A Better Ape: The Evolution of the Moral Mind and How it Made Us Human | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

A Better Ape: The Evolution of the Moral Mind and How it Made Us Human

A Better Ape: The Evolution of the Moral Mind and How it Made Us Human
Victor Kumar and Richmond Campbell

Oxford University Press, London, UK, 2022
352 pp. Trade, $29.95
ISBN: 9780197600122.

Reviewed by: 
Gregory F. Tague
February 2023

A Better Ape by Victor Kumar and Richmond Campbell offers a readable assessment of the evolution of morality, pointing to the importance of social groups, cooperation, and conflict resolution in the human career. Cultural evolution is an inspiration for this book since moral norms, language, arts, etc., are not transmitted by genes alone. In a comprehensively researched and engaging narrative, Kumar and Campbell base the story of human flourishing on morality. This is a bold claim but well argued in an organized text that logically flows through subject areas. The book is useful across disciplines since it pulls together and updates scientific and philosophical precedents on morality as a bio-cultural adaptation.

Whether in China or Brazil, we are unavoidably surrounded by culture from parents, grandparents, peers, educators, and even adversaries, with extra force exerted from the arts, media, etc. Without dismissing social feelings and emotions in other animals, these authors privilege morality of the human animal in what they call humanity or moral norms and reasoning. In spite of war and fierce competition, the authors acknowledge that cooperative behaviors evolved from forms of sharing, whether defensive or emotional, since they are beneficial, especially in a group. Though there’s some generalization since they cover millennia in short sections, they are correct to say how emerging social structures helped evolve intelligence and morality. From here, culture, ideas, practices, and norms became part of the human fabric of rules and sanctions. Not settling on one idea, like humans-fire or humans-hunting, they seek to have a theory that touches all other spaces of human evolution. Morality, they say, was a prime mover of human genetic and cultural evolution because it’s tied to cooperation and intelligence. Culture became a means of self-domestication away from aggressive and cheating behaviors with socialization in groups for greater fitness. Widely-accepted norms eventually manifested across primitive institutions. They break the center of morality down to emotions, norms, and reasoning, which makes morality pluralistic and not singular. Culture affects the outcomes of morality via family, peers, and groups.

After a basic account of human evolution, the authors initiate discussion of culture shaping moral aspects, beginning with altruism. First, they focus on our ape cousins (overly emphasizing chimpanzees) and the roots of human morality in ape social, caring, and cooperative behaviors. Like us, apes develop emotional bonds with conspecifics through sympathy. In biology, kin and group selection boosted by reciprocity helped evolve and disseminate altruistic traits. They also discuss what they call “psychological altruism” (23) dependent on organisms with mental states who aid others with the future in mind. The authors are aware of and discuss self-interest, too. Most organisms can’t survive as total altruists. For example, many creatures, they admit, experience and express sympathy, an evolved caring behavior at the root of morality evident in the mother-infant dyad. However, sympathy is biological egoism since a mother increases her fitness by ensuring the passage of her genes tending to the reproductive health of offspring. As in other parts of the book, there is some oversimplification, for instance in the discussion of male chimpanzee violence or chimp theory of mind.

Their point, rightly taken, is that chimp capacities for in-group loyalty and sympathy are early forms of moral emotions that became robust among hominins. They are correct to point to a recurring mix of evolved behaviors, like kin selection and reciprocal altruism, leading to the evolution of morality. Beyond group emotions in other primates, “binding emotions” of sympathy and loyalty among Homo erectus advanced a suite of “collaborative emotions” like trust and respect and “reactive emotions” like guilt and resentment (37). These emotions acting flexibly in neural plasticity permitted a range of caring, sharing, and cooperation among early humans. Hunting and foraging were mostly done with others, which emphasized the need for trust in cooperative partnering, which, in turn, developed more egalitarian and less hierarchical group dynamics. Cognitive abilities increased since group interactions meant keeping tabs on cooperators and cheaters and understanding another’s intentions. Emotions like guilt and shame took on new dimensions. While they argue for the biological innateness of moral emotions since they reach far into evolutionary history, these emotions are nonetheless subject to cultural influence. Research on human infants validates this observation in what one researcher calls the moral life of babies.

After an overview of Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis and how they migrated out of Africa, the authors look to Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Homo sapiens who broke from Heidelberg in Africa about 300kya. The conquest of earth by Sapiens had a dramatic effect on all living organisms. This ability to conquer lands and other species, they suggest, came about through innovative tool technology, intergroup sociality, and norms in complex cooperation, elements of bio-cultural evolution. As groups became small societies, descent with modification appeared not so much via biology and genes but through shared information. Cultural evolution is still Darwinian with trait variation and the passage of differential fitness factors, like learning how to make and use tools or control fire. Especially for humans, cultural selection in social learning happens frequently when groups compete against each other, and less through individual competition. Individuals and groups who capitalized on fitness-enhancing cultural intelligence survived and reproduced better. Along with cultural evolution, humans evolved norm behaviors of approval and disapproval, which are similar at base but differ somewhat across groups. The likelihood of social punishment helps most people adhere to moral norms. The creation and acceptance of behavioral rules became socially adaptive and beneficial, which in turn led to further cultural evolution. Stabilizing norms helped complex biological cognitive capacities to emerge, ratcheting up more cultural evolution, what they call a “norm-learning psychology” (80) motivating people to follow rules and punish cheaters.

Kumar and Campbell streamline human evolution into three episodes: biological, bio-cultural, and cultural. They note how cooperation and cultural development enabled biology (moral emotions) and culture (moral norms) to evolve Sapiens. Their emphasis on bio-cultural evolution is important for adaptive social behavior and learning. Because we tend to be a caring and helping species, human norms that supported sympathetic cooperation and solved disputes spread more widely among Sapiens since sensible guidelines were advantageous. Through selection, they say, trust was a pressure for norms of reciprocity; with respect there was a pressure for norms of tolerance. Relatedly, norms of fairness were also selected for from social emotions, complementing a suite along with norms related to avoiding harms and favoring kin. Different cultures can take basic moral norms and vary them, as we see across the globe from countries in Asia to those in the West regarding justice. Here’s their thesis in a nutshell: binding emotions of sympathy and loyalty appear in great apes; collaborative emotions of trust and respect and their reactive emotions of guilt and resentment appear in Homo; the combination of these from related species equate to the emotional and bio-cultural core of morality. The authors estimate how morality and reasoning co-evolved, without discounting emphasis on emotions. An aspect of social interaction includes moral emotions, which they note come via reasoning. Moral reasoning evolved in large groups for conflict resolution, overcoming technical problems, and improving social institutions.

Rather than relying on some abrupt genetic mutation to explain our modern behaviors, Kumar and Campbell look to the core elements of their whole argument: interplay and cumulative cultural evolution among cognition, intelligence, sociality, and morality. Institutions began to form in larger tribes. Our species evolved increasingly complex technological and behavioral applications permitting us not only to fill any ecological niche but also to construct new ones. Gene/cultural co-evolution allowed for a mushrooming effect increasing and spreading knowledge and know-how, a “collective brain” (141). As groups more frequently interacted with each other, trading tools, resources, mates, and information, tolerance of others grew along with cooperation and communication, establishing commonalities. Binding moral identities were established through religious practices and social institutions, both of which are more cultural than biological adaptations. Institutions that flourished culturally incorporating obedience and punishment include family (marriage), religious (ritual), military (solidarity), economic (trade), and political (authority).

In spite of better standards of living for many people, there are questions regarding the notion of moral evolution. How inclusive are societies? Are only a few groups privileged? What’s the correlation if any between marginalized groups and improvement in their lives, they ask. While they admit progress, they confess there has been moral “regress” (183). Racism and sexism in many countries has declined, but at the same time economic disparities have grown, and “political moralities” (183) in some countries have shifted to entrenched conservative ideologies. They also point out that any sense of moral progress has to be tempered by how modern, industrial societies treat nonhuman animals as food. Groups, they note, could morally include animals, not exclude them. In this light they discuss moral progress theory, where reality is biased towards progress by applying reason and informed information. The moral mind is flexible and can, rather than spin into violence with dehumanized reaction, approach inclusivity, they claim, as history shows.

Kumar and Campbell say modern moral progress has been uneven, favoring some and excluding others, notably with patriarchy, gender discrimination, and social injustice, the last of which encompasses climate change. Their model of cultural moral progress shows how anything evolutionary is typically gradual with headway at times but perhaps stasis elsewhere. They insist class structures are deliberately manipulated by the rich and powerful to subvert others, illustrating their notion of moral progress and regress. We see this in anthropogenic climate change and the slow response to avoiding disaster since wealthy and powerful countries that have caused the problem benefit from producing and using massive amounts of fossil fuels. Moral progress concerning climate justice can be seen on the fringes within groups or political parties in some countries or institutions. In their plan for moral progress, disperse egalitarian groups need greater social integration to prioritize the battle against misinformation fostering biases and ignorance.

The end of the book is ironic with the question of whether or not humans will become a better ape, but the text is a worthy example of reflective philosophy that could help transform societies for the better.