Review of Christian Smith’s “Moral Believing Animals”

Review of Christian Smith’s “Moral Believing Animals”

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A reflection on Christian Smith’s Moral Believing Animals

Evolution and social constructivism are two subjects that for most people are separated by an enormous gap. Evolution is about genes and behaviors adapted to the distant past that limit what we are and can become in the future. Social constructivism is about culture and our almost unlimited capacity to define what we are and can become in the future. The gap between these two positions often appears so great that the people on each side have little constructive to say to each other. Most social constructivists are not like creationists who deny the fact of evolution, but they do marginalize its relevance to the point where it might as well be false. Most evolutionists interested in human behavior do not deny the fact of culture but they don’t have a consistent story to tell about it and in many cases its relevance is also marginalized to the point where it might as well not exist.

Evolutionary social constructivism is a fitting term for the attempt to bridge this gap (Wilson 2005). It recognizes that people live in a world largely of their own making but regards evolution as an essential subject for understanding how we became so different from other animals and how the process of social construction operates in the present day. Recent books by evolutionists who are reaching across the divide include The Symbolic Species (Deacon 1998), The Imagined World Made Real: Toward a Natural Science of Culture (Plotkin 2003), Niche Construction: The Neglected Process of Evolution (Odling-Smee, Laland, and Feldman 2003), Animal Traditions: Behavioural Inheritance in Evolution (Avital and Jablonka 2001), Hierarchy in the Forest (Boehm 2002), Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution (Richerson and Boyd 2004), and my own Darwin’s Cathedral: evolution, religion, and the nature of society (Wilson 2002). A recent book by a sociologist reaching across the divide is Moral, Believing Animals: human personhood and culture (Smith 2003).

This article briefly summarizes the evolutionary side of the bridging effort and then examines Smith’s effort in more detail. As the title of his book implies, Smith has distanced himself from extreme relativism and recognizes the need for a theory of human nature that transcends cultural differences: “Despite the vast differences in humanity between cultures and across history, no matter how differently people narrate their lives and histories, there remains an underlying structure of human personhood that helps to order human culture, history, and narration (pp. 3-4).” Unfortunately, Smith’s effort to develop this thesis is not informed by the most relevant evolutionary literature and does not independently converge upon it. I will attempt to identify and correct the discrepancies, so that the two bridge-building efforts can meet in the middle.


In Darwin’s Cathedral I described the study of culture from an evolutionary perspective this way (p. 28):

“Although culture has for many decades been envisioned as an evolutionary process, there is little agreement about its precise nature, importance, or relationship to genetic evolution. The most severe critics of sociobiology rely upon culture as an alternative, which they think can be studied without reference to evolution (e.g., Sahlins 1976). Some biologists regard culture as a handmaiden of genetic evolution that evolves the same phenotypic adaptations, only faster (e.g., Alexander 1979,1987). Other biologists try to decompose culture into gene-like units that do not necessarily benefit their human hosts (e.g., Dawkins 1976, Blackmore 1999). Instead, they act more like disease organisms as they spread from head to head.”

Given such a lack of consensus, it must be acknowledged that the study of culture from an evolutionary perspective is still in the rank speculation stage. Isolated facts might be scientifically well established, but these have not been put together into any kind of big picture that can be said to be scientifically established, in the sense that Darwin’s theory has for the study of nonhuman species. Nevertheless, when it comes to both evolution and intellectual inquiry, the past is a poor guide to the future. A number of developments in evolutionary biology during the last few decades are leading to a conception of cultural evolution that might prove robust and moreover converges with central themes of social constructivism. A short list of these intertwining developments includes the following:

Human uniqueness and symbolic thought. The idea that we are different from all other creatures is a central tenet of Western thought. The list of supposedly unique attributes is almost endless, including language, tool use, intelligence, morals, and aesthetics. Clearly, many of the ideas that predate Darwin by centuries must be revised in light of the fact that we are recently derived from primate ancestors and the enormous amount of information now known about nonhuman species. The general trend in evolutionary research has been to show that claims of human uniqueness were greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, we clearly are unique in some respects so the challenge is to identify the real differences, not to deny any differences at all. In The Symbolic Species, Deacon (1998) presents a sophisticated argument that our species is unique in its capacity for symbolic thought. According to Deacon, thinking symbolically doesn’t require an especially large brain or even a different brain than that possessed by our primate ancestors. In fact, it is actually possible to teach a chimpanzee or bonobo to think symbolically, more like us than their own kind. The problem is that it requires an arduous training process that has no counterpart in nature. Moreover, symbolic thought interferes with more basic forms of associative learning that are adaptive in most natural environments. If I pair the sound of the word “cat” with an actual cat in a conditioning experiment, mice will learn to associate the two, but if I then say the word “cat” many times without a cat actually being present, the object and its symbol will become dissociated again. In contrast, I can say the word “cat” to you a million times and you will still associate it with a cat. More generally, symbolic thought requires symbols and what they stand for to remain associated in the mind even when they are not associated in the real world. Symbolic thought is like a lofty peak in an adaptive landscape that can be climbed only by first crossing a valley of low fitness. What made humans unique was a natural environmental context that made symbolic thought adaptive in its initial stages, allowing us, and us alone, to cross over to the new adaptive peak. Of course, social constructivism requires the capacity for symbolic thought. As Durkheim (1912, p. 223) put it, “in all its aspects and at every moment of history, [human] social life is only possible thanks to a vast symbolism.” Deacon’s thesis therefore represents an important part of the new bridge connecting evolutionary biology with social constructivism.

Darwin machines: evolutionary processes built by evolution. All organisms-even bacteria and protozoa–are designed to be flexible, adaptively changing their properties within their own lifetimes in response to environmental change. In his panoramic review of brain evolution across the animal kingdom, Allman (1999, p3) actually begins with a discussion of bacteria:

“Some of the most basic features of brains can be found in bacteria because even the simplest motile organisms must solve the problems of locating resources and avoiding toxins in a variable environment. Strictly speaking, these unicellular organisms do not have nervous systems, but nevertheless they exhibit remarkably complex behavior: They sense their environment through a large number of receptors and store this elaborate sensory input in the form of brief memory traces. Moreover, they integrate the inputs from these multiple memory sensory channels to produce adaptive movements. The revolution in our understanding of genetic mechanisms has made it possible to determine how these brain-like processes work at molecular level in bacteria.”

One way to accomplish this kind of adaptive flexibility is with a system of rigid if-then rules, similar to your tax-preparation software. It cues you for just the right information, which it puts together in just the right way to correctly calculate your taxes. Similarly, organisms can be designed to receive just the right environmental cues, which are processed in just the right way to produce the adaptive phenotypic response. There is nothing open-ended or creative about this process.

Another way to accomplish adaptive flexibility is illustrated by the mammalian immune system. Disease organisms are too diverse and evolve too fast with their short generation times to be combated with a set of rigid if-then rules. Instead, the immune system is a fast-changing evolutionary process in its own right, in which antibodies are produced at random and selected according to their ability to bind to antigens. The immune system is an evolutionary process, built by evolution.

This kind of adaptive flexibility extends beyond the immune system. Gerald Edelman, who received the Nobel prize for his work on the immune system, went on to develop a similar conception for the human brain (Edelman 1988, Edelman and Tonomi 2001). Deacon (1998) provides a lucid account of how brain development is fundamentally a Darwinian process, with growing axons competing for receptor sites. At a functional level, symbolic thought can be envisioned as a Darwinian process in a virtual world of mental representations.

Plotkin’s (1994) term “Darwin machine” aptly describes two essential features of an evolutionary process built by evolution. The word “machine” indicates that the evolutionary process must be highly managed to lead to biologically adaptive outcomes. Anyone who has studied the immune system knows that it is mind-bogglingly complex in its genetic innateness. Antibodies that match antigens reproduce more, not by a lucky coincidence, but because the immune system is constructed that way. Nevertheless, the word “Darwin” indicates that the process remains evolutionary despite being highly managed, with all the implications of evolution played out on a new stage. Open-ended and creative solutions to recent environmental challenges is perhaps the most important implication, but we should also expect the same kinds of historical contingencies and other constraining factors that cause adaptations to fall short of perfection in genetic evolution.

Social constructivists often associate evolution with an incapacity for change, in contrast to their own belief in the human potential for change. These associations only make sense if by “evolution” we mean genetic evolution. When we include Darwin machines, the social constructivist position itself becomes evolutionary. Furthermore, genetic innateness can be seen positively as the complex machinery that makes rapid evolution possible. The idea that we can understand the human potential for change without paying attention to genetically innate mechanisms becomes as absurd as trying to study the immune system as if it were not genetically innate. With Darwin machines, the bridge from evolutionary biology to social constructivism has been considerably extended.

Groups as units of selection and adaptation: An important part of the sociological tradition is to view societies and cultures as organic wholes, whose properties cannot be reduced to their individual parts. This kind of holism fell upon hard times in both biology and the social sciences during the middle of the twentieth century. In the social sciences, the principle of methodological individualism claimed that all properties of societies can be reduced to the properties of their members and are not properly understood until this reduction has taken place (Watkins 1957). Rational choice theory offered a specific agenda in which individuals are assumed to behave as self-interested utility maximizers. In evolutionary biology, a consensus emerged that groups can evolve into adaptive units in principle but almost never do in reality. The reason is that group-level adaptations require a process of among-group selection, which is almost invariably weak compared to within-group selection (Williams 1966). As a separate argument, all adaptations were claimed to evolve at the level of genes, even when they benefited individuals or groups as vehicles of the genes (Williams 1966, Dawkins 1976).

Despite the dominance of these ideas during recent intellectual history, much has happened in evolutionary biology to undermine their authority. One of the most important developments has been labeled “major transitions of life”. It used to be thought that evolution takes place entirely by small mutational change, but now a second pathway has been identified in which social groups become so integrated that they become a new higher-level organism. One of the first to propose this radical new theory was Lynn Margulis (1970), who claimed that eukaryotic cells-the nucleated cells of all organisms other than bacteria-are actually symbiotic communities of bacteria whose members led a more autonomous existence in the past. Now it appears likely that similar transitions, from groups of organisms to groups as organisms, have occurred throughout the history of life, right down to the origin of life itself as social groups of cooperating molecular reactions (Maynard Smith and Szathmary 1995, Michod 1999).

Each transition requires a solution to the same kinds of social dilemmas that abound in human life. For example, consider a primordial cell in which the genes exist as independently replicating units. Some genes participate in the economy of the cell, producing resources that all can use. Other genes selfishly use these resources to replicate without contributing to the economy of the cell. The selfish genes are favored by within-group selection (they are more fit than solid-citizen genes within the same cell), while the solid citizen genes are favored by among-group selection (groups with an above-average frequency of solid citizen genes contribute more to the total gene pool than groups with a below-average frequency). As long as within-group selection remains strong, the cell will not function adaptively. The evolution of chromosomes neatly solved this problem by binding the genes together into a single structure that replicates as a unit. Chromosomes greatly reduce differential replication within the cell, making among-cell selection the primary evolutionary force. Notice that this represents a feedback process between traits that alter the parameters of social evolution (chromosomes) and traits that evolve on the basis of the alteration (solid citizen genes). This is what is meant by the term “niche construction”, which can be regarded as a close cousin of social constructivism.

The major transitions of life forever dispel the notion that higher-level selection is invariably weak compared to lower-level selection. Eukaryotic multicellular organisms such as you and me are shining contradictions of that claim. More generally, if the organisms of today are the social groups of past ages, then the concept of the social groups of today as like organisms, at least to a degree, no longer appears so outrageous. Indeed, when natural selection is carefully partitioned into within- and among-group components, group selection can be shown to be an important force in many species, even when it does not result in full-fledged “superorganisms”. In other words, many traits in the organic world evolve by increasing the fitness of collectives, relative to other collectives, rather than by increasing the fitness of individuals, relative to other individuals within collectives (Sober and Wilson 1998).

These developments in evolutionary biology provide a new background for the study of human evolution. People have always existed in many kinds of groups that merge and split for various activities. In any given context, traits can evolve by benefiting individuals relative to others in the same group, or by benefiting the whole group relative to other groups. Furthermore, traits comparable to chromosomes can evolve that reduce the possibilities for within-group advantage, concentrating natural selection at the between-group level. Cultural anthropologist and primatologist Chris Boehm (1999) has developed this thesis in his book Hierarchy in the Forest. According to Boehm, moral systems are the human analog of chromosomes, reducing the potential for individuals to profit at the expense of other members of the same group and converting the whole group into a potent unit of selection and adaptation. Consider the effects of moral systems on the three ingredients of natural selection: phenotypic variation, fitness consequences, and heritability. Behaviors that are strongly prescribed or proscribed by a moral system simply will not vary within the group as much as they would otherwise (unless variation per se is part of the norm). On the other hand, groups that adopt different norms can vary tremendously from each other. In technical terms, moral systems dramatically alter the partitioning of phenotypic variation within and among groups. These phenotypic differences also make a difference: murder, theft, adultery, rape, self-sacrifice on behalf of others, slacking, and most other behaviors that arouse moral passions are clearly relevant to basic survival and reproduction. Finally, moral systems are often elaborately constructed to replicate themselves from person to person and group to group through narratives and other practices deemed sacred. In short, moral systems have a transformative effect on the fundamental ingredients of natural selection, largely (although by no means entirely) converting social groups into functionally adaptive units, even when they are composed of genetically unrelated individuals.

These developments concerning levels of selection are intertwined with the other developments concerning symbolic thought and Darwin machines, giving them a collective dimension that would be missing otherwise. So many aspects of human life are collective, including the other- and group-oriented nature of morality, language, and any symbol that is not the personal invention of a single individual. Group-level functionality was taken for granted until the middle of the 20th century, when it was denied altogether or viewed through the distorted lens of individualism. Now we are on the verge of achieving a complex but comprehendible middle ground, in which group-level functionality does exist, but only when special conditions are met. The collective dimension extends the bridge from evolutionary biology to social constructivism.

Adaptation and rational thought: Rational thought has a special status in the social sciences, in part because it provides the core of logical and scientific reasoning and in part because its bare bone assumption of utility maximization provides the basis for elegant (and endless) theorizing. Rational thought is often treated as the gold standard against which other forms of thought are judged. Religious thought in particular is found so wanting by this standard that it becomes well-nigh incomprehensible.

In contrast, evolutionary theory judges all forms of thought in terms of what they cause organisms to do. Rational thought leads to adaptive outcomes in some contexts, which is why it has become part of our mental toolkit. It does not lead to adaptive outcomes in all contexts, which is why it is not the only tool in our mental toolkit. There is also an historical reason for why rational thought is only one tool in our toolkit; because it is a recent tool and most of the other tools are more ancient. Once these evolutionary factors become the basis for evaluating modes of thought, a host of alternatives to rational thought become explicable in terms of what they cause people to do. Emotions are evolved mechanisms for motivating adaptive behavior far more ancient than the cognitive processes associated with rational thought. We might therefore expect moral systems to be designed to trigger powerful emotional impulses, linking joy with right, fear with wrong, anger with transgressions. We might expect stories, music and rituals to be at least as important as logical arguments in orchestrating the behavior of individuals and groups. Imaginary beings and events that never happened can provide blueprints for action that far surpass factual accounts of the natural world in clarity and motivating power. These otherworldly forms of thought, which include but are not restricted to religion, cannot completely eclipse rational thought, which is superior in some contexts, but the reverse statement is equally true.

Social constructivists are themselves uncomfortable with the gold standard of rational thought, but they don’t have a standard to replace it, other than the absence of standards associated with relativism. Adaptation, or rather adaptationism appropriately conceived (which acknowledges that not everything is adaptive) therefore provides a new way of thinking about alternative modes of thought, extending the bridge from evolutionary biology to social constructivism still further.

It should be obvious that these developments in evolutionary biology reach toward themes that have always been central to social constructivism. Let us now see how one sociologist reaches in the direction of evolutionary biology.


Earlier I stressed the current lack of consensus among evolutionary biologists on the subject of culture. Smith reveals a similar lack of consensus among sociologists, who remain just as much in the rank speculation stage as far as the big picture is concerned, however well they have documented pieces of the puzzle. The conception of human nature and society that Smith is trying to establish within his own discipline includes the following elements: There is a universal human nature that transcends cultural differences. There is a core of truth in earlier sociological traditions (such as the work of Talcot Parsons) that needs to be preserved and built upon. Human culture is fundamentally a moral order and people are inescapably moral agents. There is more to morality than altruism. Norms do not exist as isolated packets but as part of a complicated normative system. People have a propensity for self-centeredness in addition to their inescapably moral natures. People are fundamentally believing animals who convey their beliefs largely through narratives. Stories shape people in addition to people shaping stories.

This conception of people, society, and culture is highly compatible with the developments in evolutionary biology that I have reviewed-so close that it seemed as I began Smith’s book that the bridge might be nearing completion. Alas, as soon as Smith started writing about biology and evolution (pp. 33-43), it became clear that the gap was still large in his own mind and his own effort to bridge the gap was proceeding in a different direction. According to Smith, the positions that he associates with sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are fatally flawed for a number of reasons. They attempt to explain moral systems as genetically adaptive. They tend to reduce morality to altruism. They cannot explain altruism toward non-kin. They have difficulty making the jump from genes to conscious and self-conscious people acting with moral intentions, and once this jump is made the basic assumptions of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology become unnecessary. They cannot provide a substantive account of morality and will lead to dire moral consequences if they become widely accepted.

Despite this negative account, which can be regarded as a bridge demolishing effort, Smith acknowledges that we are biological creatures whose moral, believing properties must have come from somewhere. His positive account portrays morality as a byproduct of human intelligence. Our abilities to anticipate the consequences of our actions, to make value judgments, and to choose among alternative courses of action combine to make us moral. Special emphasis is placed on self-consciousness as a capacity to step outside ourselves, preventing us from using our other mental capacities for more narrow utilitarian purposes.

Before I criticize these ideas, I want to express solidarity with Smith in two respects. First, there is much within evolutionary biology worth criticizing. Authors such as Buss (1999) and Cosmides and Tooby (2003) scarcely mention morality in their account of human nature and others such as Alexander (1987) attempt to reduce it to a form of self-interest, which is a non-sequitur. The concept of selfish genes is entirely metaphorical and amounts to little more than newspeak for “anything that evolves by genetic evolution.” Morality is often simplistically equated with altruism. Inclusive fitness theory, with its emphasis on genealogical relatedness, does make altruism toward non-kin appear problematical. I agree with Smith that these are problems that need to be solved before we can understand morality from an evolutionary perspective. Far from denying these problems, I and many of my colleagues have been stressing them ourselves.

Second, I largely share Smith’s basic conception of human nature, society, and culture, as I have already recounted briefly here and in more detail elsewhere. My criticisms center not on the basic vision but on how it can be squared with evolutionary theory. Continuing the bridge building metaphor, I imagine myself as a person on one side of the gap calling over to Smith on the other side: “Hey! We’re over here!”

In this spirit, I will now attempt to show why Smith is heading in the wrong direction and how his bridge-building efforts can be redirected.

Adaptation vs. byproduct explanations of morality and religion: Any trait studied by evolutionary biologists can be an adaptation that enhances survival and reproduction or a non-adaptive byproduct of the evolutionary process (or a combination of both). Smith is committed to a byproduct interpretation of morality, which causes him to reject evolutionary accounts based on adaptation. His commitment extends beyond evolutionary considerations because he rejects all utilitarian and functional accounts of morality.

To see why Smith’s rejection of functionalism is premature, we need to first distinguish between individual-level and group-level functionalism. Consider three of Smith’s own examples: A woman returns a wallet to its owner even though she could have kept it without being detected. A citizen goes to the trouble of casting a vote whose impact on the election will be negligible. A soldier sacrifices his life in battle for comrades and country. These are intended as examples of people acting against their interests but in each case it is obvious that societies of people who act in these ways will function better than societies whose members behave otherwise.

As for these examples, so also for the more basic principles of morality. “Do unto others” is the quintessential summary of morality that can be said while standing on one foot and is an excellent guide for a well functioning society. All of the ten commandments that are not about serving one’s God are obviously functional at the societal level. The many hundreds of more detailed commandments that comprise Jewish law and have counterparts in other religious traditions are similarly functional at the society level. In most cases it makes little difference whether we interpret “function” biologically or in the everyday sense of the word. At the most basic level, human welfare consists of such things as food, water, shelter, and freedom from persecution that are biologically adaptive. Moreover, the laws of the Hebrew Bible in particular are a sociobiological dream come true in their injunctions to be fruitful and multiply and more detailed commandments pertaining to reproduction. I am making these claims casually here but treat them more seriously in Darwin’s Cathedral and will return to the question of how they can be established scientifically to a skeptic’s satisfaction below. At the very least, Smith’s statement that religion “does not produce any obvious material benefit (p. 95)” cannot be taken as self-evident.

Another element of morality and religion that Smith regards as non-utilitarian is their categorical nature (p 10):

“In these and all like cases, actions are performed at least in part because they affirm and express commitments to what are understood to be right, good, worthy, just and so on. And these are understood to entail imperatives independent of the actor’s own personal wishes and inclinations, and not because they might achieve some other valued outcome or benefit.”

Once again, what appears non-utilitarian at the individual level and over the short term can emerge as highly utilitarian at the societal level and over the long term. In his book Passions within reason, evolutionarily-informed economist Robert Frank explains how seemingly irrational commitments can be adaptive. Suppose that you are the sort of person who is unable to tell a lie, either by your nature (e.g., you cannot prevent yourself from blushing) or because you have locked yourself into a social convention. If others know that you cannot tell a lie, you will be sought out as a valuable social partner. Similarly, suppose that you steal a $100 briefcase from me knowing that it will cost me $300 dollars to get it back. If I am narrowly utilitarian, you can steal from me with impunity, but if I am the kind of person who will avenge your transgression no matter what my cost, you will not steal from me in the first place. These utilitarian explanations of commitment devices have become popular among evolutionary biologists (Nesse 2001) and sociologists of religion (Iannoccone 1992, 1994) alike and go a long way toward affirming Smith’s more general conception of morality as a complex system that goes beyond simple altruism. A system is required to bind individuals into functional groups, especially given their propensity toward self-centeredness, and categorical imperatives are an important part of the system.

I do not mean to imply that moral systems are functional in each and every detail. The process of evolution involves many failures for each success and the results of this winnowing process are seldom completely functional. A sophisticated evolutionary perspective looks for adaptations without expecting them to be everywhere. A glimpse of what Smith is missing by prematurely rejecting adaptationism is provided by his own metaphor of huma