Historically, morality has not been considered a topic of discussion within the domain of science. Instead, this issue has almost exclusively been within the purview of religion. Increasingly, however, concepts such as moral instinct have gained legitimacy as discussed by scientists such as Steven Pinker and Jonathon Haidt, who argue that there are neurological factors associated with morality and that natural selection has played a fundamental role in shaping universal instinctual moral truths. The evidence for this position is compelling. The question remains: “Can science offer moral guidance?” In other words, should science play a role in helping us discern what is right or wrong? Or does science have to relinquish issues of morality to other social systems based solely on historical precedence?


First of all, the definition of morality has to be accepted. Dictionary.com defines morality as “conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition of morality reads as follows “descriptively to refer to a code of conduct put forward by a society or, some other group, such as a religion, or accepted by an individual for her own behavior; or normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.” These definitions are devoid of the de facto notion that this concept is values based. Sam Harris argues, and I believe most people would agree, that human values pertain to circumstances that have the positive affect of enhancing the well being of conscious beings. As such, it does not seem like a reach to suggest that science can play a role in setting the parameters of morality.


Quite simply, it can be suggested that there are certain conditions under which humans are more likely to prosper and other conditions under which they are more likely to falter. For instance it is known that children raised in a loving environment where life’s basic needs are provided for, are more likely to grow into happy and productive adults than those raised in hostile and deprived environments. We may intuitively know this, but it is science that provides the evidence for such claims.  The profession of psychology devotes considerable resources to this pursuit. As a psychologist myself I employ evidenced based practices as I endeavor to facilitate the betterment of my clients’ lives. Why is it then, that we dismiss the influences of science when we discuss morals? At a recent TED Conference Sam Harris posed this very question.


I suggest, as did Harris, that science is very capable of pointing us, as a society, in the right direction when it comes to morals and values. Russell Blackford wrote in his post on Harris’ speech that “…science can give us information about what individual conduct, moral systems, laws, and so on are likely to lead to such plausible goals for ….. individual and collective human flourishing, social survival, and reduction of suffering. Any source of information about what will lead to goals such as these has some moral authority.


Harris argues that it boils down to understanding the conditions that lead to human flourishing – and accepting that these conditions are fundamental facts that should serve as the basis of universal morals. He further contends that there are distinctly problematic values within our current human systems that run counter to human flourishing. For example he discusses the costs of the extremist cultural expectation for women of Islam to wear burkas (and the brutal costs of non-compliance). He contrasts this with the unrealistically perfect portrayal of the female body in modern western cultures. Neither of these circumstances promotes healthy thriving circumstances for young women.


He also argues that religion should not be given a pass when it comes to the values they promote just because of their religious status. The natural deference given to religion in our “pluralistic” society in fact, promotes many clearly harmful practices (including the prohibition of birth control, the denial of civil liberties for homosexual couples, sanctioned murder of victims of rape to preserve the honor of the family, male foreskin and in some cultures clitoral circumcision, and the application of prayer in lieu of modern medical services particularly for ill children).  Values rendered in distant Bronze Age cultures and sustained based on ideology are far from being in touch with those values that are likely to promote healthy human development today.


Individuals suffer, indeed society as a whole suffers when these or similar prohibitions and/or expectations thrive.  Science, it seems to me is far more capable of really looking at the human and societal costs of such “values.”  Harris suggests that “Morality is certainly a domain where knowledge and expertise applies.” We need to “bring into our dialogue the issues of these truths of right and wrong.”  By accepting that values are drawn based on quality of life issues pertaining to the greater good of all, and by accepting that there are certain truths pertaining to life experiences that either enhance or impinge upon the well being of the human conscious, then isn’t the domain of science to draw out these truths?




Blackford, Russell. 2010. Sam Harris on Science and Morality. Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2010/03/sam-harris-on-science-and-morality.html


Harris, Sam. 2010. Science can answer moral questions. TED Conference. http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html

 | Posted by | Categories: Evolution, Morality, Science | Tagged: , |

Nature is harsh. This reality is evidenced with potential discomfort to those who care to open their eyes to what goes on around us. Most living creatures struggle to survive, facing either limited resources or predation on a continual basis. In most developed nations many humans escape this reality, but not too long ago even we had to struggle survive.


I remember the reality of this struggle burning into my memory cells as a child while watching nature shows like The Underwater Odyssey of Commander Cousteau and Wild Kingdom. I vividly recall the horror and intrigue I experienced watching cheetahs and lions chasing down and killing antelope or gazelles. To this day I experience a visceral response when I witness this predation carried to its conclusion with the blood soaked carnivore licking it’s chops. Harsh indeed!


The moral implications of nature’s harshness has stirred our intellect for quite some time. It certainly weighed heavily on Darwin as he developed his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. A pressing question in natural theology asked how a benevolent and loving God could create such a system with pervasive suffering. Stephen Jay Gould, in perhaps his most famous essay, titled Nonmoral Nature addressed this very issue.


Gould (1982) provides a historical review of this controversy dating back to the mid nineteenth century. One particular scholar from that era, William Buckland, gained comfort from the notion that predation is moral because carnivores increase “the aggregate of animal enjoyment” and “diminish that of pain” because:

Death after all, is swift and relatively painless, victims are spared the ravages of decrepitude and senility, and populations do not outrun their food supply to the greater sorrow of all.”

Buckland concluded that predation on a grand scale is moral. But to some, the real challenge to the morality of nature lies outside run of the mill predation. The reproduction cycle of the ichneumon fly epitomizes this challenge.


The ichneumon fly is is actually a wasp belonging to the ichneumonoidea superfamily. This diverse group of insects lay their eggs on or in other insects setting into motion a synchronized chain of events that defies any sense of morality. The endoparasitic ichneumon wasps insert their eggs into the body of their host (e.g., caterpillars, aphids, or spiders). The larvae upon hatching carefully ingest their host’s internal organs – first devouring the non-essential tissues saving the vital organs for last so as to prolong the life of their meal. The ectoparasitic ichneumons sting and paralyze the host before laying eggs on the exterior of the host’s body. The paralysis is permanent but the host remains alive. Once the eggs hatch the larvae penetrate the host’s body and again selectively devour the incapacitated but fully alive host little by little, sustaining the live fresh meal as long as possible.


This process is, to say the least, horrifying to contemplate. We humans do not cope well with the notion of parasites on or in our body. Think of the circus that ensues when a child comes home from school with head lice. Think of the horror and shame associated with pubic lice. How about scabies or tape worms? People don’t even like to hear that approximately 10% of our body mass is that of our essential parasitic partners (bacteria). One does not have to use much imagination to shudder with the notion of being slowly devoured from within. ‘Alien’ – need I say more.


The ichneumon reproduction contrivance became the supreme challenge to the morality of the designer. Gould wrote of the 19th Century theologians who attempted to resolve this dilemma by anthropomorphizing the mother’s love for its progeny and by downplaying the implications of the plight of the host. They also suggested that this approach may be adaptive for humans as the predation has the effect of minimizing crop loss due to the ravenous appetites of living caterpillars. Finally, they argued that animals are not moral agents, and that they thus must feel little, if any pain. They suggested that lower life forms and even “primitive people suffer less than advanced and cultured folk. It was also believed during this Victorian era that consciousness was only within the realm of man. Needless to say, these arguments fail to resolve the dilemma if one contends that there is a “lurking goodness behind everything.” Darwin wrote in a 1856 note to Joseph Hooker:

What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature!”

Gould wrote that in the face of this conundrum intellectuals had two options:

  1. Retain the notion “that nature holds moral messages” and that morality involves knowing the ways of nature and doing the opposite. Be not a savage – be not an animal.
  2. Accept that nature is nonmoral, that it is what it is, that morality plays no role in the struggle for existence.

Darwin himself leaned toward the second option although he struggled with letting go of the notion that the laws of nature might denote some higher purpose.  In his essay, Gould (1982) suggested that:

Since ichneumons are a detail, and since natural selection is a law regulating details, the answer to the ancient dilema of why such cruelty (in our terms) exists in nature can only be that there isn’t any answer – and that framing the question “in our terms” is thoroughly inappropriate in a natural world neither made for us nor ruled by us. It just plain happens.”

It is a strategy that works for ichneumons and that natural selection has programmed into their behavioral repertoire. Caterpillars are not suffering to teach us something; they have simply been outmaneuvered, for now, in the evolutionary game.”


I too, am inclined toward the notion that nature as it plays out evolution’s dance, is entirely devoid of anything pertaining to morality or evil. We anthropomorphize when we apply these concepts. Even to suggest that nature is cruel is anthropomorphizing. Any true and deep look at the struggle for life that constantly dances in our midst can scarcely lead to any other conclusion but that nature is brutal, harsh, and nonmoral. Should I be wrong about this, I am inclined to be reluctant to meet its designer.




Gould, S. J. 1982. ‘Nonmoral Nature.’ Natural History. 91. pg.19-26.

 | Posted by | Categories: Evolution, Morality, Science | Tagged: , |


12 March 2010

Essentialism within the purview of psychology is a cognitive bias whose roots form in early childhood (Gelman, 2004). This concept pertains to the notion that all discernible objects harbor an underlying reality that although intangible, gives each and every object it’s true identity – it’s essence (Dawkins, 2009; Hood, 2008).  To put it another way:

people believe that natural category members share some hidden, unobservable, empirically discoverable deep structure or essence, whose possession is necessary and sufficient for category membership” (Jylkkäa, Railob, and Haukiojaa, 2008).

In our early childhood, as we were developing language, essentialism played a crucial role in the expansion of our vocabulary, the generalization of our knowledge, in discriminating among objects, and in our ability to construct causal explanations (Gelman, 2004).  In our struggle to understand the vast and complicated world, our brain forced us to partition things into categories so we chopped and divided what we surveyed into distinct groupings based on defining characteristics driven by our internalized understanding of the essence of those groupings.  This was initially a very simplistic process (dog, cat, cow), then more complex (mammal, reptile, insect),  and then even more sophisticated for those who progressed in the biological sciences (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species). This is necessarily a dynamic process because as we mature and take in increasing complexity we need increased specificity when parsing the world up into discrete categories.


This pattern of thinking/learning transcends all cultures and is central to our language development (Hood, 2008). Given this central role, it forms the foundation of our thought processes (Hood 2008; Dawkins, 2009). The overgeneralization of this process is what gets us into difficulty. Bruce Hood, author of Supersense (2008), convincingly argues that this innate tendency forms the core of our superstitious and supernatural thinking. Richard Dawkins (2009), an evolutionary biologist, suggests that such an inclination explains why people have such great difficulty grasping and accepting the concept of evolution by means of natural selection. I suggest, that like evolution (which necessitates quintessential anti-essentialist thinking), the concepts of plate tectonics, deep geological time, and deep space time are also very hard to grasp for the same reasons. We are inclined to think that what we see are constants – that the world as we see it has been eternally so, and so shall it always remain.


In biology, essentialism sustains the notion that all animals are clear and distinct, belonging to a specific species. In fact, as Dawkins  suggests: “On the ‘population-thinking’ evolution view, every animal [living form] is linked to every other animal [living form], say rabbit to leopard, by a chain of intermediates, each so similar to the next that every link could in principle mate with its neighbors in the chain and produce fertile offspring” (2009, p. 24).  This is true for all conceivable pairings including bacteria and viruses, giant sequoias and lichen, spiders and flies, cats and dogs, birds and snakes, foxes and chickens, and even humans and turnips.


Plato demonstrated essentialist thinking in The Republic in his cave allegory, where he suggested that the world as we experience it is only a composite of mere shadows tethered to their true and perfect forms (essences) floating about somewhere in the heavens (Dawkins, 2009; Hood, 2008). Many people still believe that there is something more to the physical world than what we see. As Hood (2008) put it, “Humans like to think that special things are unique by virtue of something deep and irreplaceable.” This thinking, and other intuitive errors such as vitalism (that vital life energies cause things to be alive) and holism (that everything is connected by forces) are likely artifacts of our natural involuntary inclinations (Hood, 2008).


Essentialism is more than a heuristic and it has ramifications beyond making us less inclined to believe in evolution or more inclined toward superstition. It is what makes rape more than a physical crime. The defilement and contamination the victim feels is a psychological violation of one’s essential integrity. Genocide is perpetrated by individuals who dehumanize or define the victims as essentially different and/or contaminated. Essentialism, is what makes original works of art more valuable than exact duplicates (Hood, 2008). It also drives the belief systems that sustain homeopathy.


It is interesting that this intuitive process plays such an important and fundamental role in our development and sustains both powerfully positive and hugely negative influences on us as adults.  When you get right down to the essence of this concept, you must accept that these inclinations have their roots in the same thinking that makes a preschool child believe that a Mommy can’t be a firefighter (Gelman, 2004).




Dawkins, R. 2009. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. New York: Free Press.


Gelman, S. A. 2004. ‘Psychological Essentialism in Children’, TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 404-409.


Hood, B. 2008. Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.


Jylkkäa, J., Railob, H., & Haukiojaa, J. 2008. ‘Psychological Essentialism and Semantic Externalism: Evidence for Externalism in Lay Speakers’ Language Use‘. Philosophical Psychology


The Intuitive Cling

5 March 2010

The more I talk with others about the erroneous inclinations of the intuitive brain the more I face responses that are incredulous, emotional, and sometimes irrational. When it comes to intuition, it seems, people are quite fond of theirs. Rational thought, I am often reminded, elicits annoyance. Ramp up the annoyance when you remind people of the biases that underlie their silly beliefs. Rational and scientific thinking in the public domain is no way to win friends either. And it seems, that its use is not necessarily an effective way to win an argument. In a recent conversation with a colleague about the magical power of full moons I said something silly like the data doesn’t support a relationship between the phase of the moon and problem behaviors in classrooms. The response was “I don’t believe in data.” How do you respond to that? How do you respond to the rejection of reality?


I don’t have anything against intuitive thinking, well that may not be completely true; as it clearly is prone to error. It is however the source of creativity. My wife suggests that intuition is part of the essence of being a women: that women are socialized to value it as if it where foundational. Rejecting it is like rejecting a core piece of oneself.


I can’t imagine a world devoid of intuition. I’m not sure I want to. On the other hand, the costs of it are ever present and often very destructive. When I strive to find the balance, I struggle. Perhaps you can help me find that balance, or perhaps bolster the value of this sticky propensity. Please tell me what you think.