Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture

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The immune system is an evolutionary process, built by evolution. This kind of adaptive flexibility extends beyond the immune system. Gerald Edelman, who received the Nobel prize for his work on the immune system, went on to develop a similar conception for the human brain Edelman , Edelman and Tonomi Deacon provides a lucid account of how brain development is fundamentally a Darwinian process, with growing axons competing for receptor sites.

At a functional level, symbolic thought can be envisioned as a Darwinian process in a virtual world of mental representations. Anyone who has studied the immune system knows that it is mind-bogglingly complex in its genetic innateness. Antibodies that match antigens reproduce more, not by a lucky coincidence, but because the immune system is constructed that way.

Open-ended and creative solutions to recent environmental challenges is perhaps the most important implication, but we should also expect the same kinds of historical contingencies and other constraining factors that cause adaptations to fall short of perfection in genetic evolution. Social constructivists often associate evolution with an incapacity for change, in contrast to their own belief in the human potential for change. When we include Darwin machines, the social constructivist position itself becomes evolutionary. Furthermore, genetic innateness can be seen positively as the complex machinery that makes rapid evolution possible.

The idea that we can understand the human potential for change without paying attention to genetically innate mechanisms becomes as absurd as trying to study the immune system as if it were not genetically innate. With Darwin machines, the bridge from evolutionary biology to social constructivism has been considerably extended. Groups as units of selection and adaptation: An important part of the sociological tradition is to view societies and cultures as organic wholes, whose properties cannot be reduced to their individual parts. This kind of holism fell upon hard times in both biology and the social sciences during the middle of the twentieth century.

In the social sciences, the principle of methodological individualism claimed that all properties of societies can be reduced to the properties of their members and are not properly understood until this reduction has taken place Watkins Rational choice theory offered a specific agenda in which individuals are assumed to behave as self-interested utility maximizers. In evolutionary biology, a consensus emerged that groups can evolve into adaptive units in principle but almost never do in reality. The reason is that group-level adaptations require a process of among-group selection, which is almost invariably weak compared to within-group selection Williams As a separate argument, all adaptations were claimed to evolve at the level of genes, even when they benefited individuals or groups as vehicles of the genes Williams , Dawkins Despite the dominance of these ideas during recent intellectual history, much has happened in evolutionary biology to undermine their authority.

It used to be thought that evolution takes place entirely by small mutational change, but now a second pathway has been identified in which social groups become so integrated that they become a new higher-level organism. One of the first to propose this radical new theory was Lynn Margulis , who claimed that eukaryotic cells-the nucleated cells of all organisms other than bacteria-are actually symbiotic communities of bacteria whose members led a more autonomous existence in the past.

Now it appears likely that similar transitions, from groups of organisms to groups as organisms, have occurred throughout the history of life, right down to the origin of life itself as social groups of cooperating molecular reactions Maynard Smith and Szathmary , Michod Each transition requires a solution to the same kinds of social dilemmas that abound in human life. For example, consider a primordial cell in which the genes exist as independently replicating units. Some genes participate in the economy of the cell, producing resources that all can use.

Other genes selfishly use these resources to replicate without contributing to the economy of the cell. The selfish genes are favored by within-group selection they are more fit than solid-citizen genes within the same cell , while the solid citizen genes are favored by among-group selection groups with an above-average frequency of solid citizen genes contribute more to the total gene pool than groups with a below-average frequency.

As long as within-group selection remains strong, the cell will not function adaptively. The evolution of chromosomes neatly solved this problem by binding the genes together into a single structure that replicates as a unit. Chromosomes greatly reduce differential replication within the cell, making among-cell selection the primary evolutionary force. Notice that this represents a feedback process between traits that alter the parameters of social evolution chromosomes and traits that evolve on the basis of the alteration solid citizen genes.

The major transitions of life forever dispel the notion that higher-level selection is invariably weak compared to lower-level selection. Eukaryotic multicellular organisms such as you and me are shining contradictions of that claim. More generally, if the organisms of today are the social groups of past ages, then the concept of the social groups of today as like organisms, at least to a degree, no longer appears so outrageous. In other words, many traits in the organic world evolve by increasing the fitness of collectives, relative to other collectives, rather than by increasing the fitness of individuals, relative to other individuals within collectives Sober and Wilson These developments in evolutionary biology provide a new background for the study of human evolution.

People have always existed in many kinds of groups that merge and split for various activities. In any given context, traits can evolve by benefiting individuals relative to others in the same group, or by benefiting the whole group relative to other groups. Furthermore, traits comparable to chromosomes can evolve that reduce the possibilities for within-group advantage, concentrating natural selection at the between-group level. Cultural anthropologist and primatologist Chris Boehm has developed this thesis in his book Hierarchy in the Forest.

According to Boehm, moral systems are the human analog of chromosomes, reducing the potential for individuals to profit at the expense of other members of the same group and converting the whole group into a potent unit of selection and adaptation. Consider the effects of moral systems on the three ingredients of natural selection: phenotypic variation, fitness consequences, and heritability.

Behaviors that are strongly prescribed or proscribed by a moral system simply will not vary within the group as much as they would otherwise unless variation per se is part of the norm. On the other hand, groups that adopt different norms can vary tremendously from each other. In technical terms, moral systems dramatically alter the partitioning of phenotypic variation within and among groups. These phenotypic differences also make a difference: murder, theft, adultery, rape, self-sacrifice on behalf of others, slacking, and most other behaviors that arouse moral passions are clearly relevant to basic survival and reproduction.

Finally, moral systems are often elaborately constructed to replicate themselves from person to person and group to group through narratives and other practices deemed sacred. In short, moral systems have a transformative effect on the fundamental ingredients of natural selection, largely although by no means entirely converting social groups into functionally adaptive units, even when they are composed of genetically unrelated individuals.


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These developments concerning levels of selection are intertwined with the other developments concerning symbolic thought and Darwin machines, giving them a collective dimension that would be missing otherwise. So many aspects of human life are collective, including the other- and group-oriented nature of morality, language, and any symbol that is not the personal invention of a single individual.

Group-level functionality was taken for granted until the middle of the 20th century, when it was denied altogether or viewed through the distorted lens of individualism. Now we are on the verge of achieving a complex but comprehendible middle ground, in which group-level functionality does exist, but only when special conditions are met. The collective dimension extends the bridge from evolutionary biology to social constructivism.


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Adaptation and rational thought: Rational thought has a special status in the social sciences, in part because it provides the core of logical and scientific reasoning and in part because its bare bone assumption of utility maximization provides the basis for elegant and endless theorizing.

Rational thought is often treated as the gold standard against which other forms of thought are judged. Religious thought in particular is found so wanting by this standard that it becomes well-nigh incomprehensible.

Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture - Oxford Scholarship

In contrast, evolutionary theory judges all forms of thought in terms of what they cause organisms to do. Rational thought leads to adaptive outcomes in some contexts, which is why it has become part of our mental toolkit. It does not lead to adaptive outcomes in all contexts, which is why it is not the only tool in our mental toolkit.

There is also an historical reason for why rational thought is only one tool in our toolkit; because it is a recent tool and most of the other tools are more ancient. Once these evolutionary factors become the basis for evaluating modes of thought, a host of alternatives to rational thought become explicable in terms of what they cause people to do. Emotions are evolved mechanisms for motivating adaptive behavior far more ancient than the cognitive processes associated with rational thought. We might therefore expect moral systems to be designed to trigger powerful emotional impulses, linking joy with right, fear with wrong, anger with transgressions.

We might expect stories, music and rituals to be at least as important as logical arguments in orchestrating the behavior of individuals and groups. Imaginary beings and events that never happened can provide blueprints for action that far surpass factual accounts of the natural world in clarity and motivating power. These otherworldly forms of thought, which include but are not restricted to religion, cannot completely eclipse rational thought, which is superior in some contexts, but the reverse statement is equally true. Adaptation, or rather adaptationism appropriately conceived which acknowledges that not everything is adaptive therefore provides a new way of thinking about alternative modes of thought, extending the bridge from evolutionary biology to social constructivism still further.

It should be obvious that these developments in evolutionary biology reach toward themes that have always been central to social constructivism. Let us now see how one sociologist reaches in the direction of evolutionary biology. Smith reveals a similar lack of consensus among sociologists, who remain just as much in the rank speculation stage as far as the big picture is concerned, however well they have documented pieces of the puzzle.

The conception of human nature and society that Smith is trying to establish within his own discipline includes the following elements: There is a universal human nature that transcends cultural differences. There is a core of truth in earlier sociological traditions such as the work of Talcot Parsons that needs to be preserved and built upon.

Human culture is fundamentally a moral order and people are inescapably moral agents.

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There is more to morality than altruism. Norms do not exist as isolated packets but as part of a complicated normative system. People have a propensity for self-centeredness in addition to their inescapably moral natures. People are fundamentally believing animals who convey their beliefs largely through narratives. Stories shape people in addition to people shaping stories. Alas, as soon as Smith started writing about biology and evolution pp. According to Smith, the positions that he associates with sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are fatally flawed for a number of reasons.

They attempt to explain moral systems as genetically adaptive. They tend to reduce morality to altruism. How does culture interact with other fundamental dimensions of social life, like individuals and institutions? And, in the case of Moral, Believing Animals , What is it about human nature that makes culture such a sociologically powerful concept?


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The book's core argument is that human beings are inherently moral, believing animals, and each chapter explores a dimension or implication of this idea. Smith's main concern is with motivations for action: why do people do what they do? In arguing that we are moral animals, he is saying that one of our central motivations is to act out and sustain moral order; that institutions and cultural systems at the macro level, and actions and practices at the micro level, are all moral in that they are all oriented toward assorted assumptions about the right, the good, the worthy, the just.

In arguing that we are believing animals, he is reminding us that all our knowledge relies ultimately on what philosophers might call "first principles," that is, on foundational assumptions that provide the grounds of verification for knowledge, but that cannot themselves be proven or verified. Smith points out, for example, that much of modern life and modern sociology depends on unverifiable assumptions associated with liberal democratic capitalism, such as the assumption that people are, at root, materially oriented goal seekers.

Smith develops several implications of his moral model of human nature. He argues, first, that as moral, believing animals, people are also storytellers, or as he says, narrators; that contrary to claims of assorted modernists and postmodernists, narrative is still fundamental to human life.

Second, he addresses two fundamental questions in the theory of religion. What is religion, and why are people religious? Smith's definition of religion draws on and resonates with many previous definitions, [End Page ] while also attempting greater accuracy and more brevity than previous definitions. He defines religions as "sets of beliefs, symbols, and practices about the reality of superempirical orders that make claims to organize and guide human life.

Smith advocates a theory — or rather, two theories — of religious origins, both meant to dispel sociobiological and rational choice counterparts.

Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture

His first theory is, as he says, supremely parsimonious, but also highly suspect within our modern academic narrative: maybe religions have always existed so pervasively because some superempirical order actually exists. A serendipitous page break leads the reader to suspect that Smith is going to stop there. He goes on, however, to articulate a second theory that is, as he says, accessible to a broader audience, and has the added advantages of being a standard among certain philosophers and theologians, as well as resonating with cultural theory and with the anthropology that Smith has laid out.