Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy
Darwin on the Evolution of Conscience
September 22nd, 2014
Cosponsored with the Anthropology Department
In The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Charles Darwin attempted to address a serious objection against the theory of natural selection: Humans have a trait—the conscience—which could not have evolved by natural selection, since it often leads us to do things that place us at a disadvantage in the “struggle for existence.” Surprisingly, Darwin answered this objection by biting the bullet and admitting that the conscience did not (at least not directly) evolve by natural selection. I argue that Darwin’s response anticipates some ideas that Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin developed in their famous 1979 paper, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme.” Darwin thought that the conscience is an evolutionary spandrel, or a by-product of various other traits that may have been selected for. In the course of developing this interpretation of Darwin’s argument, I will situate his view about the nature of conscience by placing it in the context of earlier eighteenth century British moral sense philosophy, especially Joseph Butler’s well worked out theory of conscience. I will also contrast Darwin’s view with more recent projects in evolutionary ethics and meta-ethics. Darwin’s view that our sense of right and wrong is a spandrel remains very plausible today.
Derek Turner is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Connecticut College, in New London, CT. He is also Associate Director of the college’s Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment. His research focuses on philosophy of science (especially paleontology, geology, and evolutionary biology) and environmental philosophy. He is the author of Making Prehistory: Historical Science and the Scientific Realism Debate (2007) and Paleontology: A Philosophical Introduction (2011).
Reading will be posted to the EvoS blackboard group. Anyone with a Binghamton University email address can request to be added to the blackboard group by emailing EvoS[at]binghamton[dot]edu.