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Friday, April 10, 2020

Moralizing biology: The appeal and limits of the new compassionate view of nature

Maurizio Meloni
History of the Human Sciences, 
July 2013 vol. 26 no. 3 82-106


In recent years, a proliferation of books about empathy, cooperation, and prosocial behaviours (Brooks, 2011a) have significantly influenced the discourse of the life sciences and reversed consolidated views of nature as a place only for competition and aggression. In this article I describe the recent contribution of three disciplines: moral psychology (Jonathan Haidt), primatology (Frans de Waal) and the neuroscience of morality, to the present transformation of biology and evolution into direct sources of moral phenomena, a process here named the ‘moralization of biology’. I conclude by addressing the ambivalent status of this constellation of authors, for whom today ‘morality comes naturally’: I explore both the attractiveness of their message, and the problematic epistemological assumptions of their research programs in the light of new discoveries in developmental and molecular biology.

Here is an excerpt:

However, why should the dichotomous framework, which sets up an opposition between biology as a solid bedrock and cultural/psychological processes, persist in the light of the new epistemology of the gene? Philosophers of biology have often attributed such persistence to the fact that scholars who usually ‘know better’ occasionally lapse into epistemologically outmoded views (Griffiths, 1999; Linquist et al., 2011), possibly confused by notions like innateness that permit unjustified inferences too easily (Griffiths, 2002).  While this is certainly a plausible explanation it does not rule out a second one, namely that this outmoded epistemology still pays political dividends today, making it inconvenient to let it go. I refer to the returns that this stratigraphic view of biology still yields today in terms of political hope and optimism.

The paper is here.