Customer Reviews: The Biology of Moral Systems (Foundations of Human Behavior)
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on August 12, 1999
Richard Alexander's pioneering work of theoretical biology was one of the first attempts (in the current cycle of sociobiological interest) to apply Darwinian thinking to human morality. The book is profoundly disturbing. Like any work of theory, many of the specifics of Alexander's analysis will be revised but the main argument that morality can only be understood within the Darwinian framework is important. Subsequently many authors have pusued the same line of thought but Alexander's treatment is one of the most interesting. The discusison of deception is particularly provocative.
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on January 4, 2015
This book is in much the same vein as the author's earlier book "Darwinism and Human Affairs". It goes into detail about what the author calls "indirect reciprocity". That term has gone on to become popular. The book is an early tract on what most people today call evolutionary psychology. It is an interesting and insightful work, which makes for enjoyable reading.

However there are a number of areas where the book seems dated. Alexander works very much in the tradition of "sociobiology" associated with Ed Wilson. Like Wilson, he thinks all interests boil down to genetic interests - and by "genetic" he isn't talking about heritable information, he really means DNA genes. This is the position that Richard Dawkins argued extensively against in the 1970s and 80s. In 1982, Dawkins wrote:

"Time and again, my sociobiological colleagues have upbraided me as a turncoat, because I will not agree with them that the ultimate criterion for the success of a meme must be its contribution to Darwinian “fitness”. At bottom, they insist, a “good meme” spreads because brains are receptive to it, and the receptiveness of brains is ultimately shaped by (genetic) natural selection."

Both of Alexander's books illustrate the position that Dawkins was arguing against. However, the passage of time has spectacularly vindicated Dawkins. Alexander's position is just a huge mistake. Humans have symbionts who manipulate them and influence their goal-directed behaviour. DNA-based symbionts make them cough, sneeze and make them get fat and itchy. Cultural symbionts make them teachy, preachy and moralistic. The aim of all this is not just to spread human DNA around, but partly to transmit the heritable information of the symbionts. Trying to reduce all human interests to the interests of human nuclear DNA is a doomed project that fails quickly and spectacularly. Humans are a biological menagerie - pulled in multiple directions by their symbionts. Nor do these forces all cancel out. Cultural variation in Japan systematically acts to sterilize the Japanese. That's no coincidence - and it isn't for the benefit of Japanese genes. It's the Japanese memes at work - sterilizing their human hosts to further their own reproductive ends.

Alexander has one chapter on culture. It's called "The problem of culture". Alexander never gets to grips with cultural variation properly. In "Darwinism and Human Affairs" there's a page on the theory of cultural evolution - which is then dismissed. This book doesn't even have one page on the topic. Alexander is blind to cultural evolution - and this inevitably has a severe negative impact on the book. Humans are cultural creatures - and cultural variation enormously influences their ethical behaviour. However despite having this huge misconception at the heart of the book, the book is still a great one. Alexander chose an interesting topic and approached with wit and enthusiasm - and the results are a delight to read.
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on November 1, 2000
Where does morality come from? The traditional answer are from God, as revealed by theologians, or from Reason or Intuition, as revealed by philosophers. In fact, as Richard Alexander makes clear in this landmark book, morality comes from our evolution as a species. Individuals who developed ethical awareness and practiced moral behavior in the course of our emergence from the hoard of pre-human hominids had an evolutionary edge over those who did not. It follows that to understand morality, one must undertake a scientific and evolutionary approach. Ethics is thus something like linguistics, in that both are extremely complex human ideational forms that must be modeled, and the success of ethical theories is their capacity to explain how humans express and make moral choices.

The scientific approach to morality espoused by Alexander is a deeply refreshing alternative to the endless pious platitudes of the theologians, who believe they have a special line to the Almighty's will, and the supercilious meanderings of the philosophers who think their personal moral predilections are something more than mere personal prejudice. We owe to this book the reorientation of ethical theory from the prejudices of the privileged to the realm of the scientific. As such, Alexander's book is must reading for a student of ethics.

However, contemporary evidence shows that his major thesis is flawed. Here are some key quotes and my critique of the assertions made in the quotes.

Quote from p. 3: "ethics, morality, human conduct, and the human psyche are to be understood only if societies are seen as collections of individuals seeking their own self-interest..."

Critique: This is of course the model of human action in standard economic theory, and I have spent my whole life dealing with its inadequacies and proposing alternative models more in line with the empirical evidence on human behavior. Alexander's description of human behavior ignores such prosocial other-regarding behaviors as altruistic cooperation, altruistic punishment, and the tendency to conform to social norms independent from the possibility of being detected and punished for such behavior. We now have lots of behavioral evidence in favor of the existence of strong reciprocity (a propensity to cooperate in social dilemmas and to punish free riders without regard to personal material payoffs), as well as its ability to foster sustainable cooperation when self-interest would lead to social breakdown. See, for instance Herbert Gintis, "Strong Reciprocity and Human Sociality", Journal of Theoretical Biology 206 (2000):169-179 and Ernst Fehr and Simon Gaechter, "Cooperation and Punishment", American Economic Review 90,4 (2000). See also my web site.

I also believe that empathy and shame are counterexamples to Alexander's model. Indeed, sociopaths who have neither empathy nor shame can be considered as "self-interested" in Alexander's sense in that they refrain from harming other human beings only if they calculate that the personal costs (e.g., of being caught) exceed the benefits flowing from harming others.

Quote from p. 34: "That people are in general following what they perceive to be their own interests is, I believe, the most general principle of human behavior."

If this is not tautologous (whatever people want to do is in their interest by definition), then it is false, for the same reason as in my critique of the previous quote, since people who punish violators of group norms often "perceive" their actions to be for the benefit of the group, and understand quite well that it is not in their own self-interest.

But there are other problems with Alexander's statement. (a) If I am addicted to smoking I might perceive that I am not acting in my own self interest when I smoke, and do it anyway. (b) I may "perceive" it in my own interest to help the poor, or contribute to environmental groups, or perform other prosocial acts when in fact it is not. If humans systematically misperceive their self-interest, as in this case, and if the misperception is very likely in a prosocial direction, then violations of self-interest might be central to human social cooperation, even were Alexander's statement correct (which it is not). In fact, I do not believe that humans systematically misperceive their self-interest. Rather, they choose often to act altruistically against their self-interest because they have other-regarding preferences.

Quote from p. 77: "Moral systems are systems of indirect reciprocity."

This is the first statement of Chapter 2, "A Biological View of Morality." It is not an aside, but Alexander's fundamental explanation of moral systems. By "indirect reciprocity" he means almost exactly what Robert Trivers calls "reciprocal altruism," but which in fact is just enlightened long-term self interest. It is fundamentally wrong. The evidence is that virtually all moral systems exhort forms of altruism that do not reduce to self interest, even in the long run, and large numbers of people subscribe to and to some extent follow these non-self-interested principles.

I should note that even criminals and psychopaths often exhibit non-self-regarding behavior, as when, for instance, a man takes revenge on his "enemies" and then kills himself.

Of course, a lot of human behavior is self-interested, and some non-self-interested behavior is just random noise in the behavioral system. But the types of systematic prosocial behavior promoted by strong reciprocity, shame, empathy, and identification with "insiders" is, unless I am mistaken, the key to the particular strength of human cooperation.
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