[Paleopsych] ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’: Evolution and Morality

David Smith dsmith06 at maine.rr.com
Tue Jan 3 02:16:51 UTC 2006

‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’: Evolution and Morality

St. Francis Room of the Ketchum Library
University of New England,
11 Hills Beach Road,
Biddeford, Maine.
Feb. 21, 2006 at 6 p.m.

Evolutionary biologist David Lahti, Ph.D., will deliver a lecture on 
"'The Better Angels of Our Nature': Evolution and Morality" on Feb. 21, 
2006 at 6 p.m. in the Lahti is an NIH Postdoctoral Fellow at the 
University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  The lecture, sponsored by New 
England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology and 
Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, is free and open to the 

Are we humans essentially altruistic beings whose natural state is to 
care for others?  Or are we ogres at heart, our moral codes the only 
thing holding us back from utter selfishness? Lahti argues that an 
evolutionary consideration of morality suggests a third alternative, 
that we are by nature moral strugglers and deliberators - that the 
relevant adaptive trait is neither altruism nor selfishness, but rather 
a refined ability to assess our social environments and make informed 
decisions about how altruistic or selfish to be. We tend, he believes, 
to make these decisions on the basis of two main variables:  the 
anticipated effects of our behavior on our reputation and the perceived 
stability of the social groups on which we depend. Furthermore, what we 
often call morality is actually a conglomerate of tendencies and 
capacities, some of which are millions of years old and others just 
thousands.  Many of its more recent features, including moral rules that 
are difficult for us to follow, are cultural surrogates for adaptation 
in an age when our social environments are changing too fast for us to 
adapt genetically to them.

Lahti received a Ph.D. in philosophy at the Whitefield Institute at 
Oxford in 1998, for work on the relationship between science and the 
foundations of morality; more recently his research in this area has 
focused on the evolution of morality.  In 2003 he received a Ph.D. in 
ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Michigan, where 
he documented rapid evolution in the African village weaverbird. From 
2003 to 2005 he held the Darwin Fellowship at the Program in Organismic 
and Evolutionary Biology at University of Massachusetts Amherst, and has 
been studying the evolution and development of bird song.

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