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As readers may have noticed, I have been pretty inactive here lately. This is because I have been finishing a book and sending it off to the publishers, which was achieved about 8 hours ago. The book is titledĀ The Nature of Classification, and it will come out from Palgrave Macmillan. I coauthored this with Malte Ebach.

When I have done a few things, I will return to the Living With Evolution series. The next series of posts will be on Evolution and Morality. If you have questions you would like to see discussed, drop them in the comments below.


  1. John,

    Congratulations on completing your latest book.

    I also have a question about your views of evolution and morality. If I correctly recall, you are a moral error theorist. But I am curious about how you analyze moral naturalism, which is more or less the naturalist version of moral realism. For everybody’s reference, here is the SEP article “Moral Naturalism” by James Lenman (2006) (

    • This seems to me a debate about how moral language is used, and as such it seems to be a metaethical question, not an ethical question. Of course, moral realism, or absolutism, is also a metaethical issue. I don’t intend to discuss metaethics as such, only to discuss what the ethical implications of evolution may be. I have small targets.

  2. Fair enough. But please let me know if you ever decide to go down that road.

  3. Okay, I will try again.

    Do you see a correlation between the evolution for the capacity to feel disgust and the evolution of morality?

    • Disgust is fitness raising when it leads us to avoid fitness lowering actions, such as eating dead people. But the disposition to feel disgust must be a general one, since we evolved to deal with multiple and changing environments, and so we would not be “hard-wired” to feel disgust at particular things. Hence, disgust reactions must be chaperoned by experience and culture.

      This being the case, I would expect that we would also chaperone it for rules of behaviour, such as disgust for menses, pigs, or lawyers. So it might very well be a biological basis for moral avoidance.

      • Jeb Jeb

        ” Off topic but I am rather fond of this; James Beattie ending on an emotive note after noting that Lord Monboddo’s perspective on human nature cannot be reconciled with scripture.

        “I take it up as a task, and can never read above half an hour in it at a time; so odious, so filthy, is the picture he gives of the nature of man. It pains and shocks me, as if I were witnessing the dissection of a putrid carcass….”

        Chasing Monboddo’s sources gave me a somewhat comparable experience. The copy of Tyson’s anatomy of the Chimp in the Edinburgh University medical collection takes some getting use to. It is a seriously filthy and disgusting book; used live during dissection, the pages are filled with ancient gore stained fingerprints. It smells bad and has a horrible greasy texture. Every half an hour at first, you have to fight the urge to run off and wash you’re hands, you’re mind also does start to wander off and reconstruct the working event at which the object was used.

        His description does work rather well with direct cultural experience of the subject, even in the 21st century. Rather shrewd use of description.

  4. A bit pricey but not out of line with academic books. I’ll buy one when it comes out but be sure to post a reminder.

  5. John, I suppose another interesting angle in evolution and morality involves the evolution of cooperation in primate communities. I suppose cooperative hunting, gathering, and living could have favored the selection of inter-community morality. What do you think about this?

  6. Jeb Jeb

    One of the most surprising things that came up in you’re posts was that evolution created some form of moral issues for a particular group. I found this surprising not sharing the same belief system I don’t have the same issue.

    I also don’t have a firm notion of what morality actually is. What is its relationship with ethics? We also don’t resolve disputes by recourse to the rules of morality although it has a role (often helping to publicly and unambiguously identify those we should be in dispute with). Is it more informal than a legal code as it would appear to have a number of roles in more legal codes?

    For some reason I keep thinking of a legendary story from the Scottish borders in the middle of a violent dispute one kin group were burnt to death in a barn, the local religious figure leading the mob before lighting the fire is attributed as saying “we are doing Gods ane work.”

    It seems to me that often as long as you are seen to maintain and uphold group norms publicly individuals escape group moral censure in a way that those outside of a culture will not.

    In this regard it seems similar to the honor system which often rests on the same form of behavior, as long as you behave in a normative way in public and have the status to control and maintain a seemingly normative public identity you can behave like an utter shit and still win prizes and praise publicly.

    I don’t think I have a clear idea of what it is as a concept. I have not a clue with regard to the philosophical argument but I suspect it is as disputed as the concept would appear to be.

    I suspect without a high degree of ambiguity it would be of no cultural use.

    It strikes me as being a number of different things that gets deployed in a number of different ways. A clear definition and history of thought on the subject would be nice if you had the time.

    I suppose the part that most interests me is how it is used to beat other people over the head and justify and exempt in-group violence (physical and non-physical) from moral, social or legal sanction.

    It does seem rather useful in creating a fictive sense of belonging and in firmly identifying those who don’t and can be dealt with in the usual manner.

  7. Jeb Jeb

    p.s I suppose its like the identification all evolutionists are immoral and an understanding of biology will somehow undermine culture.

    The introduction of moral codes at times seems to have more to do with establishing identity and status claims than seeking to control or regulate specific behavior.

    The early church for example and its introduction of new sexual codes immediately made a distinction between a Celibate elite and sinful laity.

  8. Audrey Mueller Audrey Mueller

    His research focuses on the origin and evolution of cetaceans (whales and dolphins), major evolutionary transitions in general, functional morphology, use of stratigraphic data in phylogenetic analysis, and theoretical aspects of diversification. He has published many papers in scientific journals, contributed chapters to edited books, and presented at numerous scientific conferences.

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