“Evolved morality” hypothesis takes a hit

Harvard’s Marc Hauser, a primary academic proponent of the idea that our moral codex is a result of evolutionary development, has been kneecapped by the University (and likely the Feds, since some of his grants were federal) for “scientific misconduct”.

Mr. Hauser has been at the forefront of a movement to show that our morals are survival instincts evolved over the millennia. When Mr. Hauser’s 2006 book “Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong” was published, evolutionary psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker proclaimed that his Harvard colleague was engaged in “one of the hottest new topics in intellectual life: The psychology and biology of morals.”

Why is this important? One of the challenges of defending the absence of a God has been the universal human understanding that some things are right and some are wrong. There may be differences from society to society in defining the circumstances under which it’s acceptable to lie, for instance, but lying to those who should be able to trust you is unacceptable and requires justification through the invoking of a higher principle.

Hauser examined the cognitive capacity of monkeys, their methods of communication and so on, to provide biological and anthropological support for his theses. Unfortunately, it is in those studies that research improprieties have been identified. (Link for more details) It appears that he depended on his own “coding”, i.e. interpretation of the significance of observed behaviors, a process known to be influenceable by subjective interpretation. That is why such coding is generally checked by other observers, and when different, a third impartial observer is brought in. This Prof. Hauser not only failed to do, but refused when confronted by graduate students assisting with the study. A significant number of his publications are affected by the University’s findings.

This is a blow to the evolutionary psychology discipline. Primate studies offered an opportunity for hard scientific support rather than speculation. However, according to the article in the UK Telegraph, “The problem . . . is that many other scientists have followed up Hauser’s work, or have been inspired to adopt new lines of inquiry by his findings. Without knowing more about the investigation, researchers will remain unsure about how much of Hauser’s work to trust.” And from the WSJ article: “As rumors swirled that Harvard was about to ding Mr. Hauser for scientific misconduct, prominent researchers in the field worried they would be tarnished by association. The science magazine Nature asked Frans de Waal—a primatologist at Emory University and author, most recently, of the widely read book ‘The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society’—about what Mr. Hauser’s predicament meant for his discipline. He was blunt: ‘It is disastrous.'”

The Harvard investigation will be of limited help. It focused only on Hauser’s studies about which specific allegations had been made by others close to the projects. His other works have not necessarily been found blameless — the bulk of his academic output didn’t fall within the scope of the investigation.

This demonstrates, once again, that difficult truth: No matter the source of your moral sensibilities, betraying them gets you into trouble. Bon chance, Dr. Hauser. Choices have consequences.