Morality and Monkey Business

Chuck Colson | BreakPoint | Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Morality and Monkey Business


September 8, 2010

Earlier this month, Harvard's Standing Committee on Professional Conduct found professor Marc Hauser, a leader in the field of evolutionary psychology, guilty of "scientific misconduct."

The finding followed a three-year investigation into allegations  Hauser had fudged his data on the cognitive abilities of cotton-top tamarins. Those are monkeys. That may sound obscure, but the goal of Hauser's research was to develop a "science of morality" or, more accurately, a philosophy masquerading as a science.

For the past few decades, evolutionary psychology has been one of the hottest fields in science. Every time you read a newspaper, a magazine or listen to the radio, there's a good chance you will run across a story purporting to explain modern human behavior in Darwinian terms.

The "Holy Grail" of such explanations is the attempt to explain human altruism. When the late philosopher Michael Stove called evolution a "ridiculous slander to human beings," he had our capacity for kindness, generosity, and other moral conduct in mind. It's Darwinism's commitment to survival of the fittest that can't explain this most essential part of being human—caring for others.

So Hauser's goal was to explain morality in purely evolutionary terms. Since man's being created in the image of God couldn't be the explanation, the answer must lie in our evolutionary past.

Unfortunately for Hauser, there are no early modern humans available for study. So, he decided to look for the answer in monkeys. As Eric Felten details in a marvelous Wall Street Journal article, Hauser produced "a prodigious body of work" that Hauser claimed was filled with "exciting new discoveries" and "rich prospects."

Except it was a lie. Hauser is accused of cooking the books and, in the process, has brought his entire field into disrepute. Felten points out that primatologist Frans de Waal called the consequences of Hauser's misconduct "disastrous" for evolutionary psychology.

While Hauser's misconduct should surprise us, his inability to find evidence supporting his belief that altruism and morality have an evolutionary basis should not.

Felten cites psychologist Christopher Ryan, whose own book, Sex at Dawn, incorporates insights from evolutionary psychology. Ryan summed up its limits succinctly in Psychology Today. According to Ryan, "many of the most prominent voices in the field are less scientists than political philosophers."

In short, evolutionary psychology is a philosophy in search of data. And without actual evidence, all that people like Hauser are left with are unsubstantiated propositions that are contradicted by millennia of human experience.

The discrediting of Hauser's work leaves Darwinism and evolutionary psychology without an explanation for altruism and self-sacrifice-the very qualities that distinguish us from the rest of creation.

Hauser was right about one thing. He found a part of the brain that processes moral thought. He fudged the data, however, to make it look like it evolved. But there's a far more plausible explanation. The truth is written on the human heart, just as Scripture teaches.


Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.    

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