Robert Richards is the Morris Fishbein Distinguished Service Professor in the History of Science, and Professor in the Departments of Medicine, Philosophy, History, Psychology, and in the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science; and he is director of the Fishbein Center for History of Science. Click here to listen to our conversation with him.
In certain species of birds, when the baby is threatened, the mother bird will flap about feigning a damaged wing in order to lure away the predator. Such altruistic behavior – i.e. acting for the benefit of another at some cost to oneself – seems to have an obvious evolutionary explanation. Individuals who are successful at protecting their genes, whether in their own bodies or in the bodies of their kin, will be more likely to have those genes passed down to future generations. We should not be surprised, then, to find that altruistic behavior toward one’s kin has evolved to be a central feature of many animal species.
As Robert Richards reminds us in this month’s podcast, human beings are animals too, but we behave in ways that seem to confound standard evolutionary explanations. Not only do we behave altruistically toward our kin; we also act for the benefit of those who are not at all related to us, sometimes at very great cost to ourselves. Can evolutionary biology account for this kind of behavior? Professor Richards argues that it can, and that in fact, evolutionary explanations often do a much better job of accounting for the different levels of interest we take in the well-being of others than standard ethical theories.
It is one thing, of course, to explain ethical behavior; it is another thing to justify it. Does the fact that we have evolved to behave in certain ways make it right for us to do so? Not necessarily, says Professor Richards. When it comes to some of our most fundamental ethical principles, however, evolutionary theory may have a justificatory role to play. We conclude with a suggestion originally made by Charles Darwin himself – that when it comes to the development of human behavior, the evolutionary story might not be over yet.