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The Biology of Moral Systems (Foundations of Human Behavior) 0th Edition

4.7 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0202011745
ISBN-10: 0202011747
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Editorial Reviews


“Alexander is an evolutionary biologist with a mission. . . . Alexander does a nice job explicating the core notion of sociobiology: that human behavior must be seen from the perspective of the long-term reproductive consequences of that behavior. He gives useful explications both of the relationship between reproduction and senescence in understanding the human lifespan and of the ways in which cooperation and altruism can advance rather than hinder individual reproductive success. He also gives a good overview of the various positions biologists and moral philosophers have taken about the relevance of the work of the former to the theoretical efforts of the latter.”

—Arthur L. Caplan, Medical Anthropology Quarterly

“Alexander’s thoughtful essay, with applications to pressing modern dilemmas, like the rights of embryos and the arms race, deserve a reflective reading.”

—Jerome Kagan, American Scientist

“Alexander’s originality and breadth of thinking make for interesting, sometimes fascinating reading on a series of topics that will concern all anthropologists.”

—Christopher Boehm, American Anthropologist

“Anyone who is interested in seeing a naturalistic, gene-oriented version of evolutionary theory applied to human beings in great detail and the systems of morality constructed in the absence of such a perspective dismantled with single-minded ruthlessness will want to read Alexander’s book.”

—David L. Hull, The Quarterly Review of Biology

“Sociologists are likely to suggest that Émile Durkheim was interested in societies as moral systems and would want to bring his work into the discussion. Alexander has presented us with a rich context for such dialogue.”

—Kenneth Bock, American Journal of Sociology

“There are a great many arguments and hypotheses in Alexander’s book.”

—Andrew Oldenquist, Mind

“However much social scientists might disagree with Alexander, they can ignore him only at their own peril. The picture he draws of us is none to flattering, but it seems a good likeness, on the whole.”

—Pierre L. van den Berghe, Contemporary Sociology


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Product Details

  • Series: Foundations of Human Behavior
  • Paperback: 323 pages
  • Publisher: Aldine Transaction (December 31, 1987)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0202011747
  • ISBN-13: 978-0202011745
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #407,807 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
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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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.
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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...
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