The Evolution of Morality and Religion: A Biological Perspective.(Book Review)
1 September 2005
ISSN: 0034-4125; Volume 41; Issue 3
Copyright 2005 Gale Group Inc. All rights reserved.
Donald M. Broom The Evolution of Morality and Religion: A Biological Perspective. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Pp. xi + 229. [pounds sterling]50.00 (Hbk), [pounds sterling]18.95 (Pbk). ISBN 0 521 82192 (Hbk), 0 521 52924 7 (Pbk).
In The Evolution of Religion and Morality, Donald Broom seeks to show that an evolutionary account of morality and religion is compatible with moral and religious truth-claims. His is an ambitious interdisciplinary endeavour which seeks to bring together the insights of evolutionary biology, ethics, theology, and the social scientific study of religions. His goal cuts against the grain of the common intuition that any evolutionary theory of morality and religion, or any genetic explanation for the human propensity to moral autonomy and piety, is reductionist as such. He argues, instead, that natural selection has selected the cognitive traits which predispose humans to moral autonomy and religiosity because these practices are conducive to survival and reproductive success.
Broom begins with the assumption that any more or less universal feature of culture must ultimately rest upon biocognitive attributes which have been selected because they contribute to species survival and reproductive success. As such, this book ventures into the choppy waters of evolutionary and genetic explanations of human behaviour--the stormy waters in which the likes of E. O. Wilson and others have so dramatically floundered. The other great challenge mounted by Broom is that of the interdisciplinary character of his project. Genuinely successful interdisciplinary scholarship manages not to short-change any of the disciplines whose insights it seeks to harvest.
Broom's study displays two strengths: his command of the scientific literature in genetics and evolutionary biology, and a willingness to challenge the deep reductionist presumption about any evolutionary account of morality and religion. The deficits of his project are: (1) the incipient assumption that demonstrating a contribution to reproductive success for any behaviour amounts to a moral justification of the explained behaviour; (2) dependence upon impressionistic accounts of morality and religion; and (3) an unpolished style and way of quoting and making attributions to other authors that make his line of reasoning and connections very hard to follow. The end result is a book in which one hopes the author's less convincing and sometimes even naive notions about religion and morality won't detract from the nobility of his as yet unrealized intellectual goal.
The outline of Broom's overall argument is laid out in his first chapter. Emergent moral and religious concepts and practices are part of the way in which the human brain controls human behaviour. Natural selection favours patterns of behaviour and behavioural control that conduce to reproductive success. Morality and religion (which are presumably cultural universals) constitute part of the brain's regimen of control for conscious, self-aware, and social animals such as humans. Human grouping is enabled behaviourally by what Broom ought to call moral autonomy and are reinforced by religious thought-forms. Broom specifically focuses upon protection of the young, more efficient mating, and the reduction in competition as evolutionarily critical benefits of human sociality made possible by uncoerced moral self-restraint. And so natural selection selects traits that engender a bent toward moral autonomy. Finally, and more naively: an evolutionary account of morality and/or religion 'does not devalue spirituality. It may well encourage people to be a part of a religion because they understand it and its benefits better' (29).
In subsequent chapters, Broom makes it clear, unsurprisingly, that the beneficial behaviours he believes morality and religion engender are essentially reciprocal altruism and other trust- and co-operation-engendering patterns of conduct, as well as care for the young and mate-guarding. So the second and third chapters propose a genetic foundation for these behaviours. Some of Broom's best ideas are in the third chapter, in his discussions of biological foundations--both at the genetic and neural levels--of different levels of awareness and consciousness. Broom acknowledges that even for humans, many beneficial behaviours are not intentional as such. Morality, however, is essentially a social system for controlling intentional actions and promoting trust- and co-operation-engendering traits of character for an animal species that must be social in order to flourish. Broom's appeal to parallels between kinds of animal behaviour and intentional human behaviour to demonstrate how these behaviours conduce to survival and reproductive success are generally illuminating.
Broom turns to morality and religion in chapters 4 to 5, in what must surely be accounted the weakest sections of his study. He defines both morality and religion in impressionistic ways that ignore whole traditions of scholarship that call into question his ways of defining each. The sad fact of the matter is that it is not even clear that the conceptions with which Broom is working are the ones most beneficial or intuitive for his project. It is exactly here that Broom fails to give us a convincing piece of genuinely interdisciplinary scholarship. Morality is treated flatly and unconvincingly as (1) a code of rational rules (2) that enjoin beneficial actions and prohibit or minimize harm. Broom shows no cognizance of the deep challenges to the notion that morality even essentially or most universally is following a code of rules, as opposed to, say, cultivating virtuous traits of character. Broom quotes with approval Aldo Leopold's assertion that 'a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise' (Broom (121) quoting Leopold's A Sand County Almanac.)
Broom's chief counsellor on matters of moral theory seems to be Richard Brandt, and Brandt's version of rule-utilitarianism. Utilitarianism of any kind assumes, of course, that a human can reliably make (and, therefore, ought to make) intentional choices that optimize human advantage overall, counting his interests as one among others. What seems to have attracted Broom to the Brandt brand of rule-utilitarianism is that it is a moral theory that focuses, like the trajectory of natural selection, on the optimization of advantage. The trouble is that Broom seems to have collapsed intentional and non-intentional ways in which human behaviour might redound to human advantage, reproductively and otherwise. Broom assumes that if following a particular rule optimizes chances of species survival and reproductive success that this fact justifies it as a moral rule.
Broom's code-of-rules conception of morality, and his naive consequentialism are hard to square at the theoretical level with his earlier claim (chapter 3.5) that it is through the emergence of a capacity for sympathy and altruistic and participatory emotions that humans acquire their evolutionarily significant bent toward altruism, co-operation, and trust. What is intentional about the intersubjective patterns of self-restraint is not well captured by the notion that humans reason their way by assessing optimal outcomes to the self-conscious adoption of rules of conduct. This makes about as much sense as the gathering-under-the-tree-to-sign caricature of social contract that is so appealing to every generation of undergraduates. It is more likely the case, as Adam Smith intuited, that the advantages of human co-operation, trust, and reciprocal altruism cannot rise to view until humans are already sufficiently evolved to exhibit moral autonomy and to enjoy other benefits of co-operation. Following Darwin, Broom has nothing to lose by admitting (following the model of Adam Smith) that natural selection functions like an invisible hand to reproductively reward predispositions to moral autonomy and sociality.
Philosophical confusion about moral justification becomes clearest in the five final sections of chapter 4, with a sweeping discussion about obligations, rights, evaluation, codes of sexual behaviour, conscience, etc. But not only are explanations and justification two different things, even Broom's explanations are not convincing. The weight given to mate-guarding, as well as disease-prevention in his discussion of codes of sexual behaviour make little sense of such rules, either as explanations or justification. This discussion is pervaded by a flat and conjectural use of the liberal 'harm-criterion'.
One needn't doubt that 'morality has a biological basis and has evolved'. I am convinced, though Broom didn't convince me (and probably won't succeed in convincing sceptical minds). But Broom declines to make the more powerful argument that the evolved character of human consciousness is that we are inescapably and deeply social animals, and it is the character of that sociality that is both evolutionarily accountable, and that thing about us which both requires and produces the socio-cultural phenomenon of morality--or of a capacity for moral autonomy.
Broom's discussion of religion, like his sweeping discussion of morality, lacks a critical sense of nuance. He seems, for example, unaware that his way of defining religion: 'a system of beliefs and rules which individuals revere and respond to in their lives and which is seen as emanating directly or indirectly from some intangible power' (164) is widely regarded as ethnocentric and inadequate as a characterization of religion, like the naive notion that all religions are 'faiths'. Only theocentric Western traditions vaguely answer to Broom's characterization. Broom's effort to accommodate non-theistic traditions such as forms of Buddhism or Confucianism to his definition of religion is strained. It is simply false that most religious traditions 'codify beliefs'. There is arguably a cosmogony--a most general sense of the character and order/disorder of the sum totality of things, and the place of humans and other living beings within it--implicit in everything that can be identified as 'religion'. But beliefs about 'the really real' entailed by it are less often made explicit and 'confessed' in a ritualized way as an institutional mark of a religious identity. It is simply false to equate religion, a religion, or religious identity with 'belief statements' and 'belief structures' in the absence of other fundamental components of religion.
The same must be said of the notion that religions evolve essentially to provide justification for morality. Goodness or rightness, as such, are most manifestly not 'a central issue for all religions' (173)--at least, if you aim to describe or identify any component or function of which the participants are aware. Nor is it at all obvious that religious practice always supports or makes more secure moral autonomy. The notion that 'morality is the core of religions' and that 'religion would have developed in order to provide a structure which encouraged the widespread observance of the moral code' (176) is simply not supported by evidence. This conjecture once again reflects Broom's uncritical assumption that a naive conception of religion as a 'belief structure' perhaps represents a scholarly consensus, or that those who support this view have convincingly responded to critics of it. Broom appreciates some of the challenges that can be raised to the notion that they do so. He attempts to anticipate these responses in the final two sections (6 and 7) of chapter 5. His response is (shockingly) the vague and unconvincing claim that religious practice improves welfare, together with the notion that religious believers and organizations should tone down the features of their confessional ethos that tend to promote exclusivism and violence--as if this could just be done as a matter of decision. The trouble is that Broom proceeds as though the tendencies and notions that engender exclusivism and intolerance are somehow always less central and definitive of those traditions than the presumably beneficial universal features. (See his list of ten recommendations, 192-193.)
Broom sometimes quotes other scholars whose language he appears not to understand, and so quotes them out of context. For example, on 177, he twice quotes passages from John H. Crook The Evolution of Human Consciousness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 185, 287, where the latter describes religious and ethical thought-systems as 'legitimizing' political institutions and socio-economic arrangements. In the ensuing paragraphs and section, it seems clear that Broom has simply read this term to mean 'support' or to provide a justification for something. But 'legitimation' is a critical term of art drawn from critical languages deriving from Marx's notion that religion and other thought-forms are ideologies which render the contrivance of oppressive social arrangements beyond challenge or criticism by representing them as part of a given order of reality. A closer reading of Crook's text leads me to conclude that this was how he was using the term as well. As such, Crook's quoted claims do not support Broom's claims about the origins and function of religion. Another baffling problem is Broom's assumption that religions as such are essentially theocentric, and that the idea of God is 'usable' (180). What follows for twenty more pages is a meandering discussion of religion in which it is alleged that the evolved presence and usefulness of the idea of God and other ideas Broom imagines are more or less universal features of religious belief are 'useful' in promoting reproductive success and survival, and so justified beliefs.
The book's final two chapters make further attempts to respond to a range of thinkers whose view, Broom thinks, are that morality, religion, and biology are inherently antithetical. He also articulates a social vision of religion and morality that mobilizes recognition of human connections to other species, and moral concern for them. One hardly encounters arguments here, and the claims are so general that they are hard to argue with. Broom's primary concern in chapter 6 settles upon those whom he regards as promulgators of the 'selfish-gene' notion. And his counter-argument advances little beyond an objection to the use of the word 'selfish' to describe genetic function in natural selection. Otherwise Broom relies, through quotation, upon Holmes Rolston's (Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)) argument against the 'selfish-gene' notion, and upon others by citation, to overcome the (as yet, unvanquished) idea that moral autonomy and 'religion' are anything other than irrelevant by-products in culture of human DNA's successful replication of itself.
The one genuinely fresh idea in the final two chapters of the book is the notion that we cannot characterize (what ought to be called) moral autonomy in such a way that we can meaningfully deny that it is an extension of observable animal behaviours in other species. The general idea here, and one which runs directly counter to Broom's characterization of morality, is that to the degree that a capacity for empathy is a capacity found in other species, the most fundamental and motivationally salient ingredient of moral autonomy is present. The specific form of 'morality' as a cultural product among humans reflects the character of human self-consciousness, and the cognitive necessity for generating linguistically communicable concepts. Interesting, though hardly a new idea--but we do not really find a sustained argument for it in Broom.
Broom needs to return to the drawing board, and to do so with the aid of collaborators from ethics and religious studies. There is something to be said for sweeping and radically challenging programmes of conceptual revision and vision. And it is not unreasonable to think that interdisciplinary scholarship might impel them. But it isn't surprising that the most interesting and compelling moments in Broom's endeavour are those informed by his disciplinary expertise. As it stands, Broom's work is of interest to scholars primarily for its courage--his willingness to entertain a still radical seeming notion that ascertaining the biocognitive, evolutionary sources for moral autonomy and 'the religious' does not explain it away. This extends to his closing reflection that moral autonomy as such may not radically demarcate humans biologically.
East Tennessee State University
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