Current Status of Evolution of Morality in Biology Textbooks*
   
by Douglas Allchin
Why Teach Evolution of Morality? || Science || Classroom Resources || Website Hub   
What is currently (2008) taught about evolution of morality in biology courses? Here is a rough-hewn (but hopefully sufficiently conservative) analysis, based on surveying several benchmark concepts in a sample of major textbooks in the U.S. market [listed below]. The texts were targeted at various levels: introductory college (both biology majors and non-majors) and secondary (high school) students. [green/+ = favorably included; red/– = unfavorably omitted]

 

College Majors College Non-Majors High School
  [5] [12] [13] [14] [15] [1] [2] [4] [7] [8] [11] [3] [6] [10] [9]
innate/learned
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+
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+
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+
+
+
+
+
+
+
+
+
. . .relevance
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    to morality
kin selection
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+
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reciprocity
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+
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+
cultural evolution
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+
+
+
+
+
+
+
rewards/sanctions
nature/nurture
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+
+
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    caveat
emergence
+?
free of strong
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+
+
+
+
+
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    reductionistic bias

 
Despite modest differences (due to author emphasis and style), there is a widespread consensus about what is relevant to address. Informative patterns are present:

  1. All texts address animal behavior, including social behavior. (Not so for textbooks several decades ago and this surely reflects the tremendous expansion of research and deepening of knowledge in this area.) There is surely a context for addressing the biology of morality.

  2. All texts address the innate/learned distinction, although they rarely extend it explicitly to the structure of human culture or, more particularly, to morality.

  3. Nearly all acknowledge "altruism" among animals as an evolutionary puzzle and provide some sort of explanation. At the same time, most are not clear whether they intend such explanations to be relevant to interpreting human altruism: for example, where mental intent may be relevant (Sober and Wilson 1998).

  4. Reductionistic bias varies, but the texts basically omit the concept of emergent properties or new levels of organization at the psychological and social levels (Holland 1998; Camazine et al 2001; Richerson and Boyd 2005; Murphy & Brown 2007). They do not describe how social rewards or sanctions can regulate "selfish" behavior or individual "cheating" for example, as observed in food sharing among vampire bats (Wilkinson 1984, 1990). All texts generally present a genetic explanation for cooperative or "altruistic" behavior, while also referring in some way (elsewhere) to cultural evolution. Yet they fail to reconcile the apparent conflicts inherent in these alternative views. The bias is further reflected in the near-universal consideration of kin selection (Hamilton 1964) coupled with widespread neglect of reciprocal altruism (Trivers 1971), although the scientific literature over the past several decades typically treats the concepts in tandem (c.f., Krebs & Davies 1993; Nowak 2006).

  5. College texts, not surprisingly, provide more depth than high school texts. At the same time, non-majors texts are more consistent than majors texts in profiling cultural evolution, or the status of human society in an evolutionary context. Why is this material deemed less relevant for those pursuing a biology degree?, one may wonder.

  6. Cautions about interpreting human behavior in the context of non-human, apparently "natural" examples, are relatively quite rare. There are no mentions of "Social Darwinism," its flaws and misleading impressions, or its status as an ideology not supported by evolutionary science (Allchin 2007).

In summary, there seems to be a substantive deficit in what is being taught compared to what is currently known about the biology of morality and what has been known for at least the past seven years (roughly two cycles for revising textbook editions) even though much information is already available in popular formats.

If history informs our teaching of science, evolution curricula apparently need dramatic reform. Today, educators appropriately recognize evolution as the cornerstone of biology. (For example, the AP Biology curriculum, a major international college-level program for secondary students, now mandates explicit use of evolution as the central theme; College Board 2007). Nonetheless, one must also articulate the meaning of Darwin's theory in personal and social contexts. Biology education is currently incomplete by not addressing the obvious puzzle: how altuistic or other-regarding behavior or feelings in humans could evolve from the ostensibly "selfish" process of natural selection.

Continue to the educational context for teaching the evolution of morality =>

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References

  • Allchin, D. 2007. "Social unDarwinism." American Biology Teacher 69(Feb.): 113-115.
  • Camazine, S., Deneubourg, J.-L., Franks, N. R., Sneyd, J., Theraulaz, G., & Bonabeau, E. 2001. Self-Organization in Biological Systems. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • The College Board. 2007. AP Biology Course Description 2008-2009. The College Board, New York, NY. URL: apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/repository/ ap07_bio_coursedesc.pdf (accessed November 1, 2008).
  • Hamilton, W.D. 1964. The genetical evolution of social behavior. J. Theoretical Biology 7, 1-52.
  • Holland, J. H. 1998. Emergence: From Chaos to Order. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
  • Krebs, J.R. and Davies, N.B. 1993. An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Scientific.
  • Murphy, N. and Brown, W.S. 2007. Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Nowak, M.A. 2006. Five rules for the evolution of cooperation. Science 314, 1560-1563.
  • Richerson, P.J. and Boyd, R. 2005. Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Sober, E. & Wilson, D.S. 1998. Unto Others.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Trivers, R.L. 1971. The evolution of reciprocal altruism.  Quarterly Review of Biology 46, 35-57.
  • Wilkinson, G.S. 1984. Reciprocal food sharing in the vampire bat.  Nature 308, 181-184.
  • Wilkinson, G.S. 1990. Food sharing in vampire bats.  Scientific American (Feb.): 76-82.

Textbooks Surveyed

  1. Alters, S. & Alters, B. 2006. Biology: Understanding Life. John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY.
  2. Audesirk, T., Audesirk, G. & Byers, B.E. 2008. Biology: Life on Earth, 8th ed. Pearson, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
  3. BSCS. 2006. BSCS Biology: An Ecological Approach ["green version"], 10th ed.. Kendall Hunt, Dubuque, IA.
  4. Cain, M.L., Damman, H., Lue, R.A., & Yoon, C.K. 2006. Discover Biology, 3rd ed. W.W. Norton, New York, NY.
  5. Campbell, N., Reece, J. 2008. Biology, 8th ed. Pearson, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
  6. De Salle, R. & Heithaus, M.R. 2008. Biology. Holt, Rinehart, Winston, Orlando, FL.
  7. Hoefnagels, M. 2009. Biology: Concepts and Investigations. McGraw Hill, Boston, MA.
  8. Mader, S.S. 2009. Concepts of Biology. McGraw Hill, Boston, MA.
  9. Miller, K. & Levine, J. 2008. Biology. Prentice Hall, Lebanon, IN.
  10. Postlethwait, J.H. & Hopson, J.L. 2009. Biology. Holt, Rinehart, Winston, Orlando, FL.
  11. Pruitt, N.L. & Underwood, L.S. 2006. BioInquiry. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ.
  12. Russell, P.J., Wolfe, S.L., Hertz, P.E., Starr, C. & McMillan, B. 2008. Biology: The Dyanmic Science. Brooks/Cole Belmont, CA.
  13. Sadava, D., Heller, H.C., Orians, G.H., Purves, W.K. & Hillis, D.M. 2008. Life: The Science of Biology, 8th ed. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, MA.
  14. Solomon, E.P., Berg, L.R. & Martin, D.W. 2008. Biology, 8th ed. Thomson, Belmont, CA.
  15. Starr, C., Taggert, R., Everts, C. & Starr, L. 2009. Unity and Diversity of Life, 12th ed. Brooks/Cole, Belmont, CA.

*This text has been published as part of Evolution: Education and Outreach, 2009, SpringerLink DOI: 10.1007/s12052-009-0173-9.

© 2008. Douglas Allchin | EvolutionOfMorality.net