assistant to find the tamest foxes she could, and she came back with thirty male foxes and one hundred vixens. After breeding them, Belyaev selected among the kids exclusively on the basis of one behavioral characteristic, friendliness. He approached foxes that were in individual cages, put his hand near the cage, and evaluated each fox’s reaction to him. Belyaev discovered that the vast majority of the foxes responded to him either aggressively or fearfully. However, a very small percentage of the foxes he approached responded with curiosity or gentleness. Belyaev gathered up these foxes and bred them. Amazingly, within three generations—which for silver foxes meant three years—there were significant signs of domestication among these foxes.

What were these changes? Selected for friendliness, they were indeed becoming gentler and friendlier. But amazingly, many other changes were also taking place in these foxes in the process of domestication. While bred solely for a behavioral characteristic, the foxes were also undergoing significant morphological changes. For example, body shapes changed: their legs becoming shorter, and their noses becoming flatter. In addition, their color changed in a variety of ways, becoming spotted or mottled. They began to take on characteristics typical of dogs: their ears became floppy, their tails curled and would wag, and they began to vocalize in a way analogous to barking. Finally, and highly significantly, the foxes’ reproductive patterns changed, and they now not only bred seasonally, but also became capable of breeding at other times of the year. Within seven years, a percentage of these foxes (labeled “elite”) appeared to be fully domesticated. They acted very much like domesticated dogs: they would come when called, lick a human affectionately, and lie contentedly in the lap of a human.

One of the important consequences of Belyaev’s experiment is that it demonstrated rapid morphological and phenotypical change through an epigenetic mechanism. It is not clear to what extent Belyaev recognized this mechanism with regard to the changes in his foxes, but it is recognized by those who continue to carry on his experiment today. Apparently, an epigenetic mechanism—functioning here in the process of domestication—can, at least in controlled situations, lead to evolutionary changes that transpire with extraordinary speed. This experiment also helps us to understand how selective breeding has led to the extraordinary diversity of canine breeds. It also makes it much easier for us to imagine how the human-dog relationship came to be: how what might have begun as hungry wolves on the outskirts of human campfires looking to scavenge some scraps could have evolved—albeit over a much longer period of time—into a deeply mutualistic relationship where Homo sapiens and Canidae hunted together.

Recent studies by Pat Shipman and Brian Hare also help fill in fascinating aspects of the process of domestication. Hare and Shipman have argued that the domestication of wolves by Homo sapiens was the key to its survival as a species, and may be the key to understanding why our ancestors survived and Neanderthals died out. They point out that extensive studies of both ancient and modern hunters have shown that hunting with dogs is 50% more efficient than hunting without them. Thus, they argue that the advent of the mutualistic relationship between humans and dogs, which allowed Homo sapiens to hunt far more efficiently, was in fact key to the ongoing survival of the species as early as 30,000 years ago.[22]

Beyond this point, Hare and Shipman have also argued that the mutualistic relationship between humans and canines lead to the advent of agricultural societies about 10,000 years ago. They postulate that over time, Homo sapiens came to recognize that domesticated canines aided them in three profound ways. First, they could hunt far more efficiently with the help of canines. Second, canines served as protection for them. Third, if worst came to worst, they could function as a reserve food source. Hare and Shipman postulate that this idea of the benefits of a reserve food source was key to early humans’ conversion from nomadic to agricultural societies, along with having canines to serve as protection for them. If indeed it was the human-canine relationship that led to human agricultural societies, and to the origin of human domiciles, then it would not be far from the truth to suggest that not only did Homo sapiens domesticate Canidae, but also that dogs domesticated us. This of course leads to all kinds of interesting questions about human domestication. What kind of evolutionary changes went on with Homo sapiens when they turned to agriculture? Are there changes in them analogous to those during the domestication of canidae?

Lesson #4 From deep in human history, human flourishing has rarely if ever been independent of mutualistic relationships with other species. While the significance of these mutualistic relationships among species change over time, it would be wrong to question their ongoing deep significance for human beings. While contemporary defenses of human relationships with companion animals are typically voluntaristic, we have good evidence from our past that gives us reason to think that mutualistic relationships with companion animals may now fulfill deep human needs and longings, needs and longings that should not be trivialized.

Wisdom Traditions

My fifth example is that of wisdom traditions, and I will take one particular example. I will look at the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, as an example of cultural evolution. I believe it provides evidence of a practical wisdom that is both shaped by and shapes the evolution of a people. I will look at this aspect of the Jewish and Christian tradition in relation to what is known as a natural law theory of morality. Although there are many varieties of natural law ethics—Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and secular—and natural law theory is part of a variety of disciplines (e.g., political theory, theology, law, and philosophy), what they all share in common is the fundamental claim that the kind of being we are as Homo sapiens and the possibilities of our nature are relevant to thinking about how we are to live and how we live well.

The Decalogue is typically seen as the paradigm of Mosaic law, in that it is thought to constitute a summary of the essential moral demands for Israel. Yet the Decalogue in particular, and Jewish law more generally, seem to pass over in silence many critical moral obligations. For example, while they command children to honor their parents, there is no corollary command for parents to love their children. Similarly, while Mosaic law commands us to love others, there is no command to love ourselves. Furthermore, while there are commands to refrain from certain foods, there is no command to eat. So the question arises: Why are some key aspects of human flourishing, and the laws which would point to them, omitted from Mosaic law? For sometimes parents do not love their children, sometimes we do not love ourselves appropriately, and sometimes we do not eat adequately.

Again, why are these moral obligations, so obvious and yet often flouted, not commanded in the Mosaic law? According to Nicholas Lombardo, what all these unspoken moral obligations have in common is that they all involve behaviors that flow directly from powerful inclinations of our human nature.[23] For example, where children must learn to love their parents over time and in response to their parents’ love, a parent must go against powerful natural instincts not to love their children. Similarly, while all of us at times may be inclined to eat things are not good for us, it goes against strong inclinations in our nature for us not to eat at all. Part of what natural law theory attempts to do is to reflect in a systematic way on these powerful inclinations that are part of our nature and lead us to act in certain ways. What are the fundamental convictions about human nature that the Mosaic law and the laws of other wisdom traditions presume when they deliberate about what laws they should enact to promote the common good and human flourishing?

Natural law theory begins with reflections on what it sees as fundamental natural inclinations of our biological, our sensory, and our rational nature as human beings. And this brings us back to the first example of what moral theologians should seek to learn from evolutionary anthropologists: more about the nature of various sense apprehensions and sense appetites that arise from reflection upon the capacities we share with a variety of other social animals and that have been picked up by various ancient, medieval, and modern wisdom traditions. This starting point can be found in a diverse range of philosophers, from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas to David Hume, all of whom understand that any account of human action and thus of morality must begin with and presuppose sets of desires that are part of our nature, and which we share with other social animals.

This is also, I believe, what ethologists like Frans de Waal are getting at when they speak of “building blocks” of morality. De Waal’s argument is that ethics evolves from pre-moral and pre-rational affections (his “building blocks”) which humans share with other primates to varying degrees, which he calls an ethic of continuity. Thus, in books like Good Natured and Primates and Philosophers, de Waal argues that the origins of ethics should be seen as “bottom up” (i.e., evolving primarily among social animals), rather than “top down” (i.e., arising from a source independent of our animal nature, whether revelation, intuition, or abstract reasoning). However, what de Waal presumes is that ethics must emerge from only one of these directions. While it seems correct that the earliest forms of wisdom are indeed “bottom-up,” de Waal gives no reason for presuming that other forms of wisdom cannot at least in part be “top-down,” nor why this would contradict rather than complement bottom-up ethics. For the lesson from evolutionary anthropologists concerning niche construction is that once a firmly established human niche exists and high fidelity transmission of cultural traditions is occurring, it is fairly clear how “top-down” wisdom traditions cannot but have a significant impact on the evolution of wisdom in Homo sapiens.

Lesson #5 In the ethics of one particular wisdom tradition, we can see how ethical and religious prescriptions and proscriptions in fact presume a certain “natural” morality. This in turn presumes that certain features of human nature mean that certain kinds of actions are so obviously good (eating) or wrong (not caring for one’s offspring) that it seems unnecessary to comment on it. Examining a variety of such wisdom traditions may also help us understand other aspects of the presuppositions of and development of the common good in various societies.

A Challenge to Evolutionary Theorists

Earlier in this chapter, I noted that evolutionary theory is concerned with how species change, and with how new species come to be. What is assumed is that there actually are species, that there are kinds of creatures. Our language is loaded with terms which presuppose that the categorization of different “kinds” make sense. How are we to understand what kind of kind is a species? John Locke put it this way:

All things that exist being particular, it may perhaps be thought reasonable that words, which ought to be conformed to things, should be so too, I mean in their signification: but we find quite the contrary. The far greatest part of words that make all languages are general terms: which has not been the effect of neglect or chance, but of reason and necessity.[24]

Mill goes on to distinguish “natural kinds” from other sorts of kinds. A kind such as “raccoon” is typically considered a natural kind because there are sufficient similarities with all members of that kind. But “blue” is not a natural kind, because of the incredible diversity of kinds of things that are blue.

Historically, all species were considered natural kinds. Before evolutionary theory developed, it made sense to think that there is something essential that makes a coconut tree what it is, a butterfly what it is, a Homo sapiens what it is, an ant what it is, and so on. As far as I know, Darwin did not question the reality of species—otherwise, how could a species have an origin? Since species evolve into different species, when does the change occur? By what scientific criteria can we differentiate species?

It was assumed that evolutionary biologists could answer this question, but in fact scientifically defining and differentiating species remains a great puzzle to contemporary evolutionary theorists. In a recent article, Jonathan Jong outlines two efforts to provide scientific criteria for differentiating species—what are termed the anagenesis and cladistic perspectives. According to the former, we note phenotypic and/or genotypic change in a group of individuals of the same species. The ongoing change reaches a tipping point, and we decide that some (or perhaps all) members of the species have become a new species. If there is social isolation between two groups of individuals, one group of individuals may continue to be seen as the old species, whereas the other group constitutes the new species. In contrast, for the cladistic view, the amount of observed change in a species is irrelevant. What determines a new species (a speciation event) is a splitting of the lineage. For example, groups of finches on two islands have become isolated and undergone significant change independent of each other. Whereas at some point in the past they were one species, now there are two. Retrospectively, one looks back and decides where the lineage is to be split. Such a break in the lineage is known as a phylogenetic branch point (PBP). But is there a non-arbitrary way to determine a PBP? Jong puts the problem this way: “say my brother and I get separated, and our descendants diverge. Our children would each represent a new species. It would be very strange to claim these cousins would not be members of the same species.”[25]

Furthermore, leading cladistic theorists have not agreed on the scientific criteria justifying a PBP. Thus, some are considered “laxist” and others “rigorist” in accepting a PBP. Many biologists are concerned about “taxonomic inflation,” the tendency to claim that what were once considered sub-species are in fact distinct species. Is determining the existence of a new species an appeal to authority, to the “wise” in the field? Do we have a variation of Justice Potter Stewart’s dictum: “I can’t define what constitutes a new species, but I know it when I see one”?[26]

To defend their views on PBPs, cladists appeal to the notion of a homeostatis property cluster (HPC). At a point in the evolution of a group of individuals, a set of shared characteristics evolve which tend to reinforce and support each other. So after having undergone significant change, the group reaches a kind of equilibrium, building up a “genetic redundancy” which makes the group somewhat resistant to further variation. This resistance to further variation is called phylogenetic inertia. On this viewpoint, what constitutes a new species is likely a cluster of interrelated properties that through phylogenetic inertia constitute a species that will generally stay at an equilibrium.

So some yellow finches wind up on a new isolated island. Some offspring are born with different colorings—a rare blue one, another few orange, and one green. Over time all the finches on the island become green, and also take on other advantageous phenotypical changes that were first noticed in either the blue or orange finches. The island’s finches now all possess a variety of new characteristics: their differently shaped beak originated with the offspring of the blue finch; they eat a plentiful insect that originally only the orange finches could catch; and all are colored green. These new characteristics are advantageous for their ecosystem, and all these finches share a variety of characteristics different from the yellow finches of twenty generations previously. On this view, the original orange or blue or green finches were simply variations of the yellow finches, but as the population as a whole displayed a HPC, it could be considered a new species. Which finches would be the first members of the new species? The first to display the HPC as a whole, or most of the property cluster? Either way, at some point you have offspring considered a different species from their parents, and/or finches of the old and new species mating.

All this can only be known retrospectively. It is only after a new series of characteristics has stabilized that one would discern that a PBP had occurred. If, for example, the original blue, orange, and green variations had led to a few finches having all the new properties, but they were eventually bred out of the population and it remained similar to the population that had originally populated the isolated island, those finches would simply be variants of the species that were bred out of the population. Why should such changes constitute a new species? Why not a variety of the older species, or a sub-species? Furthermore, why in the development of chickens or cows or dogs do we get “breeds,” and not new sub-species or species? Is it because if left to their “own devices,” these different breeds would disappear? That dog and cow breeds are not “natural kinds”? Can new species only arise independently of human control?

However, once new species arise, they do not always stay separate; their evolution is not always monophyletic.[27] For example, in hominid evolution, it is clear that some Homo sapiens have neanderthal and/or denasovan DNA. What is fascinating, and highly controversial, is how this applies (or fails to apply to) contemporary human beings. While we speak of the “human race,” for a much longer we have spoken of “races,” and government records and popular classification alike continue to divide people into “races.” Certainly, if we speak of new species arising because of an isolated population undergoing changes, it would seem that the same would be equally true of Homo sapiens in ages past. Does the fact that we never divide human beings into different “species” have a scientific basis? Or our practice of not dividing ourselves into sub-species? Or even races? Or do we have fundamentally different considerations when deciding how to “classify” different groups of human beings? All of these problematics lead Jong to acknowledge that evolutionary theorists (and biologists more generally) do not have adequate criteria to provide a non-arbitrary way to define a PBP.[28] What Jong concludes from this is that theologians and philosophers have erred in equating a biological category (Homo sapiens) with “human beings.” In fact, what it means to be a human being is an irreducibly theological and/or philosophical concept, and theorizing about it must ultimately involve those disciplines.


In this chapter, I have argued that those ethical theorists who take most seriously the various aspects of human nature are in the best position to take advantage of insights from evolutionary anthropology and incorporate them into their work. Unfortunately, sociobiologists, with their typically reductionistic views, came to dominate the mainstream understanding of how our evolutionary history should be appropriated for ethics. If ethicists recognize that the field of evolutionary anthropology has moved beyond the MES towards the EES, they should be far more open to learning from that discipline. For example, those who wish to write on theological anthropology could benefit from the insights of evolutionary anthropology. I have only been able to briefly give a few examples of where and how ethicists might begin to appropriate some lessons from evolutionary anthropology. If this chapter encourages others to engage evolutionary anthropology and related disciplines for their work, it will have achieved its objective.

JOHN BERKMAN is Professor of Moral Theology at Regis College, University of Toronto. In 2017 he was a Visiting Research Scholar at the McDonald Centre at Christ Church College, Oxford and at the Aquinas Institute at Blackfriars, Oxford. His main current research project is on theological and evolutionary accounts of the origins of moral rationality.


[1] Agustín Fuentes et al., “The Evolution of Morality: A Three-Dimensional Map,” Philosophy, Theology and the Sciences 3.2 (2016): 124.
[2] However, the wise course of action will not necessarily be obvious to those seriously lacking wisdom, even after it has been explained.
[3] Alasdair MacIntyre, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
[4] Defenders of the MES, Wray et al. indicate the following as “the basic processes that produce evolutionary change: natural selection, drift, mutation, recombination and gene flow.” Advocates of the EES, Kevin Laland et al., describe the MES “story” as “new variation arises through random genetic mutation: inheritance occurs through DNA; and natural selection is the sole cause of adaptation, the process by which organism become well-suited to their environments. In this view, the complexity of biological development—the changes that occur as an organism grows and ages—are of secondary, even minor, importance” (Kevin Laland et al., Does Evolutionary Theory need a Rethink?Nature 514.9 [2014]: 162, 164).
[5] For an excellent example and summary of some of the current disagreements, see Laland et al., Does Evolutionary Theory need a Rethink?,” 162, 164. The EES theorists argue ‘Yes, Urgently,’ and feature theorists from universities in Scotland (St Andrews), Australia (ANU), England (Oxford), Israel (Tel Aviv), Austria (Vienna), Sweden (Lund) and the United States (Stanford). The MES theorists argue ‘No, all is well,’ and are represented by theorists from Canada (UBC) and the United States (Duke, Harvard, Stony Brook, Michigan State, Washington U., and NC State); see Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).
[6] See ibid.
[7] As Mary Midgley has repeatedly argued, the view that natural selection teaches selfishness is first an economic and then a political view, and not a scientific one. The “survival of the fittest” concept began with the libertarian economic and political outlook of Herbert Spencer and other social Darwinists, which was later taken up by eugenicists and eventually by sociobiologists, all of whom failed to recognize that their scientific views were in fact economic and political ideologies. In The Descent of Man, Darwin is clearly preoccupied with the centrality of moral questions. An excellent discussion of Darwin as moral theorist can be found in Thomas Dixon, “The Darwinian Conscience,” in The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (London: British Academy, 2008). Darwin’s concerns looked very different when picked up by socialist or anarchist thinkers, including Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid (London: Heinemann, 1902) and Ethics: Origins and Development (London: George G. Harrap, 1922).
[8] See Mary Midgley, The Essential Mary Midgley, edited by David Midgley (London: Routledge, 2005), 267.
[9] Jablonka and Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions, 373–74.
[10] Ibid.
[11] What ‘community’ means depends on the context: possibly referring to one’s kin-group, one’s troop, one’s social circle, one’s village, or one’s civil society. I elaborate on this general point when I discuss natural law ethics in the section on wisdom traditions later in this essay.
[12] Jean Porter, Nature as Reason (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 57.
[13] However, some philosophers have tried to do Aristotelian ethics without the “metaphysical biology” (e.g., the early MacIntyre), and others have put forward a view of natural law where nature is more or less limited to “right reason” (e.g., the new natural law theory of Grisez, Finnis, and Boyle).
[14] I am using the language of “emotions” here, although there are good reasons to prefer “desires,” “appetites,” “passions,” or “affections.” See Thomas Dixon, From Passions to Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Nicholas Lombardo, The Logic of Desire (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2012).
[15] Paul Ekman, “An Argument for Basic Emotions,” Cognition and Emotion 6.3/4 (1992): 169–90; Paul Ekman, “Basic Emotions,” in Handbook of Cognition and Emotion, edited by Tim Dalgleish and Michael Power (London: Wiley, 1999), 45–60.
[16] See Simon Baron-Cohen, Ofer Golan, and Emma Ashwin, “Can Emotion Recognition be Taught to Children with Autism Spectrum Conditions?,” Philosophical Translations of the Royal Society B 364.1535 (2009): 3567–74.
[17] Ekman’s insights further show how clearly social human beings necessarily are. Interestingly, Ekman shows that facial expressions of emotion precede our recognition that we have emotions, and so the very attentive observer can often read a person’s emotions better than the one who has them.
[18] One other brief note: so often in discussions of evolution there is such a presumption of individualism, which I take to be an anachronistic reading back into history. This anachronism regarding individualism is problematic for two reasons. First, the idea that an early Homo sapiens could flourish on its own is about as likely as a modern dolphin being able to flourish on its own. Second, there is not even good reason to believe that our evolutionary forebears clearly distinguished their individual good from that of their kin group or community.
[19] Jablonka and Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions, 373–74.
[20] F. John Odling-Smee, Kevin Laland, and Marcus Feldman, Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 1.
[21] See Kim Sterelny, “From Hominins to Humans: How sapiens Became Behaviourally Modern,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 366 (2011): 809–22.
[22] Hare and Shipman put forward variations of this thesis.
[23] Lombardo, The Logic of Desire.
[24] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book 3, Chapter 3 (1690).
[25] Jonathan Jong, “What are Human Beings (That You Are Mindful of Them)? Notes from Neo-Darwinism and Neo-Aristotelianism,” in Issues in Science and Theology: Are We Special?, edited by Michael Fuller, et al. (New York: Springer International Publishing, 2017), 79–98.
[26] Stewart’s original, famously, concerned pornography, in his concurrence in Jacobellis vs. Ohio (1964).
[27] That is, after a PBP, the branches do not always stay ‘separate,’ with instances of interbreeding.
[28] Jong, “What are Human Beings,” 19.


Share This Book