I have a chapter coming out on animal ethics and evolutionary psychology for the third volume of the SAGE Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology edited by Todd Shackelford. This volume on applications of evolutionary psychology will cover a wide range of topics that are rarely tackled from this perspective, like artificial intelligence, climate change, dangerous driving behavior, incarceration, meditation and cyberwarfare.
Animal Ethics and Evolutionary Psychology (read the whole chapter here) attempts to untangle some of the evolutionary reasons why have such inconsistent attitudes towards animals. Below I quote parts of the chapter- for full references, check out the original.
In John’s April 21st blog he talks about 8 possible moral revolutions that could come out of this pandemic: hyperutilitarianism, the end of work, a renegotiated social contract, the new death of privacy, the uncertain fate of universalism and cosmopolitanism, a return of disgust based morality, an increase in concern about animal ethics and an increased concern with existential risk. In our conversation, John specified that moral revolutions don’t necessarily mean societies are becoming more progressive, moral or civilized; Moral revolutions can cut both ways.
Sudden progressive changes in moral ideals are pretty rare. When they do happen it’s because the change in morality conferred some status, reputational or economic benefit, or at least prevented punishment from a high status moral minority. Civil rights for Black people in America was a moral revolution and the acceptance of gay marriage, gay relationships and trans identity was a much faster American moral revolution. But, in part because meat eating is so normal and animals (especially farm animals hidden from view) are not generally capable of conferring a moral revolution for animals has really never taken off, as I describe in a forthcoming chapter (and I’ll be writing a few blogs on this chapter).
So, is Covid19 going to have an effect on morality? Here are my thoughts about the intersection of Covid19 and a popular idea in evolutionary psychology, the parasite stress theory. I conclude by discussing the possibility that Covid19 will change our susceptibility to existential risk. There are two follow up blogs, one on how Covid19 might change attitudes towards animals and another on how Covid19 might change our attitudes to government and work.
I wrote this paper for an evolutionary psychology seminar run by David Buss back in 2007 when I was working towards my PhD. Around that time David had published many papers and The Murderer Next Door, a book that outlined his thesis that murder is an adaptation. This was contrary to Martin Daly and Margot Wilson’s thesis that murder is a byproduct as outlined in their masterful book, Homicide. David’s papers both on homicide and on conflict between the sexes had a big influence on my thinking here.
A couple of months before I wrote this paper I had only ever heard Skinner strongly criticized by evolutionary psychologists and social psychologists, who made up much of the department at UT Austin. When I picked up Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, I expected that I’d write a strong critique. It ended up being one of my favorite books. Reading it was so rewarding that it’s probably caused me to read more stuff I thought I would disagree with over the years. Meta. I assigned the first chapter, A Technology of Behavior (you can read it here), to over a thousand undergraduates in the UK over the years, with pretty polarized responses.
I don’t agree with everything in this essay anymore, of course I hardly knew anything about behaviorism at that time and had only read Skinner on behaviorism. By 2007 behaviorism had dealt with many of the critiques I lay out here, for example, equipotentiality. But this is a good insight into the origins of the book and other projects I’m working on now. I’ve edited it a bit and added commas, which I’m terrible at using now, and was even worse about using then. I’ve added a few links to clarify some concepts and save the reader a google.